When I started to think about people to write guest posts, as always, the first person who came to mind was Gillian Fassel... the friend and writer who inspires me to be a better thrifter and, as a fellow ex-East Coaster, often keeps me from going insane in this Texas heat. (Hey what can I say, she has talent, incredible taste and she has a pool.) Here she writes about one of my all time favorite children's book authors... though, this book in particular, I don't yet possess. You see, Gillian has this nasty habit of getting to our local library sales five minutes before me, but I digress. Comment on this post before midnight tonight, and I might select your name to win a vintage paperback of the Ungerer-illustrated Flat Stanley. A winner will be posted first thing tomorrow. ~ Scribbler
Tomi Ungerer ~ Harper & Row, 1967
So when Scribbler—the mastermind behind this blog, my friend and (friendly) competition in the pursuit of all the lovely discarded vintage children’s books in our neck of the Lone Star State—asked me to write up my favorite children's book for her second anniversary, I told her she was nuts. Maybe I could narrow it down to a top ten list, but even that would be a challenge. I thought about asking my daughters (ages 2 and 6) for their picks but that's just another exercise in futility since they change every day (right now the 2-year-old is fixated—and you know how only a two-year-old can fixate—on old-school Berenstain Bears and Richard Scarry while the 6-year-old adores Ursula Leguin's remarkable Catwings series and anything by Esther Averill). I’ve celebrated a few of our most beloved volumes here already (Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor by Mervyn Peake is very high on the list), and Scribbler has given props to plenty more of our family favorites: all Sendak/Krauss collaborations, anything by Wanda Ga'g, William Steig, Margaret Wise Brown, C.W. Anderson, Lois Lenski. Oh, and Ray Bradbury's Switch on the Night..that might be my all-time favorite—but no, I will not be held to just one!
Thus I'm choosing to highlight Tomi Ungerer's Moon Man, mostly because... Scribbler hasn't done it yet? And in honor of the anniversary of the Moon landing? And because this book was love at first sight for my elder daughter (she was 3 or 4 when we scored a nice copy at a local library sale) and because I'm always so excited to learn the backstory of yet another out-of-print genius author/artist I'd never heard of—in this case Ungerer, whose books fell into disfavor—and were even apparently banned by some librarians—because of his subversive politics (his harsh iconic images for anti-Vietnam war posters are well worth Googling) and for his forays into the world of erotica. You can get the lowdown on Ungerer's fascinating career here in a New York Times article published last year when British art-book publisher Phaidon announced it would be reissuing some of Ungerer's books, including Moon Man, which is an excellent introduction to his unsentimental view of the world.
My daughter, like most small children, has an intense personal relationship with the moon, so this story was a bit wrenching at first, as it's in the vein of Frankenstein, E.T., Edward Scissorhands, and countless other tales in which a magical outsider arrives peacefully (more or less) and is beset by mobs of pitchfork-wielding yahoos, shameless profiteers and of course, nefarious government scientists. In this case, the innocent creature is the Man in the Moon, who on “clear, starry nights can be seen curled up in his shimmering seat in space.”
The Man in the Moon is a gentle, marshmallow-like fellow who spends his nights enviously watching the people of Earth dancing. "If only I could join the fun," he thinks. "Life up here is such a bore." So he decides to hitch a ride on a shooting star and pay Earth a visit. The noisy conflagration of his crash landing draws a crowd of soldiers, firemen, and sundry spectators who don't know what to make of "the pale soft creature lying in the crater." Naturally, government officials are alerted and in the ensuing panic the Moon Man is declared an invader and tossed in the clink.
The moon man was thrown in jail while a special court conducted a criminal investigation. Poor Moon Man...his hopes of dancing among the gay crowds and bright lanterns were crushed.
Luckily, at this point, the moon's ability to wax and wane comes in handy—as he wanes he's able to squeeze through the bars of his window. His captors are furious but the Moon Man is thrilled with the opportunity to explore Earth, to smell the flowers, marvel over the birds, etc.
He came upon a garden party where people in gorgeous costumes were dancing. "Look! Someone has come as the man in the moon," a lady cried. The Moon Man danced blissfully for hours.
When the party breaks up because of a neighbor's complaints about the noise, the Moon Man is discovered and pursued through dark woods by the cops. He stumbles upon "an ancient castle" where me meets a Dr. Strangelove-esque scientist named Doktor Bunsen van der Dunkel who's been perfecting a moon-bound spacecraft (I wasn't surprised to learn that Ungerer worked with Stanley Kubrick on posters for the film Dr. Strangelove, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb).
Now finished, the intricate machine rested on its launching pad on a castle turret. Doktor van der Dunkel had grown too old and too fat to fit into the capsule. He asked his guest to be his first passenger. The Moon Man, who had realized that he could never live peacefully on this planet, agreed to go.
The ending is happy enough—after a teary farewell, the Moon Man returns to "his shimmering seat in space" (love that image) and the good Doktor is "elected chairman of an important scientific committee." Ungerer, who lives in a kind of self-imposed exile in a tiny village on the Irish coast, said in the Times interview, “I think children have to be respected. They understand the world, in their way." I am down with that. Books like this one are a bracing alternative to some of the patronizing treacle that passes for children's fiction. I can't think of a better way to acquaint my daughter with some of the pitfalls of humanity—fear of the unknown, mistrust of difference, the willful embrace of ignorance—than with the story of the Moon Man.
(Reissued by Phaidon in 2009.)
The Mellops Strike Oil
Seeds and More Seeds
The Three Robbers
Christmas Eve at the Mellops'
I Am Papa Snap and These Are My Favorite No Such Stories
The Beast of Monsieur Ravine
Book of Various Owls