11/29/02
Tom Ungerer
    by John Cech

One of the best-loved picture books by the internationally celebrated author and illustrator, Tomi Ungerer, is The Three Robbers. The Robbers, disguised in their capes and tall, black hats, plunder the coaches that bounce through the European landscape of the book's pages. One day, their haul includes a little orphan, Tiffany, whom they take to their cave with the rest of their loot. But Tiffany asks what only a child can -- what are the robbers doing with all of their ill-gotten goods? They're embarrassed by the question, and so Tiffany takes them in hand and soon has them scouring the countryside for other orphans like herself, and then building a town for all the children to live in safely and happily.

This quirky little gem of misdeeds and redemption is one of the clever books that Ungerer produced during the 1960s and 70s, after he had come to this country from France. As a boy he had lived through the Nazi occupation and bombings of Kolmar, in the Alsace; and later, as a young artist, he was ready to travel and to spread his wings in an American publishing industry that was open to experiments of every variety.

And spread them he did in a series of thoroughly out-of-the ordinary picture books. There's Alumette, about an impoverished little match girl whose wish comes true one night and brings her a cornocopia of wealth; there's The Beast of Monsieur Racine, in which a retired tax collector sets a trap to catch whoever is stealing his prize-winning pears, only to discover that the culprit is a beast unlike any that he (or even the French Academy) has ever seen before. In The Hat, a magical chapeau, "shiny as satin and belted with a magenta silk sash," winds up on the head of "Benito Badoglio, a penniless veteran" and ends up changing the life of the "bewildered old soldier." In Crictor, Madame Bodot's herpatologist son sends her a particularly civilized and helpful boa constrictor as a present. Ungerer's "Little Red Riding Hood" ends up marrying the Wolf, who turns out to be a refined, pacific gentleman. And in I Am Papa Snap and these are My Favorite No Such Stories, Ungerer serves up a book of surreal, one-page tales that read like Zen koans told by a stand-up comedian.

Happily, most of Ungerer's many works are still available, and they still run against the predictable grain of the vast majority of children's books. Satiric, wildly and subversively funny, his darkly delightful vision is waiting for you and your children to discover. It's Ungerer's birthday this week, and he's giving all the presents.

Copyright 2002 John Cech

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Monday, 28-Oct-2002 21:04:43 EST


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