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Tomi Ungerer's Reluctant Heroes
Atlantic Monthly 233 (Jan. 1974): p87-90. Rpt. in
Children's Literature Review. Ed. Scot Peacock. Vol. 77. Detroit, MI: Gale, 2002. From Literature Resource Center.
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group, COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning
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If you would truly teach young children through the books they listen to or read themselves, give them a hero who is an unregenerately bad example, a rotter through and through. Then the young audience will instinctively sympathize with him and, eventually, swallow any lesson--however conventional or goody-goody--that issues from his mouth or is implicit in his fate. The sad thing about being small is that one is constantly failing to measure up to some adult's incomprehensible mark. Teeth are improperly brushed; clothing is mistreated; family heirlooms are irreverently handled and thereby mysteriously damaged. Because one of the last senses to develop is that of proportion, most children, by the ripe old age of three or four, are thoroughly convinced that they are bad news.

What a relief, then, to stumble upon a character undeniably worse than oneself! Piper Paw, the kitten hero of author-artist Tomi Ungerer's latest picture book, No Kiss for Mother, is--claws sheathed--the orneriest, most self-centered and willful hero to hit kids' picture books since the mid-nineteenth-century heyday of Struwwelpeter. Not only does Piper sass his mother, trample on his beautifully-ironed clothes, and spend the better part of each school day wreaking havoc with a hand-crafted peashooter and an arsenal of stink bombs, but the merest hint of a maternal buss is enough to kill his appetite for herring scraps or fried finch gizzards. With the domestic world handed him on a silver fish platter by doting parents, he has the chutzpa to be in a perpetual rage. Part of Ungerer's charm in this forty-page tantrum is his instinctive grasp of the anger of impotence that grips all small children during large chunks of their early lives. It is a rage directed at the limitations of childhood itself.

In Piper's case, there are also several legitimate gripes. He is, first of all, locked in mortal combat with a mother, Velvet Paw, who persists--despite all evidence to the contrary--in labeling him "little sugar tiger," "honey pie," and "my sweet little nestling." (Some nestling! There have probably been cuddlier vipers.) No sooner does this aggressively affectionate feline bend down to "wedge" the tale's first kiss in her sleeping son's ear, than he is off and running from her relentlessly ready lips. Aside from his dreams, about the only place he can find temporary sanctuary is behind the latched bathroom door. Here "Mother Snoop" doesn't know that he rubs his toothbrush along the edge of the sink instead of his teeth, and that he even relaxes a bit (while on the pot) by leafing through the soggy comic books he has squirreled away behind the tub.

Among Ungerer's endearing qualities are a total candor and lack of condescension. The adults in his tales treat children with loving kindness and respect no oftener than they do in life. Miss Clot, the nurse at Piper's school, for example, "prefers iodine to Mercurochrome" and sews the kitten's torn ear with "the biggest needle she can find." On the other hand, Ungerer is no romantic concerning the sweet innocence of the young. "My God, children are little bastards who chew and eat you up as they grow," he said recently. "They start with the knee-caps, maybe, and slowly they devour you." Unlike Maurice Sendak, who tenderly probes the innermost fantasies of childhood, or Edward Gorey, who limns, with Arctic detachment, the horrors of being small and at the mercy of the world's unreason, Ungerer sees himself chiefly as a chronicler of the absurd. "Our world, our children, our aspirations are all absurd," he says flatly. Yet, beyond its absurdly exaggerated catalogue of childhood misconduct, No Kiss for Mother strikes, with therapeutic clout, at the very heart of family relationships.

The world Ungerer creates for children is one furnished for his own aesthetic and intellectual comfort. It is, in fact, here furnished out of his own childhood experience. Velvet Paw, the sugar-coated villain of the work, bears an unmistakable resemblance to the typical martyred 1930s mother--not entirely surprising from an author who was himself a thirties' child and remembers that, from the age of six, he could not abide any open display of maternal affection. Ungerer's twelve-year-old daughter and only child, Phoebe, confirms from a recent European visit that grandmaman Ungerer remains, to this day, a veritable "kissing fiend." The author insists, however, that the model for Piper's intransigence is not so much himself as an impossibly stubborn Burmese cat (named Piper) he owns.

Perhaps because English is not Ungerer's native language, he prides himself on what he calls his "weird mastery" of it. "I really work at my prose style," he confesses. Oddball words like "tilbury" and "blunderbuss" delight him as collector's items to be woven into his tales. (The two mentioned appeared in The Hat and The Three Robbers respectively.) Ungerer feels strongly that children enjoy unfamiliar words and euphonious, mystifying phrases. He looks upon No Kiss as the first of his books in which "the specificity lies more in the words than the pictures. It is a kind of Portnoy's Complaint of children's books."

Graphically even more than verbally, Ungerer's picture books seem always to breathe beyond the strict requirements of plot. Though the black and white pencil drawings for No Kiss are as simple and direct as a comic strip's--considerably less burdened with private symbols than many a recent Ungerer work--they are nonetheless full of the sort of particulars that invests storybook events with their own internal life. The undershorts Piper wears, for example, bear a recognizable Purina Cat Chow design. And in the book's climactic scene, where Velvet Paw finally hauls off and socks her wayward sprout, Ungerer has placed in the background a middle-aged, pipe-smoking cat passerby whose obvious pleasure in witnessing this domestic debacle invests it with near palpable credibility.

On occasion, an Ungerer detail will disturb the adult. There was, for example, the by now notorious hobo in The Beast of Monsieur Racine who carried in his pack a mysterious extra foot, dripping blood. To the artist, however, the explanation is innocuously clear. "A hobo does a lot of walking. He needs a spare foot for when one of his own gets tired and bruised."

Ungerer has long been something of an enfant terrible among children's book authors, one curiously immune to the usual desire either to improve or instruct the young. Because his best work has been almost equally divided among political or advertising posters, cartoons of both mildly and grossly pornographic content, and children's books, the question inevitably arises: What does so sophisticated and jaded a sensibility have to say to small children? Ungerer, who enjoys shocking his friends and critics alike, shrugs, noting: "If people weren't interested in fucking, they wouldn't have children and we wouldn't need children's books." Putting it less baldly, the artist accuses his American critics of never having fully appreciated the seriousness--or unity--of his work. In Vienna last winter, by contrast, the Museum of Modern Art accorded him a major retrospective--"including my erotic art, my posters, and my children's books," he says with pride. Certainly, whether he illustrates for adults or children, a limited repertoire of psychic preoccupations has always determined his graphic vocabulary. Dripping spiggots, noses, and watering cans; sharpened axes, knives, and assorted pointed instruments have almost become Ungerer trademarks: what he calls "my favorite cooking pots." The same meat grinder in which mice and rats are "processed" in No Kiss made an earlier appearance as a visual metaphor in a work for grown-ups, The Underground Sketchbook (1964). There, the drawing of a man and woman embracing reveals only the couple's upper torsos. They are standing in a meat grinder which conceals the remainder of their bodies. And if Ungerer's work for children at times contains overly sophisticated embellishments--the bathroom in which Piper sits has a douche bag hanging above the tub--there are also times when his pornographic drawings partake of a refreshingly childlike innocence. In The Underground Sketchbook, too, can be found a clear spiritual antecedent for poor Piper Paw's dilemma in No Kiss: a larger-than-life mother marching briskly with a recalcitrant child in tow; the hand by which she grasps him is a sizable red lobster claw.

An Alsatian, Jean Thomas Ungerer was born in Strasbourg, France, in 1931. His father, head of a family factory that made church clocks and chimes, died when the artist was three. Ungerer grew up in a household that included his mother, two much older sisters, and a brother. "My sisters taught me to draw, my brother taught me to think, and my mother taught me to use my imagination," he says in retrospect. Other early influences included the German painters Matthias Grünewald, Albrecht Dürer, and Martin Schongauer, as well as two turn-of-the-century Alsatian illustrators, Hansi and Schnugg. His children's books, decidedly European in ambience from the outset, have frequently exhibited a kind of schizophrenia, seesawing between lighthearted Gallic charm and lugubrious Teutonic humor. (From the time Ungerer was eight until he was fourteen, Alsace was Nazi-occupied, and the artist received a largely German education.) There is little question that the Germanic side has been gaining the upper hand lately.

Like many other young Europeans at the close of World War II, Ungerer developed an exaggerated admiration for all things American and came to the United States in 1956. His first children's book, The Mellops Go Flying--about a gentle, ingenious, and decidedly French family of pigs--was done for Ursula Nordstrom at Harper & Row the following year. Other early books--Crictor (1958), about a snake sent from Africa as a herpetologist's birthday gift to his aged mother, and Adelaide (1959), concerning a young flying kangaroo who leaves home to seek her fortune--are equally Gallic and sanguine in outlook. But by 1967, a darker strain crept into his juvenile work. The United States was deeply involved in Vietnam, and Ungerer began turning out coruscating antiwar posters that eventually found a worldwide adult audience. One of his two children's picture books of that year, Zeralda's Ogre, was about a lonely monster with a big nose, sharp teeth, bristling beard, and bad temper, who liked best "of all things ... little children for breakfast." Parents were forced to hide their progeny in the cellar when this brute was on one of his rampages, much as the Ungerer family, in real life, had hidden in their cellar during the closing months of World War II when the Allied Front reached Colmar, where they were then living. Of this period Ungerer has said: "There was plenty to see and remember, and my taste for the macabre certainly finds its roots there." The artist is, in fact, presently working on a book about war for older children, based on his own experiences as a teen-ager.

The misanthropic Moon Man, which took first prize in Book World's Children's Spring Book Festival, also appeared in 1967. The man in the moon, to satisfy his curiosity (a motivating force for many an Ungerer hero--including Piper Paw), travels to earth, where he soon realizes that "he could never live peacefully." He takes a rocket ship back home "and remained ever after curled up in his shimmering seat in space." This work could be read as prophetic of Ungerer's future. Troubled by what he felt was the increasingly totalitarian bent of this country, the artist abandoned the United States in 1971, moving with his present wife, Yvonne, to a farm on a remote peninsula in Nova Scotia. Gradually he has given up advertising and poster work and now devotes himself primarily to producing large black and white lithographs on erotic themes (which he exhibits only in Europe) and two or three children's books a year.

Ungerer considers that his first serious juvenile work was The Beast of Monsieur Racine (1971). It is the story of a retired tax collector, contentedly cultivating prize pears in his own backyard (Ungerer raises sheep, geese, goats, and rabbits in Canada) until the day he discovers that his precious fruit is being pilfered by a unique and amorphous beast. Eventually, he learns that the strange predator is animated by a boy and girl secreted deep inside its skin of old blankets, a denouement that leaves many a young reader mildly disappointed. Philosophically, however, Monsieur Racine is a turning point in the artist's career. Its clear message--possibly as much for Ungerer as his audience--is that no one escapes the child lurking beneath the surface, so it behooves us to be on friendly terms with that hidden, motivating force. Significantly, Monsieur Racine was the first of his children's books Ungerer felt was good enough to dedicate to Maurice Sendak.

Another 1971 work, I Am Papa Snap and These Are My Favorite No Such Stories, reflected his exuberance at having broken ties with New York, at bidding good-bye to "cocktail parties, awards, creepland, publicity, etc." Toward the end of this giddy collection of one- and two-page nonsense tales, the artist portrays a character who may well represent his current ideal: "Every day, rain, shine, or overcast, he walks down to the shore. He sits on a rock to read or dream. He has no friends, no enemies. He lives in peace. No one knows anything about him. Not even his name."

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Lanes, Selma G. "Tomi Ungerer's Reluctant Heroes." Children's Literature Review, edited by Scot Peacock, vol. 77, Gale, 2002. Literature Resource Center, http%3A%2F%2Flink.galegroup.com%2Fapps%2Fdoc%2FH1420042680%2FLitRC%3Fu%3Ducberkeley%26sid%3DLitRC%26xid%3Dde99dc74. Accessed 13 Nov. 2018. Originally published in Atlantic Monthly, vol. 233, Jan. 1974, pp. 87-90.

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420042680