Sometimes, when an important figure slips through the cracks of history, a passionate filmmaker comes forward to tell the story so that his contribution is not wasted. Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story (2012) is dedicated to an imaginative children’s storybook writer and illustrator.
Jean-Thomas Ungerer (born 1931) was raised in Alsace, France, a region that has alternated between French and German control over the centuries. During the Nazi occupation, he found it was possible to learn a new language in only four months when the public use of even one French word was punishable. After the liberation of France, he discovered monsters among his own countrymen as he watched them burn German books in retaliation—not just the Nazi books, but those of Kant, Goethe, Schopenhauer, etc. Ungerer was able to express his childhood anxieties, which continued to haunt him throughout his life, by drawing. He was particularly inspired by illustrations appearing in The New Yorker magazine, especially those of Saul Steinberg, who taught him how a clear image can be conveyed with a minimum of lines or elements. You can see him toy with this idea in Snail, Where Are You? (1962) where a simple snail shape is revealed to be a part or a bigger scene (an ocean wave, a ram’s horn, etc.).
In 1956, he moved to the United States where he believed there would be more opportunities and became embroiled in controversy. His stories did not reflect the usual sentiments about what a children’s book should be and despite his vivid imagination, critics complained that many of his themes and images were too frightening. In 1958, he published Crictor about a boa constrictor sent to an old woman as a gift. Defying the stereotypical portrayal of snakes and people’s natural fear, he made Crictor a sympathetic character. The people of the town got used to Crictor’s presence, he played with the children and one day, after restraining a robber who was terrorizing the town, he became a hero. It is hard to imagine now, but as the book was being considered for an award, the judges felt they could not choose it on principle. Fortunately, cooler heads finally prevailed.
After centuries under Christian domination, most Westerners are conditioned to view things through the lens of good and evil. But in many other parts of the world, monsters are more ambiguous; Godzilla and Gamera in Japanese films are well-known examples. While the robber in Crictor was a villain, The Three Robbers (1961) turn out to be compassionate characters. Naturally, they robbed people, but in the course of their escapades, they rescued little Tiffany from an unhappy life with her stepmother. They began to use their wealth to feed and clothe her and eventually collected orphaned children and settled them in a village where they could grow up happily.
Ungerer also illustrated some classic stories such as Changing Places where a man and wife trade duties for a day—the man thinking he got the better part of the deal. He also illustrated his own rendition of Little Red Riding Hood (1974). The classic story already has strongly Freudian connotations: the symbolism of the red hood, the roles of the grandmother and the huntsman, not to mention an innocent girl’s encounter with a wolf. Ungerer’s version does not offer us a sly seducer with a hidden agenda, but a powerful gangster named Duke who decides to make Red Riding Hood a forthright proposal. Like The Three Robbers, the girl in this story has an abusive grandmother and would rather not continue bringing her care packages. Duke argues that since the grandmother’s reputation is even worse than his, Red Riding Hood would be better off staying with him. The detail of the Iron Cross around his neck suggests that he is also symbolic of German aggression against a vulnerable “French” Red Riding Hood. This makes Ungerer’s resolution to the story interesting and prophetic as he later dedicated his life to an amicable reconciliation between the French and German people.
Another interesting story with a surprising twist is Zeralda’s Ogre (1967). It seems an ogre has been terrorizing a town and eating its children. In response, the townsfolk do their best to hide their children much to the ogre’s frustration. Meanwhile, a farmer in a remote area who had not heard of the ogre becomes ill and has to send his only daughter to the town market to sell their wares. As she approaches, the ogre spots her and eagerly waits to pounce. But in his eagerness, he falls off a cliff and is hurt. Zeralda, distressed over this, nurses him back to health.
It happens that Zeralda is an exceptional cook and in caring for the ogre, he is impressed by her extravagant cuisine and decides he much prefers it to children. Indeed, like “Duke” in the previous story, he proposes she stay with him to cook and shares his wealth to help her and her father. As he is no longer a menace, the children of the town are seen outside again and eventually the two fall in love, the ogre shaves his beard and they have lots of children!
A fertile mind like Ungerer’s would not have been satisfied with just children’s books. During a trip to Texas, he was appalled to discover the existence of segregation. After surviving a fascist regime himself, he was surprised to find something like this happening in America. According to Ungerer, this revelation prompted an explosion of creative output—a series of politically satirical posters. He later expanded his satire to include protests over the Vietnam conflict. At the time, it was not considered appropriate for an illustrator of children’s books to do work in other genres, so his political satire ruffled a few feathers, to say the least. The greatest trouble, however, was caused when he began to explore erotic subjects and even published books in that genre. Before the days of the internet, it took time for word to spread. And when he was finally confronted at a book fair and, not recognizing the strength of the taboo, Ungerer simply shot back with a facetious remark. Practically overnight, his career was ended as libraries banned his children’s books and a whole generation, including mine, grew up without exposure to this artist’s vivid imagination. He moved with his family to a remote part of Nova Scotia for a time and in 1976 to West Cork, Ireland where he lives today. Beginning in the 1990s, with the enthusiastic support of his fans, Ungerer’s popularity began to return and now many of his children’s books have been republished.
Ungerer inspired many artists including Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are (1963). His biggest accolade came in 1998 when he was awarded the international Hans Christian Andersen Medal for his “lasting contribution” as a children’s illustrator. Many of Ungerer’s manuscripts and artwork for his early children’s books can be viewed at the Children’s Literature Research Collection at the Free Library of Philadelphia. In 2007, Strasbourg—his birthplace where he still makes frequent visits—dedicated a museum to him, the Musée Tomi Ungerer/Centre international de l’illustration.