Blog: “The Child in Me”, How Tomi’s Childhood Informed His Books

“What drove me into children’s book literature? I would say to conceive tales that I myself would have liked as a child. The child in me, call it arrested development, has been present, lingering throughout my career”. –Tomi

Although Tomi Ungerer’s career has encompassed a diversity of media and projects including poster art, sculpture, architectural design and more, he is best known by many for his children’s books. And while he looks back fondly on it in many ways, Tomi’s own childhood was haunted by the spectre of war and violence. He grew up in Strasbourg, Alsace, and when he was eight years old the city was taken over by the Nazis. Tomi and his family spent the war under occupation, and although they were spared the worst effects of war, the saturation of Nazi propaganda and the reports of what was happening further afield left an indelible mark on his consciousness.

Tomi was interested in art from a young age and used it to record what was going on around him, writing and drawing was always a way for him to process the world. He compiled many of these drawings and observations into a memoir, Tomi: A Childhood Under the Nazis, his fascinating account of wartime experiences through the eyes of a child. Tomi was spared service in the Hitler Youth because of a head injury, which his clever mother cited as making him unfit for service; rushing him into bed with a wet cloth on his head whenever an officer came round to call. Being excused from sports gave a young Tomi (or Hans, as he was renamed in school to sound more Germanic), more time to draw and experiment, which had a massive influence on his future as an artist

Tomi Ungerer childhood drawing

©Tomi Ungerer, Musée Tomi Ungerer collection. You can see more of Tomi’s childhood drawings here.

Tomi’s childhood drawings already show his burgeoning skill as an artist and illustrator, which he would later use to create some of his most popular books, including Flix, Otto, Moon Man and No Kiss For Mother. The world of Tomi’s children’s books is at once fantastical and familiar, and the influence that his early life has had on his work ranges from the personal to the political. From the mischievous little cat in No Kiss for Mother to Flix, the pug with dual identity, many of Tomi’s characters represent parts of himself.

No Kiss for Mother

In No Kiss for Mother we meet a little kitten, Piper Paw, whose mother Ms. Velvet Paw simply adores him. But fans of Tomi’s will know that his books for children are a far cry from sugar-coated candy land of conventional children’s books, as he put it “peopled with cushy teddy bears in an illusory world where everyone is nice, happy and stupid.” Piper Paw is far from cuddly! The little kitten simply detests being kissed by his mother, Ms. Velvet Paw, and will do anything to avoid her overbearing displays of affection. Here’s where Tomi’s inner child comes in, relishing the opportunity to express in books what he couldn’t in life. As Tomi writes in A Childhood Under the Nazis, he and Piper Paw share a similar distaste for PDA:

“My mother’s uncontrolled displays of affection were for me terribly annoying, especially in public, and the effusion of kisses- particularly the wet ones- revolted me. All of this, and a repertoire of endearing expressions; my sunshine, my little tiger, darling sparrow, little goldbug, Meschtgräzerle (little rooster scratching the dung pile), and worst of all, Schisserle (baby with his pants full of shit!). Even now, when I hear these words, I feel like crawling and hiding under the nearest table…”- from Tomi: A Childhood Under the Nazis

Piper Paw hates kisses, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t love his mother. After a falling out, he sacrifices all of his fireworks and contraband to sell off to his classmates and buys his mother a bouquet of yellow roses. She is delighted to accept his alternative affections.

It’s not just Tomi’s childhood hatred of mollycoddling that we can get a sense of in No Kiss for Mother. Even though the text makes no reference to a childhood under occupation, there are details hidden in the illustrations that contextualise the story. Notice the uniformed guard who observes the disturbance between Piper Paw and his mother, and the question mark on his armband where a swastika would be.

No Kiss for Mother by Tomi Ungerer

©Tomi Ungerer/Diogenes Verlag Zürich

Uniformed guards were a constant fixture in Tomi’s early life. As children we learn to draw before we learn to write, and the act of drawing can tap into something that writing never could; the way we read images is more unconscious and intuitive than the way we read text. This means we can gather as much about the lingering influence of Tomi’s childhood from this one image in No Kiss for Mother , as we do from the whole text.

Waxing, waning and wit

Tomi’s own mother was a brilliant woman and it’s because of her cleverness that her family were able to live a fairly normal life in spite of the Nazi regime. As well as exaggerating Tomi’s head injury to get him out of the Hitler Youth, she was also able to excuse the rest of the family from their corresponding leagues. She even used her wits to get around the ban on speaking French at home:

“We were overheard [speaking French] in the garden and denounced to the proper authorities. We Ungerers were not arrested on the spot, but Frau Alice Ungerer was summoned to explain herself…

Mama made herself beautiful, and knowing how the Nazis worshipped motherhood, took me along with her. I was extremely worried, but Mama reassured me by saying something like, ‘Don’t be scared, you will see how stupid they are!’

So there we were, in a large office adorned with a swastika and a bust of the Fuhrer. My mother raised her arm- so did I. ‘Heil Hitler.’ The officer in charge looked somewhat surprised at our spontaneous salute. Pointing to a file on his desk, he said ‘This seems to be a perfectly incriminating deposition. It shows that you, Frau Ungerer, who should be an example, insist on speaking French’. In a dramatic voice, with crocodile tears in her eyes, my mother replied, ‘My son, future citizen of the Third Reich, is to be my witness; yes, be witness to the fact that we speak French. This is a matter of education,’ And, winking at me with a sly smile while the officer glanced at his papers, she added, ‘Yes, we speak French, and you will not stop us from doing so. And I will tell you why. After the war, after our finally victory, how shall we establish the new order in Europe, in France, if no German speaks French?’ Electrified, the officer stood, came forward and clicked his heels, took a bow and kissed my mother’s hand. ‘I meet, at last, a true daughter of the Fuhrer.”- from Tomi: A Childhood Under the Nazis

This scene reminded me of the scene in Moon Man when the Moon Man escapes from prison. After coming down to earth to join in the earthly fun he’s been observing from his “shimmering seat in space”, the gentle Moon Man is treated as an invader and thrown in jail. We think it’s all over for him, but one night as he sits in prison wondering why he is being so cruelly treated, he notices that his left side is fading! “’Why, I must be in my third quarter,’ he thought happily.”

Moon Man by Tomi Ungerer

©Tomi Ungerer/ Diogenes Verlag Zürich

Just like Alice Ungerer, Moon Man is able to use his unique talents to escape a sticky situation. This is another lesson Tomi learned in childhood, that everybody is different and you can make something of yourself when you use your unique talents to their full potential. Many of Tomi’s book characters have special abilities not in spite of but because of their differences. Take Emile the octopus, who can play multiple instruments at once and save children from drowning, only because he has so many arms!

Like cats and dogs

In Flix, too pictures tell a thousand words. Flix is the story of a dog born into a cat family, and all of the identity crises that go along with that. In Phaidon’s beautiful Treasury of eight of Tomi’s books, Tomi confirms that Flix is autobiographical; “Flix is a dog born from cat parents, which is, in a way, how we Alsatians feel…The book is about duality”. Tomi always has a lot of fun including details in his illustrations that readers can pore over, discovering new hidden jokes upon every reading. His illustrations of Dogtown are full of the things you would expect to see in a town populated entirely by dogs; a street sign for Lassie Avenue, a Sam O’Yed icecream truck. There are statues to Laika, the first dog in space, in the town square, and in the church we see a statue of Saint Bernard, who is of course… a Saint Bernard.

©Tomi Ungerer/Diogenes Verlag Zürich

Tomi has said that growing up in Alsace under Nazi occupation gave him three identities; he was French at home, German in school and Alsatian in the street. But with Flix he was determined to write a book about unity, and how people of different races can get along. You don’t need to know about Tomi’s upbringing to appreciate Flix’ message of harmony and cultural respect. Fans of Flix will be pleased to know that Pictor Productions and Eye Present are currently working on a T.V. adaptation of the book! You’ll find more on that here.

The autobiography of a teddybear 

Tomi wrote his later books like Flix with a purpose in mind, having decided that stories were an important way in which to combat injustice and prejudice. Otto is another book that he set out to write on a certain topic, in order to educate children. It tells the story of the Second World War from the perspective of a teddy bear, and is a way of introducing the concept of war and racism to children in a manner they can identify with. Tomi writes in the Treasury: “You see war on television and I think children should be exposed to what war is like as early as possible. If you don’t share stories like this, how are you going to bring awareness?”

Tomi’s childhood experiences meant that he could draw on his own memory to give an honest account of life during wartime. As a child, his teddybear was one of the things he had packed ready to go in his rucksack in case of evacuation. The teddy in Otto experiences the war from many different perspectives; after watching as his beloved Jewish owner David and other people wearing yellow stars are “loaded into a truck and driven away”, he is adopted by David’s friend Oskar. He and his new family retreat to a bomb shelter, just as Tomi’s family did for three months during the war.

Otto by Tomi Ungerer

©Tomi Ungerer/Diogenes Verlag Zürich

When he is picked up by an American G.I. after a bombing that sends him flying, Otto inadvertently becomes a war hero for absorbing the shock of a bullet meant for the soldier. But the teddy bear eventually ends up in a bin, going from unknown underdog to national hero and back again. Otto’s story not only educates children on war, but shows that a lot of situations we find ourselves in our down to luck, and that you should never judge someone by their current status.

All of the characters in Otto are ultimately lucky; David and Oskar are able to reunite after the war. Tomi’s family were comparatively lucky too, and he writes in the preface to A Childhood Under the Nazis that “this book, on the surface, may appear to be a trivialization of the great dramas of misery, torture, and violence. But if I speak of this period in the way one would speak of a summer vacation, it is because as a young boy it seemed, with the detachment of childhood, as if I was watching a spectacle…”

The unique perspective of a child can give us insights that no amount of historical research will give us. Tomi’s children’s books speak to every child’s powers of perception, which too many adults forget about. The things he witnessed and recorded as a child, perhaps at the cost of his innocence, birthed in him a loathing for violence and injustice that has lasted into his adult life. Writing children’s books has always been special to Tomi as it allows him to be carried back into childhood with all of its imagination and freedom, and to communicate with the child inside him. But that same child needed a way to process the terrible things he had seen. Books are the best way of educating a future generation about injustice so that they will grow up wanting to change the world for the better. As long as the world continues the way it is going, children are going to be needing Tomi’s books more than ever.

-Sophie Meehan

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