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Tomi Ungerer, Brash Illustrator for Young and Older, Dies at 87

Category: Art & Culture,Books

Tomi Ungerer, an acclaimed illustrator and author who brought a scampish style to children’s books and whose wide-ranging career also took him into advertising, protest art and erotica, died on Friday in Cork, Ireland. He was 87.

His death was announced on his website.

Mr. Ungerer burst onto the children’s-book scene in 1957 with “The Mellops Go Flying,” the first of a series of books he would write and illustrate about a family of pigs prone to going on adventures and getting into predicaments. (In the first book, they build an airplane, which crashes when it runs out of fuel, and that’s only the beginning of the tale.)

The Mellops books and others, with their quirky stories and simple but idiosyncratic drawings, stood out in the often uninspiring world of children’s books. Yet Mr. Ungerer, born in Europe but living in the United States, was soon also turning his artistic talents to more adult themes, in works like “The Underground Sketchbook of Tomi Ungerer” (1964), which was full of humorous, suggestive drawings.

As the Vietnam War became the dominant political issue of the day, he made posters with an antiwar theme; one, from 1967, showed the Statue of Liberty being crammed down the throat of a yellow figure. And, especially after the publication in 1969 of his “Fornicon,” a book of comical but startling sexual imagery, he found himself unwelcome in children’s-book circles.

“Americans cannot accept that a children’s-book author should do erotic work or erotic satire,” he told The New York Times in 2008, when some of his children’s books began to be republished in the United States and Britain. “Even in New York it just wasn’t acceptable.”

In the last decade, though, his status as an important and innovative figure in graphic arts has been more widely recognized in the United States. In 2015 he had his first American retrospective, at the Drawing Center in New York.

“This selection is too small and fast-moving to do justice to Mr. Ungerer’s multifaceted creativity,” Roberta Smith wrote in reviewing that show in The Times. “With a talent as polymorphous as this, you want a cornucopia, not a tasting menu.”

In many facets of his career, Mr. Ungerer was influenced by the daunting circumstances of his youth in the World War II era. He was born Jean-Thomas Ungerer on Nov. 28, 1931, in Strasbourg, in the Alsace region of France, on the German border. His father, Théodore, who was a co-owner of a factory that produced astronomical clocks, died when he was 3, and he was raised by his mother, Alice (Essler) Ungerer.

It was a place and time of tension, the area being half German, half French; part Protestant (as was his household), part Catholic; and troubled by class divisions.

“I was brought up and educated with hate,” Mr. Ungerer said in an interview that appeared just last week in The Comics Journal. “Hatred of the neighbors, hatred of the Germans, hatred of the Catholics. It was nothing but hate, hate, hate.”

Within a few years came a whole different level of hate as the Nazis overran the region. They tried to indoctrinate the region’s youths, forcing them to speak German.

“It was total, systematic brainwashing every day,” Mr. Ungerer said.

Drawing was among the coping mechanisms that got him through the war years. But the return of French control when World War II ended in 1945 brought its own problems: Some viewed the people in his region as Nazi sympathizers or collaborators. Again, Mr. Ungerer had a sense of not belonging, on which he would later draw in his children’s books.

“I know how it feels to be different,” he said in an interview last year with Print magazine, “and I must say that all the children’s books I did after that were all actually ostracized animals. I did one about the rats, about a chauve-souris — a bat — about a vulture.” One of his best-loved children’s books, “Crictor” (1958), had a boa constrictor as the main character.

Mr. Ungerer joined the French Camel Corps in 1952 but was discharged the next year because of illness. He then attended the Municipal School of Decorative Arts in Strasbourg for a year, after which he spent time traveling around Europe. In 1956, with $60 in his pocket, he went to New York and began shopping his services as an illustrator. He also peddled his children’s-book ideas.

“The children’s books in those days where ghastly,” he told Print — tame and unimaginative. He went to see the biggest publisher in the field, Golden Books, where an editor was uninterested in his ideas but also honest.

“He said, ‘Listen, what you are showing me here is not publishable in America,’ ” Mr. Ungerer said. “ ‘There’s only one person who would publish you, and that is Ursula Nordstrom at Harper.’ ”

He sought her out, and she did indeed publish him — and, later, his friends Shel Silverstein and Maurice Sendak.

“Tomi influenced everybody,” Mr. Sendak told The Times in 2008.

Mr. Ungerer also created illustrations for advertisements, including, in the early and middle 1960s, a series of posters for The Times. And when he sought to make a trip to China, he came to the attention of the authorities. He often told the story of being snatched by three shadowy men as he walked through Idlewild Airport in Queens in 1960 and being whisked away for an interrogation.

“I had to undress, even open up the soles of my shoes because they were looking for hidden messages or something,” he said.

Not much came of the incident, but his antiwar posters and erotica gave him a notoriety that cost him work and, in 1970, led him to move to Canada. In 1976 he relocated to Ireland.

His forays into erotica made him an outcast in some places, but Continental Europe continued to embrace him. (“That’s just an Anglo-Saxon problem, in England and America,” he told Artspace in 2015.)

In 1981, a retrospective of his work was exhibited in Paris, Munich, Dublin and London, among other places. In 2007, Strasbourg even opened a museum dedicated to him.

Mr. Ungerer, who had been married previously to Nancy White and Miriam Strandquest, married Yvonne Wright in 1971. She survives him, as do two daughters, Phoebe and Aria; two sons, Pascal and Lukas; a sister, Vivette; and two grandchildren.

In addition to his children’s books, Mr. Ungerer wrote autobiographical works, including “Tomi: A Childhood Under the Nazis” (published in English in 1991) and “Far Out Isn’t Far Enough” (1983), a memoir whose title was also used for a 2012 documentary about him by Brad Bernstein. Another book was a compilation of interviews he did with dominatrixes at a bordello in Hamburg. (The title, roughly translated, is “Guardian Angels of Hell.”) In the 2008 interview with The Times, he described its subjects.

“Fine women,” he said. “Fine ladies. They do the job where the psychiatrists stop, you know?”

Mr. Ungerer spoke and wrote in English, German and French. For the children’s books, though, he said he would always write first in English.

“It’s because for every one word in French there are 10 words in English,” he told Publishers Weekly in 2011. “There are so many synonyms, so many shades of meaning. I like to call things what they are. I never say ‘a tree’; I say ‘a willow.’ ”

That precision underscored his philosophy when writing for young readers.

“We have to take children seriously,” he said.

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