Tomi Ungerer

Tomi Ungerer

The beauty of frogs' legs
Apartamento Magazine - Tomi Ungerer

Let’s see: one rowing man, made out of a discarded sardine can; one birthday drawing for author colleague Ingrid Noll, showing her sitting at a typewriter with a skeleton dictating behind her; one drawing of a couple dancing tango; one crossword puzzle in the International Herald Tribune; and one song by Kurt Weill from Bertolt Brecht’s Dreigroschenoper, sung after lunch in the middle of an Irish coastal village near Cork. It’s all in a day’s work for Tomi Ungerer, world-renowned author of children’s books, autobiographical pieces, erotic works and political posters. And in his busy day, the 78-year-old Alsatian found time to talk to us about the importance of an element of fear in children’s books, his long relationship with Zurich publisher Diogenesand the exceptional beauty of frogs’ legs.

Apartamento Magazine - Tomi Ungerer

Tomi, we’ve just seen you draw. You’re very quick. Do you do even do sketches before you work on the final version of a piece?

Of course I do sketches, like everybody. But most of the time the sketches are better than the finished artwork. Because they’re more spontaneous. The more Schwung and elan, the better. With age, though, you just don’t find the energy anymore to do all the things you want to do. It’s difficult for me to handle. But I’m busier than ever.

What’s your daily working routine?

I always do a bit of everything. I am a multi. That’s a big problem with me: I simply have too many ideas. Every idea explodes like a hand grenade, into shrapnel. There are at least 10 books I have to finish or still want to do. I’m working on my autobiography about the New York years. I’m always busy with commercial work, posters. I always go from one thing to the other. Sometimes, just in the middle of writing, I have an idea for a sculpture. So I go into my workshop, and then come back to write a few more lines. If you were watching me, it would be nervewracking! I’m a Schnellkünstler, I’m very spontaneous, I work very fast. Because I have to. Otherwise I couldn’t digest and get rid of all my ideas. Ideas are waiting in line to be realised.

Ideas for new children’s books as well, I suppose?

I have an idea for a book about hunger or thirst, but I haven’t got the ending. There is another children’s book I still want to do. It’ll be just for the poetry, for the atmosphere. I love the fog, and I love the full moon, so I’d like to make a book on that. My books don’t always need to be engagé, aggressive, with a lot of detail. I also like simple books that are just for dreaming. But I also want to do a book about all the practical jokes I’ve done in my life. And the same book will include all the jokes fate’s played on me in the form of accidents or diseases. Whenever something bad happens to me, I take it as a joke from destiny. You have to give destiny its destination.

You stopped making children’s books around 1970 and only published your first again around 1997. Why this break?

I was fed up. These days you have about 3-5000 new children’s books presented at the Bologna Book Fair every year. And I have to say, one’s worse than the other. It’s always the same story, without any message. Just sweet teddy bears and all that. The last book I made at the time was ‘No Kiss for Mother’, which is very autobiographical. After that, I decided to do books that would be for both children and parents and would bring the family together, like ‘Das Grosse Liederbuch’, for example, or the first book of my illustrated autobiography ‘Die Gedanken Sind Frei’. Or the infamous ‘The Joy of Frogs’ (or Das Kamasutra der Frösche in German). You won’t believe how many people come to me now and tell me how they saved up money when they were 13 just to buy the Kamasutra. It’s a children’s book too, if you want.

Apartamento Magazine - Tomi Ungerer
Children nowadays know everything.
It is hypocrisy to try and protect them from things they already know. Children know where babies come from. What they don’t know is where adults come from! And children have to be taken much more seriously.

I was always wondering why you chose frogs for your Kamasutra, and not other animals more prone to reproduction, like rabbits, for example.

It’s because frogs have such beautiful legs! Oh my God. I always say frogs should wear silk stockings.

So they’re an X-rated species

Children nowadays know everything. It is hypocrisy to try and protect them from things they already know. Children know where babies come from. What they don’t know is where adults come from! And children have to be taken much more seriously. Sometimes they’re much smarter than we are. That’s why I put a lot of adult elements into my children’s books. Or absurd elements. Children are not idiots, and sometimes they catch a joke or the absurd much better than an adult.

So Samuel Beckett, with his absurd pieces, is also a children’s book author? Interesting thought

Beckett is actually a great inspiration for me. I’ve done a lot of collages lately called ‘Waiting for Godot’. My favourite one is of a train in a station. So many tracks, but only one train! And yes, I would say that the absurdand life is absurdis much more perceivable by a child than by an adult.

Why is that, do you think?

Because they still have innocence, and instinct. Nowadays people want explanations for everything. They’re too smart for their own good! One must keep a balance between one’s knowledge, one’s intelligence (or intellect)and one’s instinct. Because your instincts will keep your feet on the ground. One of my latest collages shows the head of a child surrounded by the heads of adults. Sadly, the child’s head has already been deformed into that of an adult.

Children have different fears than adults, too.

I’ve been reproached for the element of fear in my books. There’s hardly a children’s book of mine without an element of fear, of something bad happening. I’m doing a big campaign now in France, going around schools asking children what they’re scared of. From all their answers we’ll work out how to handle fear. When I was young, before the war, we had this French comic strip, which had a picture of a burglar breaking into a house. It was terrifyingand I loved it! I loved every bit of it. Actually children love to be scared.

When I was a child, I was very impressed by the image in The Beast of M. Racine of a man with an umbrella stuck in his head.

That was so objectionable at that time. People were upset. But for children it’s funny, because it’s absurd and they know it’s absurd. They know it couldn’t happen. And everybody always asked me why the hobo in one of the images has a foot in his little bag. I said he does a lot of walking and needs an extra foot, like a car with a spare tyre. I made up this explanation, but a child might come up with another. With my books I want to spur children on to ask their parents questions. Of course it’s really tough on the parents. Maybe that’s one of the reasons the pedagogues don’t like my work that much, because they have no answers. We simply have no answer to the absurdity of all the problems we are facing.

Apartamento Magazine - Tomi Ungerer

You’ve expressed this absurdity in many posters as well. A famous example is the one where the Statue of Liberty is being put down the throat of a Vietnamese child.

I just did a poster that should be hanging in French schools, about the Shoah. But there again, it’s really hard. It’s a big swastika, and one end of it has a hand that’s grabbing two Jewish children. A lot of teachers say ‘we can’t hang this poster, it‘s going to scare the children’. But isn’t the Shoah scary? Excuse me? If you want children to be aware of it, you have to show them. It all happened only 50, 60 years ago. They have to be scared.

Even in Fornicorn, maybe your most controversial erotic work, there’s a child sitting between two adults in one of the drawings.

We have a farm here. We used to have a pig. My daughter called her Madonna. The dogs had a go at herand the children were applauding. Excuse me, but it’s all relative. Of course, you need to take into account every child is different. I did this story about a boy who doesn’t want to be kissed by his mother, he just hates it. You can’t give this book to an orphan, because an orphan never had any parents, and the poor little orphan would be dying for one kiss. So everything is relative. I’d really worry if some of the erotic works fell into children’s hands. This is a big dilemma. I was born and brought up Protestant and Puritan. I’ve kept a lot of these values. And I definitely see that a lot of my adult work is not suitable for sensitive children. In the museum in Strasbourg, the erotic stuff is downstairs in the cellar.

I noticed you have an Erich Kästner book in your studio toilet

Ah, you’ve seen that. Actually, Erich Kästner is like my shadow. What he said to the children, about school. He said you should make fun of your teacher. Don’t believe everything your teacher is saying. Don’t believe everything adults are telling you. Or believe, but with a dose of doubt. And I like to instil doubt, because doubt is my philosophy. Don’t hope, cope. Reality is reality. If you instil doubt into a child, you have to make him understand everything else is ’why not?’. It’s for the children to find out if it’s true in the end.

Your philosophy was obviously hard to handle for the US government. At some point, your books were even blacklisted there.

And that was another reason I stopped doing children’s books for some time. In the beginning, my books sold well in America. America gave me my big chance. I discovered America and then America discovered me. It gave me all my first chances. Can you imagine, here I am, 25 years old, in 1956, with how much? $60 or something in my pocket. I stayed 15 years in New York. But when I was blacklisted none of my books were allowed in libraries, not even my children’s books. People who collect my early editions sometimes find a library card in them, with a seal saying ’Discarded’. With my political attitude and my erotic work, many people found it unacceptable that I should do children’s books.

With your experience, what would your suggestions be to someone who wants to write a children’s book today?

Learn to draw.

That’s all?

Most children’s books that have survived have been written and illustrated by the same person. Take ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ by Maurice Sendak. Or Edward Leara great inspiration for mehe also did his own drawings. And anybody can learn how to draw. In Victorian days, every young lady knew how to draw in her sketchbook when travelling. It’s a matter of discipline. It’s very easy.

 What about topics? You said there should always be an element of fear in a good children’s book.

It’s like cooking. When you cook a meal, you add pepper, salt and so on. They’re the elements you need. So in a book, fear is just one of the elements. My earlier books were completely different actually, because they were all about animals rejected by humans because they’re disgusting or awfuloctopus, snake, vulture. To show children, no matter who or what you are, you always have something others don’t have. Everybody’s got something. Even in the Nazi era, I wasn’t a very good student, and my teacher said, ‘Don’t worry, the Führer needs artists’. In this context, that was a nice thing to say.

Apartamento Magazine - Tomi Ungerer

Then would you agree that the 1960s and ‘70s were a kind of golden age for children’s books?

In America, yes. The ‘60s were really a revolution in America. It was the witch hunt of the McCarthy era. And everyone who was fed up with the anti-Communist measures came to New York. You had New York and then you had the rest of America. New York was like a fortress, where you could do the things you couldn’t do everywhere else. Because it was in a state of upheaval and discovery. Finished with the old moral taboos and all that stuff. And right now, it’s all different again. My Three Robbers was supposed to be published in English. And at a sales conference, the sales people told me that the bookshops wanted us to get rid of the axe from the book. They’re more puritan and uptight now, after all this, than they ever were. 

And, did you cut out the axe?

No, certainly not! My kind of humour is simply too hard for the Americans. I would say generally speaking for the Anglo-Saxons. The Anglo-Saxons have the old perfidious Albion tradition of hypocrisy. In 1981 I had a big exhibition which was originally shown in the Louvre, at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs. It then travelled all over Europe. When it came to London, and the feminists came, and there was spraypaint and all that, we had to take a third of the pictures out. The Fornicon, by the way, is still illegal in England.

But not in the Republic of Ireland, where you live now.

No, not in Ireland. When the same show came to Dublin, it was welcomed by the feminists. It’s all relative depending on where you go.

Speaking of harsh humour, it was an Irishman, Jonathan Swift, author of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, who proposed in the 18th century that the Irish should eat their own children to overcome the severe famines. That’s hard for even you to top!

I actually said the same thing about Africa in a speech. I said, ‘If you want to save Africa, you have to bring back cannibalism’. Of course that was a first line, to shock the audience. Then I asked, ‘What did we have before? We had colonial cannibalism…’ England, on the other hand, is the land of ‘Winnie the Pooh’ and Beatrix Potter. Nice little rabbits and nice little mice, nice little this and that. There are of course exceptions, like Raymond Briggs. But, in terms of children’s books, the French are by far the best. If you want fantastic children’s books, go to France. In France, there is this old tradition, republican or whatever, that everything is permitted. I remember about 10 years ago there was a book that came out, it was the story of a little boy whose name was Adolf, and he was born with a moustache! Of course I bought this book – which was well drawn on top of it. Truly excellent. Or look at comics. French artists like Moebius. When I see their talent I just feel like hiding!

Apartamento Magazine - Tomi Ungerer

And what are the Adolfs of today? Which political issues do you consider to be the most pressing?

Everywhere there’s problems. Nowadays, we have a big mishmash. In the olden days you had political problems, geopolitical problems, economical problems, nature problems. Nowadays it’s all in one bag. Politicians have to handle it all. Like climate change. Is it political? Definitely! If we have climate change and all the catastrophes, like this flood in Pakistan, it’s a political problem. You can’t fight with one blade anymore, you need a Swiss Army knife!

Now that’s a metaphor I can relate to

I always have my Swiss knife at hand. It’s the best present for a child, by the way. Children do not need toys, they need tools. Werkzeug instead of Spielzeug. But back to politics: America, for example, is a country of savages and specialists. Many Americans don’t know they have a common border with Mexico. But the moment they specialise in something, the Americans are topsit’s give and take.

This happens everywhere, though. A friend was recently asked in an Irish bed & breakfast if she wanted to pay in Euros or in Swiss Crowns.

In Ireland, everything is possible. It’s really in Ireland that I started to write. Now I write as much as I draw.

Why do you think that is?

It’s just a need. Some things are better expressed in a drawing, some things are better expressed with language. I love words.

 You’re perfectly trilingual. What language do you write in?

It doesn’t matter. If I’m here in Ireland, I write in English. When I’m back in Strasbourg, I write in French. When I’m in the Schwarzwald, I write in German. It depends what you want to do. English is very practical. It’s really the easiest language to write in. For every French word, you have about ten synonyms in English. I love German a lot, because whenever I don’t know a word, I invent it. I’m a chameleon, I adapt to everything, wherever I go. But with writing, just as with drawing, it takes years to find your own style. And by the time you find it, you are going to die soon, and you have to hurry. But I’ll be there at my funeral! I made a drawing of it yesterday for a friend of mine: Everyone’s waiting at the funeral and here I come carrying my coffin like a suitcase with flowers in my hand.

Apartamento Magazine - Tomi Ungerer

You seem to collect a lot of memorabilia. Your studio is packed with things!

I collect everything. Half the sculptures I make are with things my daughter or my wife found. It’s like a family industry. All the shovels that went into a new series of sculptures are from the farm. They were used when we were building one of the roads here, years ago. My daughter Aria found this bottle on the beach, and I already had this plastic knot, and now the piece looks like an Alsatian Tracht.

There’s also a lot of metal involved.

I actually love it for the rust. I’m a Handwerker. I’m a worker. I do books, you see. And I make drawings. I don’t draw them, I make them.

So you don’t have any use for e-books either, I assume?

Personally I’m kind of allergic to all those new developments. We live in a time where everything needs to be explained – but if we explain everything, it has no poetry anymore. And if you get information too quickly, it doesn’t stay in your head. When I watch television for example, one of those marvellous programs on nature or whatever. About an animal I’ve never heard of. And I watch a whole program about it and when it’s over I don’t remember the name of the animal. Because I didn’t read it.

Apartamento Magazine - Tomi Ungerer
'Moon Man' (1966).
Apartamento Magazine - Tomi Ungerer
'The Mellops Go Spelunking' (1963).
Apartamento Magazine - Tomi Ungerer
'Emile' (1960).
Apartamento Magazine - Tomi Ungerer
'Emile' (1960).
Apartamento Magazine - Tomi Ungerer
'Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls' (1964).
Apartamento Magazine - Tomi Ungerer
'Ask Me a Question' (1969).
Apartamento Magazine - Tomi Ungerer
'Ask Me a Question' (1969).
Apartamento Magazine - Tomi Ungerer
'Das Kamasutra der Frösche' (1982).
Apartamento Magazine - Tomi Ungerer
'The Beast of Monsieur Racine' (1971).
Apartamento Magazine - Tomi Ungerer
'Die Drei Räuber' (1961).

Are you also involved in the production of your books?

It depends. My publishers are perfectionists. What I’m especially fussy about, though, is the choice of paper. I don’t want shiny paper.

And Diogenes is probably happy to comply with your wishes, since you were one of their first authors….

If I am what I am, it’s thanks to Diogenes. I was one of the first Diogenes authors. I brought a lot of other people too. Daniel Keel, the Diogenes publisher, always published everything I did. And he always kept my books in print, especially the children’s books. In America it’s not like that. Unless it’s a bestseller, they want the next book, and they don’t want to do reprints.

There are lots of stories about the founding of Diogenes.

When I met Daniel Keel in 1957, he’d seen my drawings in Esquire Magazine and contacted me. When I came to visit him in Zürich, he was renting a room at his friend’s house. He just had a bedroom. And all the stock of his books was under his bed. And he had a little Volkswagen Beetle and would just load it with books and drive from one bookshop to the next. All the first books were cartoon books.

And you also did many cover illustrations for Diogenes, especially for the whodunnits.

I did over 500 vignettes for Diogenes. Although the most important thing in my life is booksI didn’t go to university, but learned everything out of books – I unfortunately can’t go to bookshops that often anymore. When I’m in Paris, I go to l’Ecole des Loisirs and see some of the new authors, but I always find it depressing. Because either I see books which are lousy and stupid, or they’re good and then I feel like nothing. It’s like with the past. If you look back at the past, either you regret it because it was beautiful and it’s over, or you regret it because you were stupid. So never think of the past!

Apartamento Magazine - Tomi Ungerer
In the early 1960s, Tomi Ungerer used to build kites as a hobby, and fly them on the beach near his Long Island summer home.

This interview with French cartoonist, author, and illustrator Tomi Ungerer was originally featured in Apartamento issue #6, back in 2010. Born in Strasbourg in 1931, he is considered one of the most brilliant draftsmen and illustrators of the 20th century. Tomi wrote famous children’s books like The Three Robbers and The Moon Man, which have become classics of the genre, overturning previously founded taboos in children’s literature. He published over 140 books, which have been translated into 30 languages. Tomi passed away at his home in Ireland this past February 9, 2019. Our thoughts and condolences go out to his family and friends. 

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