stories that ask important questions for adults and children alike

tomi ungerer cover 818x1112.jpg

by Tomi Ungerer – Phaidon, 2016
ages 2 to adult / coffee tableemotional resilience

Let’s get right to it—Tomi Ungerer is a controversial figure in children’s literature. it was his other work in erotica and his vehement opposition to the Vietnam War that did it. His works were banned in the US for many years.

I fall solidly in the let-the-work-speak-for-itself camp where authors and illustrators are concerned, so much so that I rarely read their names when I’m choosing or reading books to children. Tomi Ungerer’s children’s books are culturally and artistically important and fascinating, so his other work doesn’t impact my appreciation for his picture books one way or the other.

This collection of picture books will leave adults searching for the moral high ground and floundering—it’s an important place to be from time to time.

Children will also have plenty to grapple with—but they’ll probably do it differently and embrace the ambiguities with gusto.

And together, adults and children will be able to dive deep in the illustrated worlds created for each story. Worlds where robbers turn on a dime and become benefactors, where cats and dogs overcome prejudice, where teddy bears survive war and carry peace with them.

There are eight stories in the treasury. It’s a small selection of his work but they’re well chosen. Together they present a range of experiences and ideas, but all address prejudice—always in an amusing way but still confronting enough to give pause.

Let’s have a quick look at three of the books, knowing that the remaining five are just as appealing.

The Three Robbers
First published in 1961, this was and remains a brilliant demonstration of the intersection of evil and good.

There are three robbers who go about terrifying all they meet—they're dressed in black capes and tall black hats, they carry fearsome weapons. They rob all and sundry and carry their spoils to their den. They kidnap Tiffany, an orphan travelling to live with a wicked aunt. They seem wholly irredeemable. And yet Tiffany reaches them. They immediately turn from blunderbuss wielding thieves to benefactors for ‘lost, unhappy and abandoned children.’  There’s a castle, red capes and hoods for the children, along with safety and security. The children grow, marry and venerate the robbers.

It’s a happy ending… except… is it really ok to kidnap a child, why are the children dressed like robbers (in red instead of black), if there were poor and unhappy children everywhere then how ‘good’ were the robber’s original victims anyway? What defines good, and what defines evil? Is redemption possible? Can it be instantaneous?

This is university-level philosophising presented with intriguing pictures and a sense of humour. And best of all, The Three Robbers places adults and children on the same footing when it comes to wrestling with questions like these.

Flix was written in the late 90’s and speaks to racial prejudice (well any prejudice really, but racial prejudice is the most obvious link). 

Flix is a pug dog born to loving parents. He’s a gifted fellow, finishing high school with honours, rescuing girls from fires at university and possessed of a ‘quick wit and good disposition.’  But Flix is constantly fighting prejudice—his parents are cats you see. “It’s a genetic mishap! And a very happy one for us,” concludes his father. But in Flix’s world, cats and dogs live on different sides of the river and are equally narrow minded about each other. Flix straddles both worlds and learns to speak both cat and dog, albeit with accents and, by straddling both sides of the river, he learns to love both worlds. In time, he falls in love with one of the girls he rescues from the fire—a cat. There’s a wedding, a glittering career in politics and finally a baby. Flix was ‘beside himself with joy when they announced, “It’s a GIRL,” and overjoyed when they told him, “It’s a KITTEN!”’

As a worldwide society we’re not ‘there’ yet on racial prejudice—perhaps we never will be. But moments spent in stories that illustrate so clearly the absurdity of prejudice help to get us there individually. 

The glaring similarities between the cat and dog world, the joy when prejudice is finally overcome at Flix’s marriage, the acceptance of a mixed marriage by the cat and dog communities alike are all instructive as we engage in the never-ending work of overcoming personal prejudice.

Otto The Autobiography of a Teddy Bear
Talking about the autobiographical parts of Otto, Tomi said “Sometimes, the worse the situation, the more you learn.” It’s a choice of course – to learn from the worst of situations, one that is not always readily available. But in the story of Otto, we see the best of human (and teddy bear) spirit. The spirit that keeps on loving and remains hopeful.

Otto is a teddy bear of the holocaust. First owned by David, a young Jewish boy, he is given to Oskar when David and his family are taken by soldiers. From there he is thrust into a series of adventures including protecting a G.I. from a bullet, being snatched by nasty boys, then sold to an antique shop and finally bought by Oskar. Otto’s unique story makes the newspapers, and David, who has survived, is reunited with both Otto and Oskar.  Finally, Otto says that life with David and Oskar “is what it should be: peacefully normal.”

It’s a gratifying ending—one that promises good things at the end of trauma, even if it takes a while for the circle to be complete.

Reasons to love the books in this Treasury:

Although full of profound questions, this is still wonderful reading. The words are crafted to be read aloud and read easily and the illustrations have a joyful almost whimsical feel that helps to make the underlying morals and questions more accessible and more readily ponderable.

It’s an engrossing book for adults and children alike – completely worthy of a spot on the coffee table.

There’s a series of quick interviews with the author relating to each of the books at the back of the treasury. Tomi’s answers are insightful and, true to form, raise more questions!

Each story invites thought—there are different morals and different questions of course, but they all come back to examining our own attitudes, prejudices, and ambitions. Great things to ponder privately, but great dinner table topics too.

There’s an equalising effect when reading these stories. Adults may bring more life experience and children may bring more joy in the ambiguous, but the stories speak to both.

Although each story opens the reader to morals and ideals, they are never preached. Instead the stories raise questions, which then lead to the formulation of personal moral choices.

A small reading hint:

Although it will be hard to stop at just one story, there’s a lot to be gained from reading the books individually. They stand alone and deserve their own artistic space. I’d read them all through once, then pick out individual stories as they become favourites.

A treasury like this doesn’t come cheap of course – but this beautifully produced volume is absolutely worth the price.  It’s a work of art and collecting the books as one means that they feed off each other to produce a broader view of society and its ideals.

P.S. If you’d like to learn more about Tomi Ungerer, you can visit his website here, and have a look at this very interesting interview (which does contain some images of mild erotica). 

Amazon  -  Book Depository

Book Depository has free postage world wide and great pricing, but North American readers may prefer Amazon.

Names in these books — Tiffany, Zeralda, Finn, Cara, Benito, Emile, Zeno, Flix, Colza, Medor, Mirzah, Otto, David, Oskar, Charlie, Jasmin