The Beast of Monsieur Racine
Tomi Ungerer ~ Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971
Happy weekend kids! Weird that I'm here, no? I promise this will be my last Ungerer for a while, but I just found it at a book shop yesterday and was so blown away by the hidden visuals that I had to share. Now, be forewarned. I think the grotesque humor here is hysterical (as does my son), but I know there will be more than a few mothers out there who might chide me for giving this book to my son at all. (Please don't even leave a negative comment as they will be erased. Simply avert your eyes and move elsewhere.) But seriously, I read this a handful of times before I even started noticing the little touches that make this book different, so most people wouldn't even notice the darker underbelly.Now, on the surface, the story here is hugely intriguing, quite wonderful and quite innocent. We have a lonely, greedy man who loves pears and when he discovers his pear tree has been stripped bare, he vows to capture the culprit. It is when the thief is revealed that the story comes positively alive...There in the twilight stood a beast, the strangest thing Monsieur Racine had ever set eyes upon. It was large, about the size of a young calf. From a distance it looked like a heap of moldy blankets. Long, sock like ears were flopping on both sides of a seemingly eyeless head. A shaggy, mangled mane topped a drooping snout. Its feet were like stumps, and it had baggy knees. It made no sound.
I can't get enough of this frumpy guy. He reminds me so much of those random characters on Fraggle Rock that used to show up and scare the bejesus out of me. (Remember that episode about the thing that becomes whatever you believe it to be, or fear? Freak out!) Anyways. Please note in the picture above the presence of a unicorn in the distance behind the picket fence. This is where the illustrations begin to get really awesome.
So the story goes on... the man befriends the thing and preforms all sorts of scientific tests on it to try and discover what it is and eventually gets invited to Paris to present his findings. Now, soon after their arrival in gay Paree, it's revealed (delightfully) that the creature is really two small children in costume. A riot ensues, and the man and children become friends. The end. Or is it...
After further readings I started to notice little hints in the pictures of something even more wonderful and bizarre than the story at hand. The action taking place in the background outside of the story. Have a look closer... (Now would be the time to avert your eyes puritans.)
There are so many of these wicked little details: ever present but unexplained drip drops of blood, fabulous border piping, a nod to Maurice Sendak (to whom the book is dedicated) as well as a few, what seem to be, self portraits of a faceless (or at least all nose) Tomi himself. Delightfully dastardly! There are so many little things, and I don't dare to try and post them all as it would spoil your fun.Man, I would love to know what was going on in his mind when Tomi drew all this stuff. If there was some deeper meaning or if he was just trying to mess with us. I'm sure all the political nods go right over my head. (I read somewhere online that the gypsy/hobo with the amputated foot in his bindle is wearing a German medal.) Seriously, I could go on and on about how stellar this book is. Any of you college kids out there seeking an illustration thesis, look no further. Really, I'm so excited about having it in my possession, it's making my stomach hurt. Apparently, there is a Weston Woods, too. Swoon.
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