Tomi Ungerer, rennaisance man of children's book illustration

The prolific author and illustrator is a goodwill ambassador for the Council of Europe and there's a museum in Strasbourg dedicated to his work. His 'fables' deserve greater recognition. See a gallery of his work here

With more than 150 books to his name, and a CV jangling with prestigious awards – including a European prize for culture and a Hans Christian Andersen award for children's literature – the versatile, trilingual, prolific and hugely influential author and illustrator Tomi Ungerer, now 80 years old, is something of a legend.

He's an officer of the Légion d'honneur and a Council of Europe goodwill ambassador for childhood and education. In Strasbourg, there's a museum dedicated to his work. He has lived in Ireland since 1975, so it's puzzling that in Britain he is virtually unknown.

Back in the 1970s my sons would frequently pore over an Ungerer book called No Kiss for Mother. Inspired by Ungerer's own memories, it's about a rebellious schoolboy kitten who loathes being kissed and cuddled. With its ruthless humour and wickedly funny, crepuscular pencil drawings, it had an anarchic, underground feeling, startlingly different from other children's books of the time. With schoolyard scenes of fighting, bloodshed, catapults and smoking, it reached the parts that other books didn't, and the gimlet-eyed kitten on the cover has an insolent expression that you'll recognise if you've ever been a teacher.

I've since tried to buy another copy, but it is long out of print. One publisher admitted to being a little wary of the "crazy" humour in some of Ungerer's books – in particular, his habit of including surprising, sometimes inexplicable details in his spreads. This, Ungerer says, keeps his readers on the alert: "Curiosity is vital. The finest gift you can give your children is a magnifying glass, so with a little effort they can make their own discoveries." To make it too easy is to curb the instinct to explore. So it's a cause for celebration that Phaidon Press is now republishing his books.

When we meet, Ungerer, having recently returned from an exhibition of his work at the Eric Carle Museum in Massachusetts, tells me he is enjoying something of a renaissance. Tall, white-haired and striking in his all-black attire, he resembles a latterday Franz Liszt, but instead of the composer's trademark silver-topped cane, Ungerer carries a walking stick with a stainless-steel doorhandle.

He apologises in advance for talking too much – he thinks I'll soon have had enough of the mordant humour that has long been his defence mechanism, along with aphorisms such as "you are what you make", "expect the unexpected" and "hope is a four letter word". "Don't hope, cope," he tells me twice – urging me to stop him if he repeats himself. But he's unstoppable, with an energy fuelled, he says, by anxiety and insecurity.

Born in Alsace, Ungerer had an eventful childhood. When the Germans occupied that French region in 1940, his mother tongue became a forbidden language. "Suddenly I was a refugee in my own country." Everyone had to learn German immediately, and schoolchildren were subjected to hideous Nazi indoctrination. His first assignment under this regime was to draw "a Jew".

Drawing has always been second nature to him, and at nine he became, in effect, a sort of junior war artist, visually recording life under German occupation – including the allied bombing, tanks, guns, ruined houses, flames – and creating caricatures of German soldiers. His detailed observational drawings are astonishing in their confident handling of perspective, composition and atmosphere – and the menacing tilt of war planes curving through the sky. His mother preserved those drawings, and in his book Tomi: A Childhood Under the Nazis, they illuminate his experiences in a way that few written accounts could match. The appalling things he witnessed left him with a desire to see an end to prejudice, intolerance, and what he calls the "absurdity of war", and he expressed these themes powerfully in his storytelling.

After the war, Ungerer explored Europe. Attracted by the US and the work of Saul Steinberg, he set off for New York, arriving in 1956 with "just $60 and a trunkful of drawings and manuscripts". He found instant success with a series of children's books about the adventures of an unsinkable family of French pigs, the Mellops, and their sausage dog. He also wrote Crictor (1958), the much-loved story of an old lady with a pet boa constrictor, has an engaging, quirky humour, and the detailed line drawings have an airy, delicate Parisian feel.

In New York, Ungerer swiftly became an award-winning, innovative graphic designer and illustrator for newspapers and magazines, and before long a leading figure in the world of advertising. He is dazzlingly multi-faceted, having also worked as an architect, painter and sculptor. Describing himself as an "archivist of human absurdity", his interests take in engineering, geology, watercolour painting, political satire and birdwatching. During a challenging period of self-sufficiency on a farm in Nova Scotia, he added pig farming and welding to his list of skills. His robust account of this period, Far Out Isn't Far Enough, is accompanied by fluid, atmospheric illustrations, and is further proof that he thrives on challenge.

In the 60s and 70s, he designed numerous posters, including one for Stanley Kubrick's film, Dr Strangelove. The immediacy of poster art enabled him to express with passion his rage about such things as the war in Vietnam, civil rights and segregation. But his outspoken radical views and political activism, and his interest in China, raised suspicions. He was also spotted playing poker with the Cuban ambassador, and he enjoys telling a cloak-and-dagger story of being apprehended by the FBI at a railway station in New York.

In addition, his controversial erotic drawings met with opprobrium; his children's books, having been hugely popular, were banned from the libraries, and allowed to go out of print. He was denounced as a commie and a beatnik – as he puts it, in a heavily accented stage-whisper: "At that time, my European sensibilities weren't appreciated or understood by the Americans." Years later, in London, there was a fuss when an exhibition of his work, having been well received at the Louvre in Paris, moved to the Royal Festival Hall. The controversial aspects not only raised eyebrows but also lowered the curtain on a third of the show.

Ungerer describes his children's stories as fables. There's always a message, and as a former adman he knows exactly how to deliver it. One of his finest books, now republished by Phaidon, is The Three Robbers (1963). The easy-to-read pictures are bold, with arresting, almost abstract composition and emotive use of flat colour.

Seen in scary silhouette, the eponymous robbers work by night on the highway, smashing carriages, terrifying passengers and stealing their riches. But one night, they stop a carriage that has just one small passenger, an orphan on her way to stay with a wicked aunt.

Tiffany is delighted to meet the robbers – this is an exquisite, pivotal moment in the narrative, in which fear evaporates, and text and illustration embrace. Finding no riches, the Robbers take the child and make her comfortable in their cave. When Tiffany discovers all the stolen treasure pointlessly stashed away there, she questions the robbers' intentions. She, of course, knows right from wrong, and soon the money is put to good use buying a splendid castle that becomes a happy home for all lost, unhappy and abandoned children. It is a perfectly pitched parable.

Moon Man (1966) is equally powerful. Having watched enviously as the people on earth enjoy themselves, the Man in the Moon daringly dives down to join them. Crash-landing on Earth, he's not welcomed, but regarded as an undesirable alien and put behind bars. There is an inspired moment when, sitting alone in his prison cell, Moon Man begins to get smaller. "Why, I must be in my third quarter," he thinks happily. Day by day he gets thinner and is soon able to slip through the bars.

Although they were first published decades ago, these beautiful, thought-provoking books have a timeless humour, appeal and relevance, and are accessible at all levels of understanding.

When he draws, Ungerer never uses an eraser, preferring to redraw something as often as 30 times to get it right, but without losing the spontaneity. He is rarely satisfied, and hates to look back at his work. Sure enough, when I am leafing through The Three Robbers with him, he seizes the touching picture of Tiffany gently cradled in the robber's arms, and finds fault with it. "That's not how I would do it now," he says with a rueful smile.


Joanna Carey

The GuardianTramp

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