Among the greatest interpreters of inchoate terror is Tomi Ungerer, the 85-year-old Alsatian illustrator, author, and artist whose work has just been collected and released in fine coffee table form by Phaidon. (Disclosure: Last year Phaidon also published my own children’s book, Can I Eat That?) Though idolized by Sendak and Silverstein, whom he helped get published, Ungerer is likely unknown to most of us. That’s been changing in the last eight years, since Phaidon acquired the English-language rights to his books in 2008, a documentary came out called Far Out Isn’t Far Enough in 2011, and last year New York Drawing Center mounted a well-received exhibition of his work. Nevertheless, no amount of renaissance or belated renown seems like appropriate recompense for a man like Ungerer.
The stories that led to Ungerer’s exile have been so well recounted that they resemble a fairy tale. I first heard about them while shopping at my local children’s bookstore, Bank Street Books. Espying Ungerer’s Adelaide—about the Parisian adventures of a winged kangaroo—under my arm, the perpetually disheveled owner raised his eyebrow conspiratorially. “Do you know about Tomi?” he asked. I answered I didn’t. Thus was related the tale of how Ungerer had fallen from the all-important esteem of librarians at the very height of his productivity in 1970 after publishing a book of erotic drawings called Fornicon. Apparently when confronted by the outraged horde of censorious arbiters of children’s literature at an American Library Association conference, Ungerer answered, “If people didn’t fuck, you wouldn’t have any children, and without children you would be out of work!” That didn’t go over well and shortly afterwards Ungerer fled to Europe and there he stayed for much of the last half-century. (Later I obtained a rare copy of Fornicon. It is pretty outré but also brilliant.)