Blog: What Is It About The Three Robbers?

The Three Robbers might be Tomi’s best loved book. In a quick poll of our Twitter and Facebook followers earlier this month, it stood miles ahead as a fan favourite. First published in 1961, it’s now kept in print by Phaidon, Diogenes Verlag Zurich, and L’ecole des loisirs in France. We spoke to one of the founders of L’ecole des loisirs, Arthur Hubschmid, to find out his thoughts on why this book, among all the others, is one that will stand the test of time.

The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer

©Tomi Ungerer/Diogenes Verlag Zürich

L’ecole des loisirs first picked up The Three Robbers in 1968, making it one of the first classics they published. The publishing house was set up in 1965 after a trip to Frankfurt Book Fair, when Arthur Hubschmid and colleagues noticed a need for children’s books that were not just instructional, but emotional and cultural. L’ecole des loisirs roughly translates as “the school of recreation”, and it encourages reading for pleasure by producing children’s books of high artistic quality.

When asked to sum up why The Three Robbers has proved so enduringly popular, Hubschmid’s answer is straight to the point. “It’s about the essential things of life… It’s a tale about the profound harmony of men and women”. He goes on to explain how little Tiffany, the orphan that the robbers of the title steal away, represents the good influence that women can have on men. “When you leave men alone they get, usually, a bit violent. Stupidly violent, maybe collecting money and power. And then the women, they’re networking with other poeple, that the heart may also be satisfied.”

The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer

©Tomi Ungerer/Diogenes Verlag Zürich

Men and women

The first half of The Three Robbers is spent explaining how cruel and violent the robbers are, but they are immediately converted to gentleness after holding up a carriage containing Tiffany. Hubschmid points to the moment she is taken from the carriage, and the way that Tomi illustrates it. “When you look at the picture, the robber who takes the girl, he takes her very, very carefully. He is nice to her, he’s keeping her warm…She is changing the behaviour of those robbers, very simply. Because when they take her out of that carriage, they immediately worship her.”

For Hubschmid it’s significant that the character who changes these cruel men’s behaviour is a little girl. It’s true that when you consider Tomi’s other books, girls as saviours of brutish men seems to be a recurring theme. In Zeralda’s Ogre, a grabbing, violent male ogre is converted to kindness by the compassion and generosity of a feminine figure. Zeralda realises the ogre attacking her is just hungry, he must be hungry if he’s trying to eat her! Instead of trying to fight back violently, she cooks him a glorious meal to win him round. In Allumette, Tomi imagines what Hans Christian Andersen’s little match girl would do if she suddenly had all of the material things she ever dreamed of.  And the impoverished girl chooses to use them to help other people. 

Allumette by Tomi Ungerer

Allumette. ©Tomi Ungerer/Diogenes Verlag Zürich

Tiffany is the voice of reason and compassion in The Three Robbers. As well as softening the robbers outlook, she’s the first one who points out that their money could be used for good. I asked Arthur Hubschmid if he thought that, as well as being a fable on the essential relationship between men and women, The Three Robbers also takes on another essential tenet of life and society. That one that most people don’t like to mention. Money. When Tiffany wakes up, Hubschmid notes, “She asks them, what are you going to do with the money? And they have no answer, they haven’t thought about that.”

Money and society

The Three Robbers was written in the 1960s, a decade in which Tomi’s work for adults often satirised monied American life. Books like The Party and The Underground Sketchbook sought to hold a mirror up to high society. A fairground mirror of distorted reality, maybe. But a mirror all the same. 

The Party by Tomi Ungerer

The Party, 1966 ©Tomi Ungerer

It’s not until the question is raised by Tiffany that the robbers  even consider that their money is there to be spent. Tomi’s illustrations show us their gold and riches locked away in chests. The robbers’ dark, cave-like home is bare,  illuminated only by these shining trophies that they’ve hoarded just for the sake of it. So, does The Three Robbers seek to remind us that people who have money never think about needing it?

“I think for Tomi the money is not what’s interesting for him, what’s interesting is what you’re going to do with it. Men alone, it’s like they just have no idea what to do with it. Money is there to build a civilisation…I mean, civilisation is a big word, but it’s just creating a home for people, for family, for kids, for everybody. And that’s how we’ll be happy. It’s very simple. You’re an orphan, you have no mother, no father. You need the money,essentially, to buy a castle and build a home”.

The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer

©Tomi Ungerer/Diogenes Verlag Zürich


Ahead of its time?

Remarkably, The Three Robbers was rejected for publication by Ursula Nordstrom, Tomi’s editor and long time supporter at Harper & Brothers. Nordstrom was one of the first people on the New York scene to get completely behind Tomi’s work, she published his first children’s book, The Mellops Go Flying, in 1957. But she wasn’t interested in The Three Robbers, and according to Tomi, gave no reason why. Perhaps it was just too different from what had gone before. 

The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer

©Tomi Ungerer/Diogenes Verlag Zürich

I asked Arthur Hubschmid if he remembered the first time he read The Three Robbers, and whether it was vastly different to other children’s books at the time; “What is really special is that the story is so essentially simple, so brilliantly simple. But then again, not only the story is brilliantly simple, it’s also the drawing. It’s the only book of Tomi’s which is so graphic. So impressively, simply graphic, with the colours… expressive but very, very simple. It’s incredible how, not only the story but also in the drawing, he got to the essential.”

The Three Robbers is certainly uniquely graphic among Tomi’s other work, the shapes of the robbers’ hooded figures never change throughout the book, and colour is used to change the mood of the artwork after Tiffany arrives. In this double spread,  Tomi uses colour to reflect the sudden clarity in the Robbers’ minds after Tiffany asks what they plan to do with their money. The dark blue, black and red of the rest of the book are suddenly replaced by a gentle, pastel blue and yellow.

The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer

©Tomi Ungerer/Diogenes Verlag Zürich

Good and evil

This simplicity of form and story is one of the things that makes The Three Robbers so popular with children. While a lot of children’s books try to tell children what is morally right or wrong, The Three Robbers leaves space for them to decide. One of the most exciting things for children who are beginning to read, at an age where they’re constantly being told what to do, is having a new space to decide things for themselves. There’s no decision made in the book on whether the robbers are good or bad, or whether using stolen money for good deeds makes it okay to steal it.

Interviewed for Phaidon’s Treasury of 8 Books, Tomi had this to say: “Evil can be the most fertile ground for good, and the good can learn from the cleverness of evil…The Three Robbers, I could say, is a fable of how good and evil are really very tied to each other, and how together they can be quite entertaining”.

Whether you see The Three Robbers as a simplistic fable, or a complex allegory, the proof of its importance lies in its popularity with children to this day. Children are an artist’s most honest critics. And for Arthur Hubschmid, a man who has worked in the children’s book industry for decades, The Three Robbers is the classic picture book of the 20th century. “I think it’s a book that will stand for another hundred years, very easily. It’s just perfect.”

-Words by Sophie Meehan

Bundle away your own copy of The Three Robbers from an independent bookshop near you. Or find it on Amazon.

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