Just checking in after a great vacation and my birthday! Back this week with a special post on a childhood book holy grail I finally was reunited with a while back, but in the meantime.... Out of Print finally has a baby line: Goodnight Moon, The Little Prince... and who is ready for a The Day the Cow Sneezed onesie!?! Soooo incredibly awesome, (though don't tell anyone, I've been prone to making bootleg vintage kids' book t-shirts for personal use over the years. My son might be the only person in the world with Beast of Monsieur Racine and Little Peep t-shirts to call his own. Tee hee.)
I wanted to thank Tomi Ungerer for agreeing to the interview. He recorded the interview while home in Ireland, and I'm so grateful he took the time to answer. If you haven't read it yet, it starts here and goes for three posts. And if you are lucky enough to live where the movie about his life is playing, make sure and get out to see it... Far Out Isn't Far Enough. It's genius!
In case you were wondering, the winner of Fog Island is Tera! (Email me your info at webe(at)soon(dot)com and congrats!)
Continued from here... VKBMKLs: You have a new children's book out, Fog Island,
about Ireland. Can you tell us about it?
TOMI: In a way, it’s a very different book altogether. I
always have to do something different... I would say that about all my picture
books, most of them. I've done other books completely different... the romantic
trend, if you wanna put it that way. I just wanted to do a children’s book that
was not just actions and craziness, no social satire or anything... there’s
none of that in my new book. This book is really more about atmosphere and
emotions. Of course, I was heavily inspired by Ireland. Where we live, like the
stonework in there is exactly the kind of stonework we have here. I was able
finally to take my time to really develop my skies, you know, like not just any
skies... when I look at one of my skies in this book I feel home, because this
is my home. Ireland is my home. And we've been living here in Ireland for 35
years now, and I am thankful to the Irish people, to Ireland as a country, and
it’s my way of saying thank you. Very emotionally so, very emotionally so. I've
really found my place, my…how do you call this, my zuhause in German, my place
where I was able to settle.
VKBMKLs: You’ve lived all
over the world but settled in Ireland and stayed there. What is it about this
place that has kept you there as an artist?
TOMI: Well, it was after 30 years in New York, at least several
years in Canada while I wrote the book Far Out Isn't Far Enough…I have to say too, I can say that I write
just about as much as I draw. This is mostly a written book, but the situation
there was really so…you have to read it. But my wife and I, we decided to
create a family. We came to Ireland. We fell in love with it. We didn't
question…we came back and she was eight months pregnant and we came back with
six suitcases and that was that. You know I always think that one has to give
destiny a destination, and when something presents itself, just take a chance.
Just do it. And it’s a challenge as well, as I said, how boring life would be
VKBMKLs: Being in the
business of vintage children’s books, I've noticed that people’s feelings
towards them are very much tied up in memory and loss. Do you have a particular
childhood book or image or memory that has haunted you?
TOMI: Well, too many, actually, too many. My father died when I
was three and a half. Then came the Nazis, then we had to move, then came the
actual war, which I mean we were in the last bridgehead for three months,
really surrounded in the middle of the battle fields, and then the French came
back. It was not really nice. And over all this, I’m very, very thankful for
all the things that happened to me because they shaped me and they shaped my
opinions which have stuck to me all my life. Frankly, we've seen enough war
to hate it. Not to hate it but to loathe it. I hate hate. So all those elements
have definitely shaped me in every way, so I've done my autobiography in
several volumes, and one is Tomi: A NaziChildhood. For four years, we were under the boots of the Nazis, but that’s another story.
I must say that nearly every one
of my children’s book is autobiographical. If the Mellopses went
spelunking it was because I did some spelunking, and I've always been really
taken with mineralogy and geology and so on. But if you take Otto, this is
really about my experience in the war. And when I did Otto, I didn't have to check
on how Sherman tanks looks, or an MG42. I know every weapon. I held them.
And my God, by the age of 14, me, my mother and sisters were to dig trenches,
can you imagine that? And then of course as I was saying before, like No Kiss for Mother is totally
autobiographical. I could go on but I would have to take every book piece by
VKBMKLs: Is there one story you've always wanted to tell but haven’t come
around to yet?
TOMI: Too many. As you know,
especially all my latest books are really engagée. Like
Allumette is about the third war. Flix about cats and dogs, you know,
about hatred, about getting along. Making Friends, about a little black boy coming into a white neighborhood. Blue Cloud is about the civil war. It
goes on like this. I think the last one, which was Zloty, really that’s just
about everything. But still... there’s still some books I would like to do, a
summation, really. I would like to do a book about hunger and thirst. I have a
story already but I haven’t got the ending, you see, that’s the problem. And
really some serious issues, I’m in the war, I've done prosecution, whatever, but
I think you cannot start early enough to give children awareness, awareness of
what hurts. What is bad is what hurts. And to be aware that this world is
pretty ugly, but that everybody stands a chance to make it. Everybody stands a
chance, they have been given a sense of endurance and courage, and curiosity, of
But I really think I tried very hard because I've
been working with the French Ministry of Education, and I’m still in Europe in
council, but I must say that many of my efforts have remained fruitless. For
instance, we have a concentration camp in Alsace, still with the gas chambers
and all this, and I always say every teacher should take the children there, six or seven years old, to show them what a concentration camp was, or can be. And I've
been very active, just two years ago I did a poster for the teaching of the
show and it was a big Swastika and a general’s hand grabbing two Jewish
children. This poster was sent to every classroom in France. And to my
knowledge, not one teacher put up this poster because they would all say it was
an outrage. They would say, "We cannot terrify the little children!" But excuse
me. When a child at the age of six is being taken away to a concentration camp,
that is a reality and that’s more than scary. It’s even disgusting. People
avoid talking about those things, and this is a kind of cowardice right there,
and I don’t buy it. And I’m still fighting it, and I will fight it to the end
of the days, with my last line and my last drawings.
Our children were brought
up like this and when we are adults we can’t remember as children. I remember Luca,
my son, was seven years old, so I bought him a little piece of barb and I’d set
this barbed wire on the shelf, as a reminder. Children must be made
aware of what has happened and what can happen. That’s one thing that could
actually serve as a title to this interview. There’s one thing I can tell you
for sure—there’s no such thing as a sheltering sky.
Continued from yesterday... VKBMKLs: What sort of books do you collect? And does your collection include books for children? What are some of your favorites?
TOMI: Well you see, I didn't go to college, and I hardly finished high school, so I totally educated myself with reading... with books. I had a huge library here, which I've given to my hometown, to my museum in Strasbourg. It is a visual library, which touches everything. I’m lucky enough to be totally trilingual, so I write in French, German, and English; books have absolutely shaped me. Of course, I collected a lot of children’s books, but the nucleus of my children’s book collection is quite rare. Old Victorian books. I was brought up with my mother’s and my father’s books that they had as children. German fairy tale books, etc. I would say the most marked of the titles would be the Struwwelpeter, an edition of 1862 or something like that. Then Max and Moritz by Wilhelm Busch. He’s a great poet as well and Max and Moritz was turned into a comic strip in America later, which was Katzenjammer Kids. Those were really, really great influences. But as I already said, I never can repeat the same style and do the same books, except in a series, you know. Like the Mellops had to remain the Mellops, but whenever I start a new children’s book, I just take off anew. I have to find a new style, a new way of expressing myself. I don’t mind letting myself be influenced. Not that I copy, but just let myself be influenced by other stories, by other illustrators. Like for instance when I did the German book of songs, Das Grosse Liederbuch [The Great Songbook]... my god, this huge best seller! Those drawings are totally romantic, and my influences there were people like Caspar Friedrich and all the German Romantics like [Ludwig] Richter.
VKBMKL: Out of all the bookshops you’ve known in your life, do you have one you loved the most and why?
TOMI: Well, absolutely right away it was The Strand Bookshop. Don’t forget I lived 30 years in New York. It was nearly my second home. I used to go there with Maurice Sendak all the time. I would say that in the Strasbourg library at least half of the books came from Strand Bookshop. In every possible form... medical books, various editions... and the prices in those days! I found a copy of La Femme 100 Têtes by Max Ernst, copy limited to number two for 50 cents and all that. It was marvelous.
VKBMKL: Somewhere I read that you are a toy collector. Can you tell us about your collection? How large and what sorts of things does it include?
TOMI: My wife gave me once a little… made by [George] Carette in Nuremberg, made I’ll say about 1890, a metal boat. I fell in love with this boat and started collecting all the toys. This has turned into a major, major collection which I've given to my hometown, over 6,000 pieces. It was not a specialized collection. It was just toys in general. Most collectors are always looking for the new piece; I liked always toys which had already been played with. A lot of them repaired. Sometimes toys I was never even able to find like the double decker bus. I built it myself out of tin, and it could easily pass for the real thing.
Now, there were many elements. The graphic element. I like to make things. I like to invent things. And the mechanisms in there are truly, some of them, so ingenious, it’s an inspiration to me. A lot of them, since they were broken, I had to open them up and repair them and fix them. I’m quite good at faking patinas, you know. You could rarely tell that they were ever tampered with. I really made them work, and I can say, too, that I played with them, like with my steam engines, and…the piston would be missing, and I’d have my little lathe, you know like hobby makers, these kinds of things. A lot of those toys I sometimes put in my children’s books. Like if you take Papa Snap, there is this big boat that’s sinking, while the big locomotive in the railroad station that’s a huge... three foot long… it’s a steam engine, so it’s all part of my inspiration. And then where I don’t need it anymore I just dump it or give it away. Now most of its in Strausbourg or in storage and I’m still finding the time to find the budget for another museum.
I'll be putting part two of my Tomi Ungerer interview up on the blog later today, but I wanted to also mention that I have a copy of Tomi's latest for children, Fog Island, to giveaway to one lucky reader. All you have to do to be entered to win is comment on this post before midnight CT on Sunday, July 7. A winner will be randomly selected and announced the following morning.
The book received a starred review in Publishers Weekly. "Any new book from Ungerer is cause for celebration, and this one offers a particularly enticing blend of mystery and magic. . .It's the kind of classic adventure that allows children to triumph over convention and common sense, threaded with peculiar imagery and unknowable mysteries that linger in the imagination." I'll second that... Good luck kids and have a fabulous Tuesday!
I've been holding onto this interview like a precious, secret jewel, waiting for the right moment to present. As anyone who reads this blog knows, I am quite possibly Tomi Ungerer's number one admirer when it comes to his work for children. The French illustrator has written more than 140 books, some for children -- some definitely NOT for children, but all full of wildly imaginative ideas and illustrations. With the new documentary of his life in theaters (Far Out Isn't Far Enough) and the release of a brand spanking new book for children (Fog Island) he's making the rounds (he'll be on NPR's Fresh Air later today), so I figured now was as good a time as any to share my little secret. Last year, Tomi was kind enough to sit down and answer some of the questions I've been dying to ask him over the years. So without further anything, please enjoy the VKBMKLs interview with Tomi Ungerer, told in three parts over three days. Very fine. Very fine indeed. VKBMKL: The Mellops Go Flying was your first book
for children. With the reissue of the Mellops books by Phaidon, do you remember where the idea for
the pig characters first came from?
TOMI: Well, I don’t really remember, I know I was just
drawing a lot of pigs because in English I thought that we could do a lot of
things with pigs like pigmy, Pygmalion, and so on, and I started doing those
little characters, and then it turned
into a book. When I came in ‘56 to America, there was a trunk of drawings, I
already had a book about the Mellops, but it was too cruel to be published. They
were caught by a butcher to be turned into sausages and things like that. But
Ursula Nordstrom [publisher of Harper & Row] liked the pig family, she told me to conceive
of another story and I just set to work. As for the name “Mellops”, well, in
school we gave our teachers other names, I remember it was a name we gave to
our history teacher. But where the word came from, I can’t remember. We must
have been drunk and having some fun or something like that, you know. There was
no harm getting drunk in high school in those days, so anyway, that started
with the Mellops.
VKBMKLs: In the case
of The Beast of Monsieur Racine, there
are all sorts ofhidden, mad things
going on within the pictures. Murdering hobos, bleeding pipes, bodies stuffed
in trunks, and a faceless self-portrait. What exactly were you thinking when
you cooked up that story?
TOMI: I’ve always been literally a lover of the absurd. I
think the absurd gives a new dimension to reality and even to common sense. And
life, you know, on an everyday basis, is
absurd, or may turn out to be absurd. There’s no reality without absurdity. And
I think this should be shown to the children especially, if it enables them to
make fun of the adults. The children are still free. They have a free imagination.
They have the innocence it takes to be free. I think this should be encouraged,
actually. Especially as my children’s books developed, I started putting more
and more details, a lot of them being perfectly subversive.
Children love jokes.
Children love to make fun of things, and not only this, I would say that the
more details you have, the more it develops a sense of curiosity. Knowledge
would be in-existent without curiosity. So a child must always kind of look—what
is the next detail, and most of thedetails are
sometimes absurd. Well there’s one detail in Monsieur Racine where the hobo
goes around with a bag and an extra bleeding foot in his satchel. People ask me
what’s going on here, and I say, ‘This hobo does a lot of walking, just like if
you have a car you have an extra tire. So the hobo needs an extra foot.’ But I
must say that I made up that answer as the question was given to me, when I
drew it I didn't think about it, I just let my imagination flow.
VKBMKL: I was
wondering how having a child changed your writing and drawing for children, and
in particular how having a girl for a child changed your perspective on the
TOMI: None whatsoever. As I said, as a child what I went
through with my mother’s affection, with my sister’s affection being all over
me, you know with kisses and this and that, I really had my dosage of all that,
and I must say that I didn’t have much physical contact with my daughter or my
sons, even as babies. Mothers can allow themselves to something like this, I
mean I have no time for these kind of things, so…I mean, not that I was
distant, but I’ve seen so many of my friends who completely flipped over their
daughter, I mean making themselves ridiculous, and I don’t think that’s very
healthy at all. I think children should be treated as equals, and just simply
be respected. They should be listened to, children have opinions, children have
a sense of humor, and I know children…an adult should always be ready to answer
the curious child. And this is to one of the reason I put so many details, so
the children ask questions. And so this involves the parents, to give them an
answer. Questioning is so important, but we don’t question children enough
either. We should ask children questions all the time. Sometimes difficult ones
to see what their answers are. It is what I do now in the French magazine
called Philosophie Magazine, I answer children’s questions. But I tell you that
it’s a wonderful challenge, a wonderful challenge.