Tomi Ungerer's books for children return
Kids' books: Tomi Ungerer, author and illustrator of many children's books including "The Mellops Go Diving for Treasure," "Moon Man," "Crictor," "Adelaide" and "Otto: The Autobiography of a Teddy Bear," turns 80 amid growing interest in his work.
Scripps Howard News Service
Tomi Ungerer turns 80 in November, and over his lifetime, he's held various artistic jobs, including graphic designer (he did the poster for the movie "Dr. Strangelove"), magazine illustrator, sculptor and architect.
But Ungerer is best known for his work as a children's-book author and illustrator. Beginning in 1957, he published dozens of memorable books with legendary Harper & Row editor Ursula Nordstrom. These books included "Crictor," "Adelaide," "The Three Robbers, "Moon Man," "No Kiss for Mother"and "Otto: The Autobiography of a Teddy Bear."
After criticism of Ungerer's liberal political views and the erotic elements of some of his adult books in the 1970s, however, many of his children's books were allowed to go out of print in the United States. But Ungerer's popularity remained undimmed in Europe, and, in 1998, he was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the top international award for children's-book authors and illustrators.
In recent years, Phaidon Press has been reissuing some of Ungerer's children's books in the United States, including "The Three Robbers," "Moon Man"and "Otto"(all, $16.95 each). "The Three Robbers" and "Otto" are geared for ages 5 up, while "Moon Man" is aimed at ages 4-8.
Ungerer's work can be controversial. While kids tend to love the subversive humor of books like "The Three Robbers," it raises alarm bells in some adults, who particularly gasp at the cover illustration showing three menacing-looking robbers wielding an ax.
Ungerer, meanwhile, is used to criticism, saying in a June interview with The New York Times: "Why am I the pedagogues' nightmare? They think I traumatize children. They think children should be loved and protected. But if you do only that, they're not ready for life."
Still, not all of his children's books push the boundaries, and Phaidon has just brought back new editions of three of Ungerer's less-controversial children's books, delightful tales about an anthropomorphized family of pigs called the Mellops. The books cost $12.95 each, and are perfect for ages 4-7.
Each book has a different focus, but all offer the kind of inventive story that will have kids asking for repeated readings so they can go adventuring with the four Mellops brothers and their parents. For young readers used to boldly colored picture-book illustrations, the art in the "Mellops" books, which uses only a few colors, may seem charmingly old-fashioned, but Ungerer's drawings still pack an energetic — and highly whimsical — punch.
In "The Mellops Go Diving for Treasure," the family heads off on a treasure hunt after Mr. Mellops discovers an old letter from one of his ancestors that appears to include directions to some gold buried at the bottom of the sea. The family's quest nearly turns tragic when the ship sinks in a storm, but the ever-resourceful Mellops figure out a way to save themselves.
The family has another close call when a fire erupts near their oil well in "The Mellops Strike Oil." Young readers will enjoy watching how the Mellops deal with that problem.
"Christmas Eve at the Mellops' " is the third book. It finds the family with an unusual holiday problem. Each brother was inspired to try to please the yuletide-loving father by getting a Christmas tree.
Four trees are too many for their house, however, and so their father suggests that the brothers give them away. But all of the usual places — an orphanage, an army barracks and a hospital — already have their trees. Fortunately, at the last minute, the Mellops find a solution.
As his children's books have been reissued here, Ungerer also has found a growing interest in his work. The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass., for example, has an exhibit of Ungerer's picture-book illustrations on display through Oct. 9 (for more information, visit www.carlemuseum.org).
Ungerer, who has lived for many years in Ireland and his native France, came back to the United States in June for the opening of the exhibit, as well as to do a special event at the Free Library of Philadelphia, which is the depository of many of Ungerer's papers related to his children's books.
Born in Strasbourg, France, Ungerer mentions frequently in interviews how he came to the United States in 1956 "with $60 in my pocket." Fortunately, he was immediately successful as a children's book author, with Nordstrom publishing his first book, "The Mellops Go Flying," in 1957.
Ungerer also was instrumental in jump-starting the careers of two other influential children's-book creators — Shel Silverstein and Maurice Sendak — by introducing them to Nordstrom.
In a June interview with Publishers Weekly, Ungerer says he's still got lots of creative energy and has "about 12 books going; it's madness."And he added: "Old age is an age of discovery if you still have your mind."
Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com.
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