Internationally renowned French author-illustrator and prolific artist Tomi Ungerer, who created books in French, English, and German, and was known for his playful humor as well as sharp satire, died at his home in west Cork, Ireland on February 8. He was 87.
Jean-Thomas “Tomi” Ungerer was born the youngest of four children on November 28, 1931 in Strasbourg, France, to mother Alice and father Theodor, who was an artist, engineer, and a maker of astronomical clocks. Ungerer’s father died when Tomi was three, and shortly thereafter, left with heavy Depression debts, Alice Ungerer moved with her children to the home of her parents in Logelbach, close to the Alsatian city of Colmar. In a 1974 interview for Atlantic Monthly, Ungerer told journalist Selma G. Lanes that he had a childhood filled with artistic influences and that he was a voracious reader from an early age. “My sisters taught me to draw, my brother taught me to think, and my mother taught me to use my imagination,” he said.
In 1940, when the region of Alsace was occupied by the Germans during WWII, Ungerer’s life changed dramatically. French language and culture were banned, and Nazi ideals were forcibly taught in the schools. Ungerer said in interviews, including with the New York Times Magazine (1981) and Riverbank Review (1998), that this wartime experience had a profound impact on his worldview. He was forced to live a double life of being pro-Nazi at school and anti-Nazi at home. He told Lanes for the New York Times Magazine: “There was plenty to see and remember, and my taste for the macabre certainly finds its roots here.” He gave an account of these early years in the memoir Tomi: A Childhood Under the Nazis, which was originally published in French and German and contained cartoons, photos, drawings, school assignments and other items saved from his boyhood journal. “Growing up I witnessed all the ugly facets of war,” he wrote. “That and the death of my father when I was 3 1/2 years old marked my childhood. By the age of fourteen my outlook on the world was clearly defined by a loathing and abhorrence of violence, prejudice, injustice and fanaticism of any kind.”
After the war, the transition back to French language and culture was difficult in Alsace and contributed to Ungerer’s becoming less interested in school. Ungerer failed his Baccalaureate (high school graduation) exam and by 1952 set off to travel the world, beginning by hitchhiking to the North Cape in Norway and then to Lapland. He joined the French Camel Corps in Algeria but was soon discharged due to illness. In 1953 he began studies at the Municipal School for Decorative Arts in Strasbourg, but wrote on his website that he was “kindly asked to leave after one year.”
He continued to travel in the 1950s, getting around via hitchhiking and securing gigs on cargo vessels. He never stopped drawing throughout his travels and flexed more of his creative muscles by taking on stints as an advertising artist and window dresser whenever he was home in France. The early 1950s is also when Ungerer became more intrigued by the United States. In 1956 he emigrated to New York City with what he has said was “$60 in his pocket and a trunk full of drawings and manuscripts.”
Once in New York, Ungerer found work as a graphic artist, quickly building a solid reputation and doing advertising campaigns and illustrations for such publications as Esquire, Life, Harper’s Bazaar, and the New York Times. In his free time he was creating books of his own. In 1957 he brought one such project to legendary children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom at Harper and Row. Nordstrom published Ungerer’s first picture book, The Mellops Go Flying, starring a family of French pigs, that same year. Straight out of the gate, his debut work earned a 1959 Gold Medal from the Society of Illustrators and was designated an ALA Notable.
Between 1958 and 1966, Ungerer was going full bore creatively, publishing four additional picture books about the Mellops and introducing such popular children’s works as Crictor (Harper, 1958), starring a friendly boa constrictor; The Three Robbers (Atheneum, 1963), in which three violent robbers are disarmed in every way when they come across a young orphan named Tiffany; and Moon Man (Harper, 1966) the tale of Jean, the man in the moon, coming to Earth to make friends. Books that he illustrated for other children’s authors include Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown (Harper, 1964). On his website, Ungerer shared the following reflection about elements of his children’s titles. “I think it is crucial to show children that no matter what one’s flaws are, there is always a way to survive and win by being different and making the best out of what one has. I want to show children that everyone is different but equally unique.”
In addition to children’s books, Ungerer also produced books for adults that featured his text and illustrations, including Horrible: An Account of the Sad Achievements of Progress (Atheneum, 1960) and Inside Marriage (Grove Press, 1960). He illustrated adult books by other authors as well, including The Brave Coward by Art Buchwald (Harper, 1957).
Alongside his publishing career, Ungerer continued with other graphic design projects and, in the 1960s, produced a series of activist posters championing the American civil rights movement and protesting the Vietnam War. He created additional controversy in the late 1960s for erotic drawings published in adult titles like Fornicon (Grove Press, 1969), which drew the ire of children’s librarians and booksellers, among others. As a result, many of his picture books were left to go out of print in the U.S. In 2008, art publisher Phaidon Press began reissuing many of his children’s titles, launching with The Three Robbers; Emile: The Helpful Octopus is being published by Phaidon this month.
Two early marriages had ended in divorce for Ungerer and in 1971 he married Yvonne Wright. Fed up with the librarian kerfuffle, city life, and the U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam, the couple moved from New York to an isolated peninsula in Nova Scotia where they operated a farm for five years before moving to Europe. Ungerer chronicled their time in Canada in the book for adults Far Out Isn’t Far Enough (Grove Press, 1984), which was also the title of a 2012 documentary about his life and work. In 1976, Ungerer and his wife, with whom he would have three children (he also has a daughter from his second marriage), moved permanently to Ireland.
In a 2008 interview with PW about the Phaidon reissues of his picture books, Ungerer reflected on the trajectory of his career in the States, saying, “I have been heavily criticized. This idea of the ideal world for the ideal child has nothing to do with reality.” As for how the U.S. market might react to the return of his books, he offered, “I have no idea what to expect. I came to America with $60 in my pocket. Within the first year I had my first book published. Where else in the world could this happen?”
Despite any bumps in America, Ungerer’s books thrived around the world and he published more than 140 books in all. He received the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Illustration in 1998, and in 2007, the Tomi Ungerer Museum-International Centre for Illustration opened its doors in Strasbourg as part of the Musées de la Ville de Strasbourg. Ungerer initially donated a significant amount of his work to the Musées back in 1975 and gave them another 4,500 drawings and a collection of antique toys in 1991. Today, according to the Tomi Ungerer Museum’s website, its collection contains 11,000 of Ungerer’s drawings, and 6,500 toys from his personal collection.
In a tribute from his publisher Phaidon Press, Meagan Bennett, Phaidon’s art director for children’s books, who worked with Ungerer in the last decade of his life, shared these words: “He had the presence of a benevolent genius—a combination of boundless charm, wit, mischief, warmth, and humility. Conversations with him were packed with humor and wisdom, often in the form of aphorisms. Unsurprisingly, he was a brilliant storyteller; a talent to which the world of children’s publishing owes so much.”
And Phaidon’s children’s projects editor Maya Gartner, who worked closely with Ungerer and had visited with him in Ireland, recalled, “He was cheeky, mischievous, joking all the time and so naughty. He never spoke down to children and would love to include words they’d have to look up. I remember him telling me how he refused to delete the word blunderbuss from The Three Robbers when his original editor asked him to. He was so proud of that word.”
Author and former editor Fran Manushkin was part of the Ungerer team in her days at Harper & Row, and she shared some recollections of the author-illustrator. “I worked with Tomi, assisting his editor Ursula Nordstrom on No Kiss for Mother and on I Am Papa Snap and These Are My Favorite No Such Stories. I remember that Miss Nordstrom asked Tomi to change the title of No Kiss for Mother, feeling that no mother would want to buy this book. He refused. Otherwise, he was a pleasure to work with. A few years ago, Tomi was in New York City for a talk and autographing at the Phaidon store. I asked for an autograph and told him I’d worked with him in 1973 and he said he remembered me. I was startled, but his daughter added that Tomi had a great memory.”
Phyllis Hoffman, a former colleague of Manushkin’s at Harper & Row, added a humorous memory about working with Ungerer. “I actually worked for Ferd Monjo, who was the assistant director of the juvenile department,” Hoffman said. “I was Ferd’s assistant on Zeralda’s Ogre. One of my very, very important jobs was to check the black-line drawings. In those days, almost nothing was in full color—you had black-line drawing and then color separations. I had to check every page very carefully because Tomi loved to put erections on the men or even the boys in the pictures,” she said with a laugh. “It was his prank; he thought he was being hilarious. But that was a really top priority, checking the black-line drawings for erections on the ogre and any other male characters.”
Author and children’s book expert Anita Silvey offered her thoughts on Ungerer’s place in the children’s literature arena. “I came into publishing in 1970 and became the assistant editor of the Horn Book in 1971, and at that time Tomi was very much thought of as the co-equal genius with Sendak in the picture book format,” she recalled. “As a young critic I looked at these books and every one of them seemed original and exciting and different. All of them have that subversive spirit, but in each book, he pushed boundaries. There was not a typical Tomi Ungerer book; there’s such a range.” She uses Ungerer’s picture books for her History of Children’s Book Publishing course at Simmons University, and, as one example, points to Crictor as “the perfect model for that blend of art and text that makes a picture book great. Book after book he just got to the essence of what a picture book could do.”
This article has been updated.