Phyllis: Tomi Ungerer has written and illustrated over 30 books for children, along with over 100 other books. I didn’t know much about him until Jackie suggested we do a blog on him, and I’m so glad she did. I came home from the library with a stack of his books, which range widely from the ridiculous to the mysterious.
One of my favorites is I am Papa Snap and These Are My Favorite No Such Stories, sixteen mostly absurd stories with illustrations. One story is only 14 words long, another is told in three sentences (although the first sentence runs for 14 lines and gives a whole brief history of the pink gasoline station). I particularly love the story of the very hungry sofa and also the story about Mr. and Mrs. Limpid. Here is the Limpid story in its entirety:
Mr. Limpid is blind.
Mrs. Limpid is lame.
They are old.
They are happy.
They have each other.
There’s a whole tender life of two people contained in these words, which remind me of my parents when they grew elderly, one able to drive, the other able to remember where they were going and how to get back home.
I also love Mr. Tuber Sprout, who every morning for seven years runs for the train to work and misses it. “The station clock is always five minutes ahead of mine,” he exclaims. “But at least it keeps me from going to work.”
These brief, ridiculous stories make me want to try to write my own no such stories in which no such things probably ever happened (that we know of). But, like Ungerer, we can still imagine a world of wacky possibilities.
Jackie: I love these stories, Phyllis! And I have never seen them before. Reading them was like eating potato chips. I kept turning the pages for one more. And some of Ungerer’s phrases are just hilarious: Mr. and Mrs. Kaboodle buy a new nest from a “local nidologist.”
Or here is the Doctor Stigma Lohengreen’s diagnosis of Mr. Lido Rancid:
“There is a PICKLE jammed in your vena cava,
and the gangliated chords of your sympathetic
are all tangled up.”
“Zink Slugg bought a new car.
It had lots of cylinders,
coördinated cram-notch gears,
coupled crush-brakes, two-speed grinders,
an electronic police detector,
strobe headlights, and a quantity of whatnots.”
Phyllis: I also love Crictor, a Reading Rainbow choice that chronicles the adventures of an old lady named Madame Louise Bodot in a little French town and the boa constrictor her son sends her for her birthday. Upon opening the box she first screams but, being practical, then takes the snake to the zoo to make sure he’s not poisonous. He isn’t, and she names him Crictor. Most of the book relates their lives together; I particularly love her cradling Crictor in her arms and feeding him a bottle of milk. She gets palm trees so he will feel at home and knits him a sweater to keep him warm when he wriggles behind her in the snow on their walks. Crictor goes with her to school one day, where he shapes letters and numbers for the children, but the real drama begins late in the book, when a burglar breaks in and gags and ties Madame Bodot to a chair. Crictor attacks and traps the burglar in his coils until the police arrive. Crictor’s heroism is honored with a medal, a statue, and a park dedicated to him. “Loved and respected by the entire village, Crictor lived a long and happy life.”
Jackie: I once read an interview with Ungerer in which he said:
“I identify a little bit with all of [my heroes]. I’m always on the side of the underdog. I identify with my snake, my octopus, all of my rejected animals.“
Phyllis: As if absurd stories and boa constrictor heroes weren’t enough, among his other books Ungerer has written and illustrated Fog Island about a mysterious island where things might (or might not) have happened. Finn and Cara live on a farm with their mother and fisherman father, who makes them their own curragh, a boat constructed of reeds and tar. He tells them to stay clear of Fog Island, which looms offshore “like a jagged black tooth.” “It’s a doomed and evil place,” he says. “Those who have ventured there have never returned.”
One day when Finn and Cara are exploring in their curragh a fog rolls in, and strong currents carry them out to Fog Island. They follow steps up to a door, which is answered by a wizened, white-haired old man who calls himself the Fog Man and shows them how he makes fog by letting water flow in to a deep well of magma. He turns off the fog so they can return home safely the next day, then Finn, Cara, and the Fog Man have a singsong. He makes them a meal and shows them a bed for the night where they sleep covered by a quilt.
They wake the next morning surrounded by deserted ruins but with the quilt still tucked over them and two steaming bowls of stew beside them. When they leave the island a storm overtakes them, and they are saved by their father and the other fishermen who have come looking for them. All the neighbors celebrate Finn and Cara’s return, but no one believes them about the fog man, and no one wants to visit the island to see if their story is true. Weeks later, Cara pulls a long hair from her soup, and she and Finn chuckle, recognizing it as one of the Fog Man’s.
Jackie: This book seems typical of Tomi Ungerer’s work, so inclusive. There’s an affectionate family, a named Evil—Fog Island, and a wonderful ambiguity in the ending. Who was the fog man? And I also find it interesting that the father, following received community wisdom, I think, tells the children that Fog Island is a “doomed and evil place.” But they find singing and hot soup.
There may be another consistency here—a complex artist pushing us to see that a “doomed and evil place” can offer hot soup and a good night’s sleep, a boa constrictor can become a helpful part of the community.
“Most of my children’s books have fear elements,” Ungerer has said in an interview on Fresh Air. “But I must say, too, to balance this fact, that the children in my books are never scared. … I think fear is an element which is instilled by the adults a lot of time.”
We see this in Fog Island. When the children land on Fog Island Finn says, “This must be Fog Island./Let’s find out where those steps lead.” No fear, but curiosity.
Phyllis: In Far Out Isn’t Far Enough, a documentary about Ungerer, Maurice Sendak said of Ungerer’s influence on his own [Sendak’s] work: “I learned to be braver than I was. Ungerer didn’t mind scaring kids, because he believed in their ability to cope with and adapt to life’s difficulties.”
Ungerer himself learned about living in fearful situations from an early age: from eight to thirteen, he lived under Adolf Hitler’s occupation of Alsace and was told in school that Hitler needed artists to draw for him. In a Fresh Air interview he recalls, “…I had to do a portrait of the Führer, you know, giving a speech, and I put a stein of beer on this thing. Well, the Führer didn’t drink, but still, you know, nobody ever objected. The thing is, no matter what tyranny, you can always get away, maybe not with murder, but with a few other things. And your mind is always free. Nobody can take away your mind.” Years later in the United States Ungerer would draw anti-war posters during the Viet Nam war.
Jackie: He received the Hans Christian Anderson Award in 1998 and is truly a giant. I haven’t read close to all of his stories and especially want to read Zeralda’s Ogre, which Book World called “the most horrendous, ugliest—yet most beguiling—ogre imaginable.”
What I love about his work is that the dots do not have to connect. The stories do not get tied up neatly at the end. We don’t know about the Fog Man. Zink Slugg’s wonderful car rams into a tree and Zink “feels very bad” and that is the end. I also admire the way Ungerer combines edginess and heart—feeding a boa constrictor with a bottle is such a great example and only one of many we could point to.
Phyllis: It’s so fitting that for a time his children’s books were considered dangerous and evil, like Fog Island (because of erotic drawings he did for adults). But now when we do visit these books, we find strange and wondrous things, things not to answer but to ponder—dealing with fear, being subversive, and aspiring to live a fearless life.