Tomi Ungerer obituary

Author and illustrator of witty books for children who described himself as an archivist of human absurdity

The author and illustrator Tomi Ungerer, who has died aged 87, was best known for his visually stunning, witty and intelligent children’s books, but he was also an extraordinary designer, sculptor, satirist, farmer and political activist, an elegant eccentric who described himself as an archivist of human absurdity.

His books, of which he wrote more than 140, and which have been translated into 30 languages, have delighted, amused and entertained young readers, but have often also frightened and unsettled them. Fear, Ungerer believed, is a vital element in childhood; it has to be dealt with, and in doing that, children will learn how to be courageous.

One of his finest picture books is The Three Robbers (1961), in which a gang of brigands attack carriages on the highway and steal the passengers’ riches. Dark, scary illustrations show galloping horses and savage assailants wielding double-headed axes.

On one moonlit night, the carriage they stop contains only one little girl, a penniless orphan. She is delighted to meet them. Luckily she has no treasure. But with her courage, and her practical good sense, she confounds the robbers, and persuades them to abandon their evil ways and put the stolen money to good use.

The robbers agree to spend their ill-gotten gains on a huge castle where abandoned children can live happily together and enjoy a proper childhood. This life-affirming story is told using bold colours, striking silhouettes and subtle details.

The imagery has the powerful simplicity of a poster, an art form in which Ungerer also excelled, most memorably with the one he produced for Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr Strangelove.

A teacher once described Ungerer as being “perverse and subversive”, and you can see something of this in his semi-autobiographical book No Kiss for Mother (1973), about a schoolboy kitten who strives to avoid his mother’s embrace. With slightly murky pencil illustrations, it features playground violence, catapults and bloodshed, and at home in the cat family’s kitchen there are myriad revolting details, including a mouse-mincing machine and a rat processor. The expression of the gimlet-eyed kitten on the cover will be familiar to anyone who has dealt with challenging children.

Born in Strasbourg, in France, Jean-Thomas, known as Tomi, was the youngest child of Theo Ungerer, a clockmaker, and his wife, Alice (nee Essler). Theo died when Tomi was three, and his childhood became increasingly difficult.

When the Germans invaded the region, his mother tongue became a forbidden language. He became, as he wrote, a refugee in his own country. Under the new regime, his first school assignment was, he said, “to draw a Jew”.

Drawing was always second nature to Tomi, and he rebelled by becoming a sort of schoolboy war artist, recording what it was like to be under German occupation with paintings and drawings of the allied bombings, tanks, guns and ruined houses. These drawings are astonishing in their confident handling of perspective, composition and atmosphere, conveying the menacing tilt of warplanes curving through the sky. His mother preserved those drawings, as well as some wickedly funny caricatures of German soldiers.

It was perhaps because of those difficult times that as an adult he always had a respect for children, and when he became a writer he never patronised them – you never knew what they had been through.

Tomi Ungerer signing one of his books at the Strasbourg museum dedicated to his work.
Tomi Ungerer signing one of his books at the Strasbourg museum dedicated to his work. Photograph: Patrick Hertzog/AFP/Getty Images

After school, Ungerer enrolled at the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs in Strasbourg, but he stayed only a year before deciding to go travelling, first across Europe, and then, lured by the promise of jazz and inspired by the work of Saul Steinberg, to the US. He arrived in New York in 1956 with $60 in his pocket and a trunk bursting with drawings and manuscripts.

The publisher Ursula Nordstrom of Harper & Row spotted his potential and commissioned his series of children’s stories about the Mellops – a dauntless family of pigs and their pet sausage dog. The first, The Mellops Go Flying, was published in 1957. Soon he was working as a designer for magazines and advertising, and became a restaurant critic for Playboy magazine.

Also in New York at that time was another future publishing phenomenon, Eric Carle, author of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Carle well remembers seeing Ungerer driving around Manhattan in a large cream Bentley.

However, Ungerer, whose wartime experiences had left him with a hatred of injustice and intolerance, was not content to rest on his laurels. A committed political activist, he fought for many causes.

The violent imagery of his anti-Vietnam war posters, commissioned, then rejected, by Columbia University, caused considerable controversy, as did his explicit work in the world of adult erotica, exhibited without problem in Paris but to much protest in London. He was forced to self-publish his book of erotic work, Fornicon (1969), but the surrounding scandal unnerved his publishers and led to his hugely popular children’s books being banned from libraries.

A few new and reissued children’s titles, as well as a memoir, Tomi: A Childhood Under the Nazis (1998), were published in the intervening years but most were sadly allowed to go out of print until 2008, when Phaidon reissued a number of his classic books, including the wonderful Moon Man (first published in 1966) – a thought-provoking, witty fable in which the man in the moon decides to visit Earth, hoping to join in the fun. On arrival he is rejected as an alien, and cruelly thrown into jail. One day he realises that he is in his third quarter, and is soon slim enough to slip between the bars, and return to his home in the sky.

Tomi Ungerer’s semi-autobiographical book No Kiss For Mother (1973) is about a schoolboy kitten who strives to avoid his mother’s embrace.
Tomi Ungerer’s semi-autobiographical book No Kiss For Mother (1973) is about a schoolboy kitten who strives to avoid his mother’s embrace. Photograph: Phaidon Press

The rejection of his adult work prompted Ungerer and his third wife, Yvonne (nee Wright), to leave New York in 1971 to become farmers in a remote, rugged part of Nova Scotia, Canada. This led to a new surge of creativity for Ungerer, who filled journals with enchanting free brush drawings and watercolours of the landscape, birds and animals, published as Far Out Isn’t Far Enough in 1983 and made into a film in 2012. His writing in the book is both down to earth and poetic, as in this delicate description of sandpipers that accompanies a breezy little drawing: “Like busy little sewing machines on their needle-thin legs, they stitch the sandy shore onto the water’s edge.”

In 1976 the Ungerers moved to another dramatic and remote spot, this time in West Cork, on the south-west tip of Ireland, and raised a family there. The magical coastline and the sea with its mythical undertow inspired Ungerer’s book Fog Island (2012), about two children who set off on a mysterious boat journey which is not just a thrilling adventure but also a heartfelt exploration of Ungerer’s love for his adopted country.

For the rest of his life Ungerer divided his time between Ireland and Strasbourg. In 2007 a museum dedicated to his work opened in his home town, to which he had given a large part of his output in 1975.

He received many awards over his lifetime, including the Hans Christian Andersen award for illustration in 1998 and the Erich Kästner prize for literature in 2003. In 1992 he was awarded the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. The Council of Europe in Strasbourg named him an ambassador for children and education in 2000, and in 2002 he was made an Officier de la Légion d’Honneur.

He is survived by Yvonne, their three children, Aria, Lukas and Pascal, a daughter, Phoebe, from an earlier marriage, to Miriam (nee Lancaster), which ended in divorce, two grandchildren and a sister, Vivette.

• Tomi (Jean-Thomas) Ungerer, author and artist, born 28 November 1931; died 8 February 2019


Joanna Carey

The GuardianTramp

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