Today on the site, we have an obituary for Tomi Ungerer, written by Gary Groth, who interviewed the late artist at length for the most recent print issue of TCJ.
Ungerer famously arrived in New York in 1956 with sixty dollars in his pocket and two trunks of drawings and manuscripts that he intended to show to publishers. What finally spurred him to move to New York, he has said, was jazz: “I was a big jazz fan, I thought I would be able to see some jazz.” He was disappointed in the jazz scene he found there, but he nonetheless took to Manhattan, and for the next fifteen years wrote and illustrated children’s books and drew countless images for posters, magazines, advertising, and satirical books. According to Ungerer, he showed his portfolio to the pioneering editor Ursula Nordstrom, who told him to come up with a children’s story. He did, and the result was The Mellops Go Flying, quickly followed by The Mellops Go Diving for Treasure, both published in 1957, both enormously successful. Between 1957 and 1973, he wrote and drew twenty-two children’s books, as well as illustrated numerous children’s books he didn’t write. Ungerer shared his contemporary Maurice Sendak’s belief that stories for children should not be sugarcoated, that, in fact, children should have to wrestle with the reality that awaits them, which will include fear and loneliness and pain. “Why am I the pedagogues’ nightmare?” he once asked. “They think I traumatize children. They think children should be loved and protected. But if you do only that, they’re not ready for life.”
—Maria Russo has an appreciation for Gary's last big interview subject, Maurice Sendak, in the New York Times.
The third book in the trilogy, “Outside Over There,” published in 1981, covers its darkness of theme with ravishingly beautiful, painterly art. In this book, Sendak is inviting us to grapple with adolescence and its definitive break with the securities of childhood. Hence the more grown-up aesthetic: The archaic cadences of the words and the ornate, cascading illustrations evoke German Romanticism, and also the music of Mozart, which Sendak adored. So long, streetwise 1970s urban vernacular. We’re in the Reagan era now, where leftward-leaning free spirits must find solace in their living rooms, immersed in a PBS-style classicism. Yet the book is not offering some idealized vision of safe, genteel life — far from it. The protagonist, Ida, has a green-eyed prettiness, her hair soft, straight, long and honey-colored, her dress ruffled and draped just so, but her bare feet are enormous and wide, like someone who digs up potatoes in a shtetl.