Tomi Ungerer, the last of outlaw children’s book authors, died a few days ago at his home in France. He was 87 years old. If you read his books to your children every night, as I did, this is bittersweet news. It’s sad because he’s gone; sweet because his stories aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Of Ungerer’s many, many works, my favorite is perhaps Moon Man, his 1966 story of a pallid lunar visitor who, after a brief disastrous sojourn on Earth realizes that he’ll never be at peace. And so to the moon he returns. The book is by turns melancholic, joyous, surprising, witty, exciting and fun. Though the colors are bold, like the best of everything, the story rests in twilight. Or, more appropriately for a children’s book, in dusk.
Tomi Ungerer was also the artist who inspired me to write children’s books. I suspect I am not alone in holding him as a lodestar. Though as a boy I had read, of course, Maurice Sendak and William Steig, two authors who similarly, injected their children’s work with Big Feeling, it was discovering a 2009 re-issue of Moon Man that made me realize children’s literature could be just that: literature, and that those were the stories I wanted my sons to read and that I wanted to be someone who wrote them.
In story after story, from Moon Man to lesser works like The Hat, Emile, Adelaide, Crictor, Flix, and Otto, Ungerer created universes where belonging was provisional, where hearts were broken, where fear formed a veil nevertheless through which love and kindness poked through. Goodbyes were inevitable, plentiful, and tearful.
The more I discovered about Ungerer’s own life story, the deeper in love I fell. I empathized with his childhood, in Strasbourg, France, where he was caught between French and German identity, rolled back and forth like a mass of dough. No wonder so many of his characters suffer from a sense of unbelonging!
Then, when I found out he dabbled in pornographic art too with a book called Fornicon, and, for a time, was the restaurant critic for Playboy, my heart was completely won over. I wondered why he was so conspicuously absent from my own juvenile library and when I found out the reason I swooned.
It turns out in 1973 after his pornographic side hustle was “found out” he was confronted by a pride of angry librarians at a librarian conference. One of the angry book lorbs asked him how he could possibly draw such disgusting images — Fornicon is filled with happy fuckers fucking themselves with a range of mechanical dildos — Ungerer responded, “If people didn’t fuck, you wouldn’t have any children, and without children you would be out of work!” After that, he was for all intents and purposes, exiled. He lived the rest of his life in France and Western Ireland.
Soon after hearing this, I tracked down a copy of Fornicon, paying a fortune for it.
A few years ago there was a show dedicated to Ungerer’s work in New York. I came with my copy of Fornicon tucked in my pocket. Tomi was there, in a wheelchair but still very tall. Original art from Moon Man hung on the walls and the gallery was filled with old friends and new admirers. I wanted somehow to connect with this idle of mine. I thought, perhaps, producing his out-of-print book would do the trick.
As I approached him, however, I was pre-empted by a lady who, like Tomi, was in her seventies or eighties. She immediately launched into an anecdote about how, once when they were young, they had had an affair. From Tomi’s pleasant nodding, I gathered she wasn’t his only conquest. She laughingly recalled how either he put her in the closet when his partner came home or she him in hers after her partner interrupted them. Neither could remember but, I guess, it all turned out okay. It was a good story and a tough act to follow. So I sort of just stood off to the side, basking in his debauched past remembered.
Now that Tomi has shuffled off this mortal coil, I’m happy to report that not only do I carry Moon Man — and Adelaide, the flying kangaroo, and the three warm-hearted robbers and Emile, the virtuosic octopus — with me everywhere I go but so do my sons. We read Tomi’s books last night. We’ll read them again tonight and tomorrow night too.