"I have been heavily criticized. This idea of the ideal world for the ideal child has nothing to do with reality.” So said author/illustrator Tomi Ungerer, reached by phone in Ireland, whose 1962 picture book, The Three Robbers, about a trio of villains and a young orphan, returns to bookstores this month, as part of a relaunch program from Phaidon Press. Beginning with The Mellops Go Flying (Harper & Row, 1957), Ungerer has had a prolific career, with more than 150 titles to his name. His books have continued to sell in Europe—particularly in Germany and France, where they are perennial bestsellers—but because of his counterculture politics and the sexual content of some of his adult works, publishers here let his work go out of print. Art book publisher Phaidon will change that.
Ungerer was discovered by famed Harper editor, Ursula Nordstrom, in 1956, shortly after his arrival in the U.S. from his native France, and found early acclaim, including a 1959 Gold Medal from the Society of Illustrators and the inclusion of The Three Robbers on ALA's Notables list. He was also sought after as a graphic designer. “He became one of the most important commercial artists in the country,” said Michael Patrick Hearn, an author and professor specializing in children's literature. “His work was everywhere.”
However, Ungerer also developed a reputation for his anti-war posters during the Vietnam era and his erotic works for adults (such as 1969's Fornicon from Grove Press). “He was way ahead of his time in terms of his forthrightness and his willingness to rap heads,” said George Nicholson, senior agent at Sterling Lord Literistic, who reissued some of Ungerer's titles while at Delacorte.
Ungerer returned to Europe in 1976, and found a more receptive audience abroad. “Europeans really embraced both his politics and the vitality of his work,” Hearn said. “While his reputation here began to diminish, it only increased in Europe.”
In 1998, Ungerer was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Illustration, and last year the Tomi Ungerer Museum International Centre for Illustration opened in his hometown of Strasbourg, France. Ungerer said he was thrilled, if not completely comfortable with the attention. “I feel like the phantom who finally found his opera house,” he said. “But I can't stand to see one of my pictures on the wall.”
Returning to Favor
For Phaidon, the opportunity to publish Ungerer in the U.S. was too good an opportunity to miss. “As many of the books were originally written in English, it's just extraordinary that some of them haven't been available for such a long time,” said Amanda Renshaw, editorial director at Phaidon. “When you talk to booksellers, [The Three Robbers] is one of the books they all remember. It's an absolute classic.”
However, not all stores have been quick to embrace The Three Robbers: in a July profile of Ungerer, the New York Times reported that Borders and Barnes & Noble have given it a “lukewarm reception,” nervous about the large axe on the cover. Ungerer, however, points to the book's moral dimensions. “We have the good and the bad,” he said, referring to the robbers and the orphan, “but more interesting is the no man's land between the good and the bad where they meet. Both can learn from the other.”
As to why Ungerer's books haven't been brought back before (beyond the Delacorte reissues and a subsequent attempt by the now-defunct Roberts Rinehart), Nicholson believes there is a mentality in children's publishing that forgotten backlist titles aren't saleable. “I think his is exactly the kind of work that is singular and acknowledged in each generation as remarkably good,” Nicholson said, “and yet in his own lifetime he's abandoned. And that's true of an awful lot of writers.” Nicholson suspects Phaidon may use its strength as an art book publisher to push Ungerer's books via that channel as much as through children's. "The style of his work is as fresh today as it was in its own day," he said. "It's firm and fierce and it's certainly European."
Phaidon has created a microsite for Ungerer and is planning “Three Robbers Storytime” events, as well as national advertising and publicity. The publisher has acquired rights to more than 20 of Ungerer's books, and The Three Robbers will be followed by Moon Man (Harper & Row, 1967) in spring 2009.
“I have no idea what to expect,” said Ungerer of the return of his books to the U.S. “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?”