Tomi Ungerer: Octopus in the Bathtub, Blunderbuss in the Nursery

Most Americans like to imagine the authors of children’s books as cheery Mister Rogers types, endowed with primary-colored minds occupied only by the continuing adventures of their particular brand of talking rodent, wayward snowman, or scruffy but lovable youngster. And so, in the 1950s and ’60s, the country struggled with Tomi Ungerer, who mixed creating children’s books about such characters as an heroic octopus (Emile, pictured at right, in the bath) and a family of daring French pigs with work designed for an adult audience, including anti-Vietnam posters and erotica. In yesterday’s New York Times, Randy Kennedy welcomed back “the most famous children’s book author you have never heard of” as Phaidon prepares to republish his children’s books in English.

Sure, Ungerer, now 76, once “made a habit of playing poker with the Cuban envoy to the United Nations” and published a book of “interviews with dominatrixes at a bordello in Hamburg; the title, roughly translated, is Guardian Angels of Hell,” but he also wrote some extraordinary children’s books. Having acquired the English-language rights to Ungerer’s work from a Swiss publisher, Phaidon will this fall release the 1962 tale of The Three Robbers, “a darkly drawn tale of big-hatted brigands and the orphan girl who shows them the error of their ways.” Among the book’s virtues is its refusal to talk down to young readers. “I think children have to be respected,” said Ungerer. “They understand the world, in their way. They understand adult language. There should not be a limit of vocabulary. In The Three Robbers I don’t use the word ‘gun.’ I say ‘blunderbuss.’ My goodness, isn’t it more poetic?”