Far Out isn’t Far Enough: remembering Tomi Ungerer (1931 – 2019)

Books always were my best friends; ever since I was a child they shared with me their facts and knowledge, their flights of imagination, with fun, dread and suspense.

There is always a bond between the author and reader, every book is a bridge, having something different to offer […] Books are lasting, they do not lose their leaves in autumn as trees do.

 Tomi Ungerer,  A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader 2018, 216

 

The Tomi Ungerer I first knew was not Commandeur de la Legion d’Honneur, the prolific illustrator and trilingual writer of 140 books. Rather, he was Tomi Ungerer, the precocious child artist who, in the summer of 1940, aged 8, witnessed the Nazis invade his hometown in Alsace. A few months later, he recorded this sight on paper:

L’arrivée des Allemands en juin 1940, © Tomi Ungerer, Musée Tomi Ungerer collection

Many years after that date, this pencil drawing would illustrate his memoir of his childhood under the Nazis, first published in French as À la guerre comme à la guerre (1991, in German as Die Gedanken sind frei, 1993 and in English as Tomi: A Childhood Under the Nazis, 1998). By the time of this drawing, Ungerer could only sign his drawings TU within the safety of his home; in Nazi-occupied Alsace he had to change his name from Tomi (Jean-Thomas) to Hans (Johann). Street names, as well as resident’s first names changed from French to German; French books and berets were banned and one word of French, one bonjour, one merci would land you in an internment camp. Ungerer’s sister, Genevieve, who worked at the government prefecture during the war, would take home formulas and certificates of military allocations, and he would draw on the back of these. Ungerer drew, among other subjects, images of the Nazis; had they been discovered…

© Tomi Ungerer, Musée Tomi Ungerer collection

Thankfully, they were not. Tomi Ungerer’s mother conserved 500 of the drawings he made in his childhood (both before and during the war), and they formed part of the collection for the Musée Tomi Ungerer – Centre Internationale de L’Illustration in Strasbourg, which holds 11,000 graphic works by Tomi Ungerer and collections by artists such as André François, Maurice Henry and William Steig.

I have been fortunate to work on the collection of child art as part of a doctoral project exploring the significance of juvenilia in the formation of artists whose backgrounds include exile and war.

One of my museum visits coincided with the press conference for the museum’s 10th anniversary, and the museum curator, Thérèse Willer, kindly invited me and introduced me to Tomi Ungerer. I was very moved. There were many important people present, my spoken French was – and still is – abominable, but Tomi Ungerer took leave of them from time to time that morning to hear about my project and talk to me about his life, his influences. ‘Books are everything,’ he told me. Books? I was surprised. Was it not drawing that should have been everything to this remarkable artist? No, books, he said, books that he had read as a child had marked him for life.

Back in the museum library, Thérèse Willer showed me the Benjamin Rabier albums that Tomi Ungerer’s brother and sisters had handed down to him and contained his first scribbles, Jean de Brunhoff’s L’ABC de Babar, one of the few books that had been Tomi Ungerer’s very own as a child and that would in part inspire his Mellops family, the family of pigs in his first published children’s books.* She also spoke with me about the young Ungerer’s reading of Le Journal de Mickey and the books by the Alsatian artist Hansi (Jeans-Jacques Waltz). Mickey Mouse appears in drawings Tomi Ungerer made before and during the war: when Tomi Ungerer’s world was turned upside down, Mickey Mouse was a figure remnant from his pre-war world that provided him a reference point as he sought, on paper, to navigate the place his home had become.

A pre-war Mickey, © Tomi Ungerer, Musée Tomi Ungerer collection

Many of the soldiers he drew at this time (when not at school!) are not those of the Second but First World War; Tomi Ungerer’s dislike for the Nazis was in great part informed by the anti-German propaganda Hansi wrote and illustrated in his children’s books around the time of the so-called Great War.

the books read in childhood lay the foundations of a writer’s literary aesthetic; they provide the models, the anti-models, and the springboards for subsequent generations

Kimberley Reynolds, Radical Children’s Literature: Future Visions and Aesthetic Transformations in Juvenile Fiction 2007, 9.

In many ways, Hansi’s books became the anti-models for Tomi Ungerer’s work as an adult that fought against social injustice and prejudice and for pacifism. Firmly believing that children should not be shielded from the reality of war, his picturebook, Otto: the Autobiography of a Teddy Bear, which fictionalises some of his own childhood experiences, does not shy from the violence and persecution of the Second World War; schools in France often use the book to teach children about war and the Holocaust. Perhaps stemming from the role creativity played in his own childhood, he also strongly advocated for children to use their imaginations and stretch their minds (Ungerer always liked to include words in books child readers would not necessarily know).

 

On Saturday afternoon I saw that the Tomi Ungerer Museum had changed the profile picture on their Facebook page: a black circle; their cover photo a black banner. What exhibition is this for, I wondered, what is Tomi commenting on with this blackness in his latest artwork. Then I realised. These changes were not for an exhibition. There was no new artwork. Tomi was dead. Yet, as I learned the following day, yesterday, black was not only appropriate for marking our loss of Tomi, but also to represent one of his philosophies. In a video clip the Ungerer family posted, Tomi explains:

When I say far out is not far enough, it means that no matter how far you’re thinking […] no matter how far it is, it’s still not far enough. Because one challenge [to be] worthy at all has to be followed by a greater challenge. It’s the unknown, that’s what’s really fantastic about death and death is to be welcomed, and when I die I’ll find out what’s behind the far out. Maybe there’s nothing. But nothing is fantastic too, because if you’re faced with nothing, you can fill it up with your mind.

Tomi, whatever may or may not be behind the far out, may your incredible imagination serve you well.

My thoughts at this time are above all with Tomi Ungerer’s family and museum staff. For blog readers unfamiliar with Tomi Ungerer’s works, I encourage you to look at further examples of his child art on the museum website and details of his books for children and adults can be found on the Tomi Ungerer website.

Lucy Stone, doctoral candidate

*See Thérèse Willer’s Tomi Ungerer: Graphic Art (Éditions du Rocher, 2011).

 

On the other wind: remembering Ursula Le Guin (1929-2018)

Dr Lucy Pearson

I was about nine when my Nana dropped off a pile of books, bought at some jumble sale or other because I was known for my peculiar love of reading. It was a strange assortment of children’s books including the sentimental nineteenth century novel The Wide Wide World (I never managed to read it, but prized it for its gilt edges) and several Biggles titles (also impenetrable despite my taste for adventure stories). But amidst these, a treasure: the UK first edition of Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea (1968). It was a book which would furnish my childhood imagination and immeasurably enrich my life. As the many tributes prompted by the news of Le Guin’s death demonstrate, I was one of many.

 

The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards.

–  A Wizard of Earthsea

Among Le Guin’s many wonderful qualities is her worldbuilding, which for me is unsurpassed in the realm of fantasy literature. Not only the landscape, but the politics, economics, and customs of her imaginary worlds are depicted in detail and depth. A Wizard of Earthsea begins with a conventional trope – an insignificant boy discovering he is a powerful wizard – but in Le Guin’s books magic is never an easy solution but, like all power, must be used mindfully. This magic is built on words: in Earthsea, learning the true name of an object or person gives you power over that or them. This was an idea that resonated deeply with me as a bookish child, and which has continued to grow and take on new dimensions as I have come to understand the power of language and naming in the real world. Looking back, I realise that the importance of songs, stories and legends in her books also helped to set me on the path to studying Anglo Saxon and Medieval literature.

Words matter, and what made Ursula Le Guin so great was her willingness to embrace this as truth, even when it meant scrutinising her own work. Setting out to write against the tradition of white dominance in fantasy, she showed that people of colour could be fantasy heroes (though her hero Ged was invariably whitewashed on covers), but later ruefully acknowledged that she was still unwittingly ‘writing partly by the rules as an artificial man’.[1] This realisation prompted her to return to Earthsea and to revise it in ways which undid some of the fundamentals of her world. Tehanu (1990) does not simply overturn the idea established in the first book that women cannot be wizards: it fundamentally questions the basis of this gendered power and suggests that it must be remade altogether.

As a scholar of children’s literature, I continue to find meaning in children’s books of all sorts. But Le Guin, more than any other writer, has grown alongside me. At nine, A Wizard of Earthsea offered me a compelling vision of growing into adult power – and of its drawbacks. I was nearing my teens before I encountered The Tombs of Atuan (1971), which gave me a female protagonist undergoing her own growth. The dedicated high priestess of a female sect, Tenar holds power, of a sort, but it is the power allotted to women by a society which has turned its allegiance to men (we are told that most worship the twin God Kings) and it requires them to sacrifice love, and companionship, and growth. The book presages the revolution that Le Guin would return to in Tehanu: Tenar’s route to freedom lies in overturning the structures of power she has known, even at the cost of relinquishing her own position of power. The more radical revolution which takes place in Tehanu, which sees the wizard Ged without his powers and magic as we have known it leaking out of the world, confused and disappointed me on my first reading in my early teens. But as an adult I’ve grown to admire the radical changes Le Guin makes here, and to love the different kinds of magic she reveals through this book. Women’s work is magic here, and no less powerful because it is often positioned outside the realm of language.

Ursula Le Guin was an activist to the last, speaking out against ‘alternative facts’ as recently as this February. Recognising that ‘the politics of Fairyland are ours’, she also showed how alternative worlds could help us revision the politics of our own.[2]

Thank you, Ursula Le Guin, for the mind treasures you gave us. I hope you’re flying on the other wind.

 

[1] Ursula K. Le Guin, Earthsea Revisioned (Cambridge: Green Bay Publications, 1993), p. 7.

[2] Ursula K. Le Guin, Earthsea Revisioned, p. 25.

 

Featured image shows Ursula Le Guin by Marian Wood Kolisch, Oregon State University