Picturing War: PhD Student Lucy Stone on Tomi’s Childhood Drawings

This week we talked to Lucy Stone, a PhD student at Newcastle University, UK, who is studying the childhood drawings of children’s authors and illustrators who were children in exile in the Nazi era. Her fascinating research focuses on the drawings of Tomi Ungerer and Judith Kerr, the author and illustrator of the Out of the Hitler Time trilogy (1971-1978), The Tiger Who Came to Tea (1968), and the Mog series (1970 – 2015). Stone spoke about the significance of these authors’ childhood drawings in the context of the Hitler years, and the insights they give us into a child’s unique view of exile and war. When viewed as formative pieces of these artists’ work, they can help us understand the art they made as adults. And when looked at as historical documents, these drawings can help us understand how exile and war affects children emotionally.

The idea for Stone’s PhD in part stems from her own childhood: “I was 13 and beginning to learn German, when I first read Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. The story stuck with me.When I saw the BBC documentary on Judith Kerr’s life and works that I learned of Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books in Newcastle where, in 2008, Judith Kerr deposited her archive. The Judith Kerr Collection includes a selection of her childhood drawings, paintings and writings made prior to and after her family’s flight from Nazi Germany in the winter of 1933. I was struck by the drawings’ colour, light and life, which appeared to be in contrast to the childhood of exile I understood Kerr to have led.”

Judith Kerr's Childhood Drawing, © Judith Kerr. Photo courtesy of Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children's Books.

One of the drawings Kerr made in Berlin before the family’s forced migration from the city. © Judith Kerr. Photo courtesy of Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books. 


“While it’s not rare for a child to draw, it is rare is that children’s drawings should be preserved.”

When Stone decided on the focus of her PhD, she needed another artist to include in the project, and that’s where Tomi came in. “I needed to try to find another children’s author or illustrator who, like Judith, had drawn as a child in exile or war. While it’s not rare for a child to draw, it is rare is that children’s drawings should be preserved. I first came across Tomi’s name in the work of Gillian Lathey who has looked at the legacy of the Third Reich and the Holocaust for children’s authors and illustrators who had lived through this period as children. I was intrigued by the analysis of Tomi’s memoir A Childhood Under the Nazis, which Tomi had in part illustrated with some of his own childhood drawings made during the Nazi occupation of Alsace. It was then that I began to familiarise myself with Tomi’s works. I wish that I had grown up reading Tomi’s children’s books, I hadn’t even heard of his name, which is just absolutely terrible!”

Stone set out to see if there were anymore of Tomi’s childhood drawings that hadn’t been published in his memoir. It was then that she connected with the Musée Tomi Ungerer in Strasbourg. “It was incredibly good timing, they were beginning to prepare the exhibition of Tomi’s drawings from his childhood and youth, and Thérèse Willer, the museum curator, invited me there as they were pulling them out of the workroom and making a selection to include from the hundreds of his drawings and paintings made on loose sheets of paper, and in sketchbooks, diaries and school copybooks. I was able to talk through these drawings with Thérèse, and learn a lot about how Tomi developed his craft as a boy;  the influences of his childhood reading, his experience of the Nazi occupation and the complexity of the Alsatian identity. I’m very grateful to Thérèse and her team, but also to Tomi’s mother, who, like Judith’s, kept hold of her youngest child’s drawings.” Alice, Tomi Ungerer’s mother, never threw anything that he made away. His expansive archive, (now spanning several countries!), includes piles of drawings from his childhood and youth in Alsace.

Childhood drawing. © Tomi Ungerer, Musée Tomi Ungerer Collection


Children will always find a way to play

The first part of Stone’s project focuses on Kerr and Ungerer’s pre-exile childhoods, and the drawings they made before their worlds were turned upside down by war. Learning about the atmosphere of the children’s pre-exile home lives is significant to her studies, not only for purposes of comparison, but also to explain how they were able to continue drawing during and after their exile experiences. “For both, it was their main mode of play, and enabled them to map their inner and outer worlds. Drawing was also very much tied to their sense of home: it was fostered by their families within the domestic sphere.  Looking at conflict, war and exile from a child’s perspective gives you the child’s perspective, and children experience these things differently. Children will play in whatever setting they’re in. However traumatic it is they will always find a way to play.”

According to Stone, Kerr and Ungerer’s families were aware of the importance of drawing to their own children, as they made specific efforts to make sure it continued. “Tomi’s sister Genevieve, who worked at the government perfuncture during the war, would take home formulas and certificates of military allocations, and Tomi would draw on the back of those. As the safety of their homes was threatened and they very quickly had to learn new languages and ways of life, drawing – and painting and writing – provided the children some sense of normality; it was a remnant from their past homes. Tomi’s mother Alice managed to keep the family home free from the process of Germanification for the greater part of the occupation. It was a safe space in which Tomi could draw, paint and write whatever he saw and imagined of the Second World War. It was this skill set that Tomi then took with him in his postwar travels and, like Judith, continues to use every day.”

“The machine of war”

Though the two artists’ experiences differed, Stone has noticed recurring motifs in their drawings. Trains appearas symbols of the movement and unsettlement that exile and war bring. “The train marks the starting point for war and exile for them. Judith’s family fled Germany by train, and this became a significant object in her work. And the picture of Tomi’s that stands out most to me is the one he drew of the Wehrmacht arriving, driving in from the East on motorcycles and in cars, and, in parallel, a steaming train; together a machine of war entering into Alsace and into Tomi’s life”.

Tomi Ungerer's Chidhood Drawing, © Tomi Ungerer, Musée Tomi Ungerer collection.

Tomi Ungerer’s Chidhood Drawing, © Tomi Ungerer, Musée Tomi Ungerer collection.

The imagery of his childhood under occupation has seeped through into Ungerer’s books, especially in Otto, which is the one that most directly tackles the Second World War. Stone’s view of trains as a symbol of exile can be seen in the scene where Oskar’s father says a tearful goodbye to his family as he heads off on the train to fight in the German army.

Picturing War: PhD Student Lucy Stone on Tomi’s Childhood Drawings

Illustration from Otto by Tomi Ungerer, © Tomi Ungerer/ Diogenes Verlag AG Zurich


Deflagrations: Children’s Drawings, Adults’ Wars*

Stone’s project also argues for the significance of children’s drawings as historical sources. “Exile and war – both children and adults are forced to endure them, but in the fields of exile studies, history and children’s literature, too, there is some distrust of the writings, drawings, etc., that children craft. The French historian Manon Pignot is one scholar at the moment doing a lot of work to advocate children’s drawings as valuable historical documents which show children as victims, witnesses and social actors in war”.  Last year Pignon was part of a team in France that curated an exhibition of children’s wartime drawings from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries that included a drawing by Tomi, under the theme of “captivity”. 

Tomi Ungerer's Childhood Drawings

The drawing by Tomi Ungerer featured in Déflagrations: dessins d’enfants, guerres d’adultes. © Tomi Ungerer, Musée Tomi Ungerer Collection

“What this exhibition made quite clear is that while each child’s experience of occupation, conflict and/or exile is individual, there are certain themes that occur and recur in each war, and certain traits that reveal children’s emotional responses to these horrific happenings,” Stone explains. “What this exhibition could not do, however, was find out what happened to these child war artists. So many, of course, sadly, did not survive. But of those who did – how did they ‘grow up’ after having to live through such ‘adult’ experiences at a young age? This is one question I’m trying to answer in my research. While I can only look at the specific cases of Tomi and Judith as child artists who became children’s illustrators and authors, I hope that these cases will contribute to the conversation on children’s war drawings and how invaluable drawing for children is. Not only as a means of documenting potentially traumatic experiences as children, but in their later, adult lives, to fill in the gaps of their childhood knowledge of the Third Reich, Holocaust and Second World War. To craft narratives which can be transmitted to current and future generations of children, and offer them insights into what it means to be a child in exile and/or war”.

As an adult author, Tomi Ungerer wrote about his childhood experiences in Tomi: A Childhood Under the Nazis. In the book’s introduction he is quick to say that his memoir is only one perspective, from the relatively lucky standpoint of an observer. He refers to the “spectacle” of war when it’s viewed from a child’s perspective. Stone finds this a very interesting passage: “I wouldn’t say Tomi’s war drawings show a detachment, but rather a child very much caught up in both playing and fearing war. I would say Tomi’s sense of detachment has come with time; as an adult he has been able to take a step back and ‘curate’ his childhood drawings and position them as part of a much larger historical and political canvas”.

“Childhood continues to unfold”

As an adult, much of Ungerer’s work in children’s books has been an effort to educate children about prejudice, so that future generations can go into life with more awareness. “Childhood, and childhood reading, do not come to a sudden standstill, but (as Kimberley Reynolds has noted) ‘continue to unfold and inform how we interpret the world’”, Stone says. And when childhood is disrupted by something like war, it can take a lifetime of work to process. Ungerer himself has said that what drove him to children’s literature was a desire “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”. Much of his work is now an effort to educate children about prejudice, so that the next generation can go into life with more awareness.

Studying children’s drawings can offer us a chance to look at war through an unfiltered lens, from the perspective of those it affects most. And by bringing these drawings to light, researchers like Lucy Stone can only hope that it will help in some small way to ensure future generations of children will have the chance to create and draw away from the horrors of conflict.

-Interview by Sophie Meehan.

With thanks to Lucy Stone, Judith Kerr, Philippa Perry, Sarah Lawrance, Kimberley Reynolds and Beate Müller. Lucy Stone’s doctoral research is funded by the Research Excellence Academy.

* “Children’s Drawings, Adults’ Wars” is a translation of Déflagrations: dessins d’enfants, guerres d’adultes, the Eurométropole, France 2017 exhibition of children’s war drawings held at the Médiathèques de Strasbourg.

See also: Read our article about how Tomi’s childhood under occupation influenced some of his most popular books, here. See more of Tomi’s childhood drawings here


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