From Kids' Books To Erotica, Tomi Ungerer's 'Far Out' Life
Children's-book writer Maurice Sendak learned a lot from author and artist Tomi Ungerer. In Far Out Isn't Far Enough, a new documentary about Ungerer, Sendak says, "I learned to be braver than I was. I think that's why [Where The Wild Things Are] was partly Tomi — his energy, his spirit. I'm proud of the fact that we helped change the scene in America so that children were dealt with like the intelligent little animals we know they are."
With a champion in their shared editor, Ursula Nordstrom, Sendak and Ungerer broke the rules of American children's literature in the 1950s and '60s. They created stories and illustrations that many adults found too frightening and rebellious for children — but that kids themselves loved. Ungerer's series of books about the Mellops, a family of adventurous and resourceful pigs who often found themselves in scary situations, was particularly popular.
Ungerer didn't mind scaring kids, because he believed in their ability to cope with and adapt to life's difficulties. He himself had witnessed terrifying things as a child growing up on the French-German border, in Alsace, during World War II. His work, he says, reflects his experience.
"Most of my children's books have fear elements," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "But I must say, too, to balance this fact, that the children in my books are never scared. ... I think fear is an element which is instilled by the adults a lot of time. I remember even in the bombings and whatever, we were always joking away."
Many Americans have never heard of Ungerer because, in the early 1970s, his books were virtually banished in the United States after he started doing erotic illustrations for books targeted at adults. Ungerer soon returned to Europe, where he lives today. He says Europeans are much more accepting of the fact that his work can plumb the imaginations of both children and adults.
"In Europe," he says, "I have absolutely no problem. I did an erotic book which is based on the Kama Sutra, but instead of human beings, the positions are taken up by frogs. People come up to me and say, 'I was brought up with you. I was 13 years old, and I saved money to buy your Kama Sutra.' "
On fear versus anxiety
"To be scared is one thing; anxiety is another one. ... If you are in a battle and you have bombs and bullets and shrapnel and everything is going up in the air, that's why you can be scared. But it doesn't really compare to the anxiety. You see, the anxiety ... is something much deeper in a way, because it sticks to you all the time. Are we going to make another day? Are we going to be arrested? ... It's all the impending menace, you know, all the time, all the time. And that's anxiety. I find anxiety worse than fear."
On growing up in Hitler's Germany
"I remember I had to do a portrait of the Fuhrer, you know, giving a speech, and put a stein of beer on this thing. Well, the Fuhrer didn't drink, but still, you know, nobody ever objected. The thing is, no matter what tyranny, you can always get away, maybe not with murder, but with a few other things. And your mind is always free. Nobody can take away your mind.
"We were brought up to become soldiers. ... [T]hey would say, 'Don't think. The Fuhrer thinks for you.' But then it was reassuring, too, because I was not a good pupil, and then the teachers would say to me ... 'Don't worry, the Fuhrer needs artists and all that.' I mean, the whole thing was geared to win over the children away from their parents."
On his early career in New York
"It was a land of opportunity. It was really incredible how everybody was so nice. In those days you could call any art director or editor just like this, and the secretary would give you an appointment and you could come there and show your work. I remember I arrived with $60 in my pocket, so I didn't have a portfolio, and I was carrying just my drawings, you know, under my arms.
"And one day it started raining, and I went into a pharmacy — it was on 43rd Street and Broadway, and I think it's still there. And I asked for a box, you see, for my drawings. So they gave me a box that created quite a sensation. because it was a wholesale box for condoms.
"[I]t was incredible how quickly I was able to settle down and work. And I would say I was enough of [a] success to be able to buy a house in New York three or four years later. ... And I'm very grateful for that, really. New York — there's no city in my life I've ever loved as much as New York."
On his mother's affection
"My answer for [Maurice Sendak and Else Holmelund Minarik's] A Kiss for Little Bear was No Kiss for Mother, because ... my mother loved me much too much, and she poured her affection in the most sloppy ways — I mean over my cheeks and everywhere. And I couldn't stand to be kissed or even touched by my mother. She really overdid it."
On being forced to learn German
"The Nazis arrived, and after three months it was forbidden to speak a word of French. You could be arrested for a bonjour or just a merci. Just any word in French, you could be immediately arrested. I had to learn German in three months — which shows you that with a knife on your neck, you can learn a language in three months."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The children's books by my guest Tomi Ungerer aren't as famous in America today as those of his late friend Maurice Sendak, but Sendak has said that his own most famous book, "Where the Wild Things Are," was partly Ungerer: his energy, his spirit.
There's a new documentary about Tomi Ungerer called "Far Out Isn't Far Enough" that showcases his work and features interviews with him as well as with Sendak, his friend cartoonist Jules Feiffer, and several children's book experts. Sendak says in the film that he's proud that he and Ungerer helped change the scene in America so that children were dealt with like the intelligent little animals we know they are.
Sendak and Ungerer had the same editor, Ursula Nordstrom, who let them break some of the rules of children's books with stories that many adults thought were too scary or mischievous for little children. Take Ungerer's book "The Mellops Strike Oil," published in 1958. The Mellops, a family of pigs, discover oil and resourcefully tap into it. But Mrs. Mellops is nearly burned alive in an oil fire.
Ungerer didn't mind scaring kids a little. He was exposed to terrifying scenes growing up under Nazi occupation in Alsace, on the French-German border. World War II also figured into another part of his career, designing anti-war posters during the war in Vietnam. In the early '70s, his career in America was virtually ended because he'd started publishing his erotic drawings with a lot of leather and bondage.
His children's books were virtually banned from libraries and taken out of print. So he left for Nova Scotia and a few years later moved to Ireland, where he lives today. He's since received many honors, including the world's top honor for children's books, the Hans Christian Anderson Award.
Tomi Ungerer, welcome to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on the new movie about you. So let's start with your first children's book, which you published in 1957, "The Mellops Go Flying." What were some of the worst things that happened to this family of pigs?
TOMI UNGERER: Well, originally when I came and was - and met Ursula Nordstrom, which became my editor for all my first books in Harper's, I had already a book about a family of pigs. But it was quite cruel because her dealings with the butcher was butchering pigs and all that, but she - it's Ursula Nordstrom who liked the characters of the father, mother and the four children.
And she says just do me another story with the same characters. So I just sat down and did my book.
GROSS: Were you surprised that many Americans thought that children's books shouldn't have anything that might scare children or upset them?
UNGERER: Well, I mean, that was, you know, that was my luck and Maurice Sendak's luck to have met Ursula Nordstrom. And she was absolutely reckless. She just didn't care about what people would say. And I must say that most of my children's books have fear elements, and - but I must say too, to balance this fact, that the children in my books are never scared.
This is a bit autobiographical. I was brought up in the war, and I was in the last bridgehead the Germans had over the Rhine in Alsace. And I must say I've seen the war just like an infantry soldier. It lasted - the battle raged for three months. But I don't really remember my mother being scared.
I think fear is an element which is instilled by the adults a lot of time. And I remember even in the bombings and whatever, I mean, we were always joking away. So I'm - I've always tried to put this kind of element in my picture books.
GROSS: I think, you know, as adults we try to protect children from being exposed to frightening things that they don't have to be exposed to. But for you being a child growing up in Alsace during World War II, no one could protect you from seeing the war. It was all around you. And you went to school from about the ages eight to 13, correct me if I'm wrong about that, under the Nazis because the Nazis invaded where you lived and took over.
So it must have been awfully hard not to be scared.
UNGERER: Well, I don't know. I mean, well, you know, to be scared is one thing; anxiety is another one. I must say we were not really scared, but there was always the anxiety of being arrested by the Gestapo, which did - you know, once, I told in my book - you know, I wrote several books of autobiography, you see.
And there's one in - I wrote one volume about the Nazi time. And as I said, I mean, it's - you see, if you are in a battle, and you have bombs and bullets and shrapnel and everything is going up in the air, that's where you can be scared. But there's not really the - it doesn't compare to the anxiety, you see, the anxiety - the anxiety, which is something much deeper, in a way.
You know, it sticks to you all the time. Are we going to make another day? Are we going to be arrested? Is so-and-so, are we going to die? Well, dying is not so much, I mean, but still, it's all the impending menace, you know, all the time, all the time, and that's anxiety. I find anxiety worse than fear.
GROSS: You have a book that's set during World War II called "Otto: The Autobiography of a Teddy Bear." This is about a teddy bear during World War II, and the teddy bear belongs to a Jewish boy who's taken away with a truckload of Jews. So that boy, David, gives Otto the teddy bear to his friend Oskar. And Oskar often has to go to the bomb shelter because of the war. So he takes the teddy bear with him in the bomb shelter and hugs him.
But one of the bombs explodes with such power that the teddy bear is blown out of the bomb shelter and ends up on the street where there's a battle going on. An American soldier picks up the teddy bear and hugs it to his chest. And the soldier's hit by a bullet, but the teddy bear absorbs most of the impact.
But the soldier's still wounded, and the soldier takes the teddy bear to the hospital, and that's just the beginning of the teddy bear's adventures. And it's such an interesting, powerful book about the war, told through the perspective of a teddy bear. And the pictures in it, I mean, some of them are harrowing. You see like dead soldiers on the street who are bleeding. There's a bus that's been bombed, that's overturned on its side. There's fires in the background and buildings that have been bombed out.
This is 1999 when you did this, so it's - you know, the arena of children's books has been opened up. But I can't say I've seen a children's book that depicts war as graphically as this one.
UNGERER: Well, I think there should be more of them because when you've seen this kind of horror, you say I don't want to see that kind of thing happening again. Now when you look at the sketches I did as a child then, it is - it would be just a decal of what I did then later on. And when I did all those scenes of war, I didn't have to check up in a book how a Sherman tank looks like or how, you know, all the equipment, all the uniforms, everything is strictly just the way I've seen it and how I witnessed it.
So I would say this is - it's very good of you to bring this up because that book, more than other books or children's books, was certainly more autobiographical than any other one.
GROSS: You were encouraged to draw during World War II when the Nazis took over Alsace, where you lived. And you were told that the Fuhrer needed artists. Do you think that teachers were told to basically try to create a new generation of propaganda artists for Hitler?
UNGERER: Oh yeah, absolutely. I'm totally - I've been totally brainwashed by the Nazis. And when you look at my children drawings, you'll find them in two categories: the ones I did at one, which were - and as I always said, you know, in my autobiography, I say, you know, I was a German at school, I was French at home and with my friends in the streets we were Alsatians.
And I must say that my drawings were the French ones I did at home, but then at school I had to draw propaganda pictures, you know, and that's where I learned you cannot beat - you cannot beat a system, really. When it's really hammering on you, you just, if they tell you to do a thing of the Fuhrer, you draw the Fuhrer, and...
GROSS: So some of your earliest drawings had to be of Adolf Hitler. That was your assignment?
UNGERER: Yes, yes, and all kind of propaganda, you know, the propaganda, the heroes on the front and all that. But I must say already in those days I always slipped some really funny element. I remember I had to do a portrait of the Fuhrer, you know, giving a speech, and I put a bock - a stein of beer on this thing, but the Fuhrer didn't drink.
But still, you know, nobody ever objected. That's what - you know, the thing is no matter what tyranny, you always can get away maybe not with murder but with a few other things. And your mind, you know, your mind is always free. Nobody can take away your mind.
We were brought up to become soldiers, you know, like - as I said, they would say don't think. The Fuhrer thinks for you. But then it was reassuring, too, because I was not a good pupil. And then the teachers would say to me, as you just, you mentioned it already, and he says don't worry, the Fuhrer needs artists and all that.
I mean, the whole thing was geared to win over, to win over the children away from their parents. We were even offered a sum of money if we would - and we could decide, not the parents, if we would want to leave the family, leave your parents and go in a special Nazi, you know, a Nazi boarding school.
I mean, I could have come home and say, Mom, I'm going to the Nazi boarding school, and my mother would have had no way to say - you know, I mean, I was already to be - to decide for my own fate. Of course we didn't do a thing like that. But just to give you - they used every, every trick in the book. Every trick in the book, to win over the young people.
GROSS: Since your father died when you were young, about three and a half, when you started doing children's books, did you want to present death in those books? Because, you know, a lot of children lose people. They lose grandparents; some of them lose a parent like you did. And in some countries, particularly countries at war, they lose a lot of people.
So have you addressed death in your children's books? I know you certainly did a bit in your autobiography of a teddy bear.
UNGERER: No, not really. I have a book still, which hasn't been published yet, which is about death. It - but, oh, that's a good - maybe I should finish it. The thing is, you know, sometimes you have a book and it's nearly finished and you haven't got an ending. And the ending in my book is kind of, you know, it would be too much. But it is a story of somebody who dies and he gets so forlorn and so bored in his grave that one night he says, oh, I'm fed up with it, I'm going home. And then you have the skeleton going home, you see? And his wife is there, and he snuggles into her bed, and he says darling, it's me.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
UNGERER: And then, and then of course, he - first of all, his wife is telling him to take a shower, because you know, still all the clay...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
UNGERER: ...all the clay, and you know, actually as a profession he was a funeral director, you see. And he takes up his business again, and him being a skeleton is excellent advertising. And can you imagine the children waking up the next morning and finding their skeleton father having breakfast with them? (Chuckling) The only problem is whenever he swallowed coffee, it went right through, because he doesn't have an esophagus or doesn't have a stomach to digest it. And then he says, oh, I'm driving the children to school; I'm driving the children to school.
And so, but my ending was pretty bad, because in my book, my ending - that's why - that's too much, you see, but I can tell you there's a terrorist hijacking the whole class where the two children are, but he cannot be hit by a bullet because they go right through the bone structure. And he's able to save the situation. But that's going too far, and I'm perfectly aware of that. So I have to think of another way of doing it.
But to come back to your question, no, I haven't used death that much, no.
GROSS: Wow, that's a really great story, but it seems to me part of what that story is about is how, you know - eliminating the part where the skeleton saves the day and vanquishes the terrorist - eliminating that part for a moment, it's kind of a funny story about how the dead really do belong in the grave. Much as you want them to come back again, they can't, and if they did, they'd be kind of weird.
UNGERER: What I'm telling you one thing, if I'm getting restless I'm not going to stay there. I may be there on my own...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: Good luck.
UNGERER: I may be there on my own funeral, because I guess I have to. But otherwise I'm, I think I will be restless forever.
GROSS: So Tomi Ungerer, can I ask you, our executive producer, who grew up with your books, has a few questions for you about the Mellops books, the books about the family of pigs.
Can I put him on mic so he can directly ask you those questions?
UNGERER: Oh sure. Absolutely.
GROSS: Great. So this is Danny Miller, our very long-term executive producer. Here we go. Hang on.
DANNY MILLER, BYLINE: Tomi?
UNGERER: Yes, hello, hello.
MILLER: So nice to meet you. One of the things I loved about the Mellops books is that they always had really cool family projects, like building airplanes or building an oil derrick or the machine to distill petrol from grass. And I was wondering, since your father died when you were young, was Mr. Mellops important to you as a father who led his sons in all these really fun, grownup projects?
UNGERER: Well, it's funny because we were four children at home, and maybe it was kind of a way of having the father I didn't have, I guess. But, you know, when you start a book like this, you just do the book, and it's only later on that the - you know what I mean, the background or the reasons for some of the ideas - it could have been just because I've been brought up - I was much younger.
My brothers and sisters were eight, nine and 10 years older than I was, and they were always mentioning and talking about my father and all the things they were doing and he was doing. And so maybe I re-created their situation, you know, up to my hidden fantasies or possibly my frustrations. It's - well anyway, that could be the reason.
MILLER: You know, another thing I really loved about your books, and I have to say that my father would read the books to me, my father was an architect, and I just thought you maybe were - kind of had an affinity for engineering, for building things, like the oil derrick or the airplane, yeah.
UNGERER: Oh, I do. No, I do. I've designed buildings. You know, in Germany I've designed a kindergarten shaped in the form of a cat, and the children go into the mouth every morning. And on the second floor, they can slide down through the tail. (Chuckling)
So no - you see, as I was saying before, you know, I didn't go to college. I didn't study. So I could always be interested in anything I wanted to be, whether it was geology, botany, architecture or anything. So, I mean, but I've always been fascinated by architecture in my own way.
MILLER: At the end of all the Mellops books, Mom, Mrs. Mellops, is baking a cake. And all the family projects were exclusively boy stuff. And did you ever think that maybe you could have gotten Mrs. Mellops out of the kitchen and maybe more involved in some of the cool projects?
UNGERER: Yes, yes later on, but in the beginning - you know, and I can understand, I've been reproached by the feminists: why should the mother stay at home and all the kids go have the adventure? But my mother was like that. She always let us go away, go and do all our adventures. I went and left and trekked all the way to Iceland, crossed the Iron Curtain and all the things, incredible adventures. And my mother would just let me go.
It's incredible, how - the amount of freedom she gave us. And - but then later on, I had one thing, when she became the mayor of the village. She went into politics, so - but anyway... (Chuckling)
MILLER: I just want to thank you for your books that I know a lot of people grew up with and enjoyed, and I'm so glad they're back in print, and thank you for speaking with us.
UNGERER: Oh, thank you. Really I appreciate that.
MILLER: Hang on, here's Terry.
GROSS: So Danny, thanks for dropping in and asking those questions, and believe it or not, I actually couldn't hear the answers because I gave you my headphones.
UNGERER: Oh, oh, I said horrible things about you.
GROSS: Did you?
UNGERER: I wouldn't want you to...
GROSS: I was afraid of that.
UNGERER: No, no, no, no, don't find out, oh my God.
GROSS: So there's a new documentary about Tomi Ungerer called "Far Out Isn't Far Enough." I'll continue the interview with him in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Tomi Ungerer, who won the world's top honor for children's books, the Hans Christian Andersen Award, in 1998. When he started writing and illustrating children's books in the late '50s, he brought a new kind of mischief and danger to the genre that not all adults approved of. His books were popular and acclaimed in the U.S., until the early '70s, after he started publishing his adult erotic illustrations, with bondage and leather. That virtually killed his career in the States for many years. He now lives in Ireland. He grew up during World War II, under Nazi occupation in Alsace.
So let's skip ahead a little bit. We were talking about how you grew up in Alsace on the French-German border, a contested territory, that went back and forth between the French and Germans. When you were born, it was French. During World War II, the Germans invaded and took it over for several years. And that was your childhood. Then you started reading American magazines, fell in love with the America that they presented and you decided to move to New York. You were kind of broke. I think you had $60 in your pocket. You've said you started calling the art directors of the magazines that you liked. And I think when you first got to America, the early work you did was kind of advertising, like billboards, posters...
UNGERER: Oh, I did a lot. I did a lot of things. As I said, it was a land of opportunity. It was really incredible how everybody was so nice. In those days, you could call any art director or editor just like this, and his - and the secretary would give you an appointment, and you could come there and show your work. And I remember I arrived, I arrived with $60 in my pocket, so I didn't have a portfolio and I was carrying just my drawings, you know, under my arms. And one day it started raining and I went in a pharmacy. It was on 43rd Street and Broadway, and I think the pharmacy is still there, and I asked for a box - you see - for my drawings. So they gave me a box, which created quite a sensation, because it was a wholesale box for condoms.
GROSS: Yes, Trojan condoms, is what you said in the documentary.
GROSS: So you're walking around with this huge box saying Trojans on it.
UNGERER: So everywhere I would come with that box. Yeah.
UNGERER: It was Trojan. So, everybody was so nice. And not only did they give me work, but then one art director would get on the phone and call the other ones and say listen, I got this young French guy here. Why don't you come, he's got some interesting stuff and all that and I was really liked. It was the same way whether I worked for magazines, whether I worked for advertising. It was incredible how quickly I was able to settle down and work, and I was enough of a success to be able to buy a house in New York three or four years later - just to give you an idea. And I'm very grateful for that. Really, New York, really, there's no city in my life I've ever loved as much as New York.
GROSS: So you come to America. You start doing ads and then you start doing children's books. Your children's books are successful. But then you also start doing political posters...
UNGERER: Oh yeah.
GROSS: ...and posters for like - I remember this ad campaign for the Village Voice: Expect the Unexpected. And you did like surreal illustrations to accompany that. And then you did antiwar posters. One of them is an illustration of President Johnson bending over and feeding rat poison to a dove, a dove being the symbol of peace. And the caption reads: Peace Talks.
So did people kind of connect the dots between the guy who was doing these anti-war posters and these surreal political posters with the same guy who was doing the children's books?
UNGERER: I don't know in the beginning, you know, because people in the children's books are specialized in children's books; people in the world of satire are - but I think most people realized that I had my hands in just so many elements. And then came my erotic books too, later on. My erotic satire and all that.
GROSS: Yes. I was going to ask you about that. (Chuckling)
UNGERER: And, so for many people it was always a bit, I find, difficult because, you know, when you meet somebody you want to pinpoint down him. You want to be say, you know, like most artists carry on the same styles throughout their lives, and for me this would be just so boring. I couldn't do that, with the greatest respect. I mean for me every book is a challenge and every book has to be done in a - I have to try something new. I have to try something different, and I just have to go on. And I'm, as I said already, I'm too restless and too curious.
GROSS: So you mentioned erotica. So you started doing erotica illustrations and books, including a lot of bondage poses. And then the trouble started. So first of all, how did you - by trouble I mean, when people realized that the guy doing these great kids' books was also doing these, you know, bondage erotica illustrations, it wasn't a good thing for your kids' books. Your books were pulled from libraries. I mean you were - you ended up leaving the country.
UNGERER: I was banned. They were all my books, including even the children books were banned from American libraries. And that was for me the end, and that's when I left because, you know, and I came back to Europe.
GROSS: Why did you want to head in that direction? I mean had you always secretly drawn stuff like this...
UNGERER: Because I...
GROSS: ... or did you always want to?
UNGERER: No, because I think it's really, it's really - it's a matter of, in a way, of freedom. I think people are allowed to do anything they want as long as they don't hurt anyone, and as long as it's in mutual consent and all that. And actually, the erotic aspect of my life developed quite later in life and I've been very curious. You know, I lived in Hamburg in a bordello and wrote a book about that of what was happening there and all the dominas and all, the wonderful women that do the kind of works that no psychiatrist would do. And I'm always fascinated by finding the human element behind everything, so.
GROSS: So, I'm thinking in my mind; I'm comparing the erotic, you know, posters that you did of, like, you know, women in leather being whipped and so on, you know, very bondage.
GROSS: Wait. Wait. I'm comparing that with what happened to Maurice Sendak. When he did his book "In the Night Kitchen," which is a, you know, just a wonderful...
UNGERER: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: ...children's book. That book was banned from some libraries in America because in one scene there is a little baby with a little baby penis, and because that baby is naked...
UNGERER: Oh, my god.
GROSS: ...you know, the book was pulled. So he suffered for that. So I'm just thinking...
UNGERER: Well, I...
GROSS: ...like in an environment where that isn't acceptable, to think of what you were doing, I can only imagine.
UNGERER: Well, I would say that is more kind of an American puritan, you know, way of banning. See, we don't, I don't have - I never had any problems like this in France or Germany or anywhere else. But in America, don't forget, "No Kiss for Mother" was - got the DUD Award, which is the award, they say, for the worst children book of the year, you know.
GROSS: The worst children's book of the year? In America, it got that award?
UNGERER: Yeah. Yeah. It's called the DUD Award.
GROSS: Oh, DUD Award.
UNGERER: It's DUD.
GROSS: OK. DUD.
UNGERER: Yeah. DUD Award.
UNGERER: I always broke every possible taboo, and so did Maurice. Not that we did it on purpose. Well, I'm an agent provocateur by profession. All right. But I don't automatically try to scandalize; it's just in me. And I just think that, you know, children love practical jokes. Children are no idiots. They know, as I said in my movie, children know where children are coming from, where babies are coming from. What they don't know is where adults are coming from. We don't respect children's minds enough, and they can well handle, you know, all my little side jokes in my books.
GROSS: You mentioned your book "No Kiss for Mother." I love the drawings in this book because it's about a cat - a family of cats. And I really love it when cats are dressed as people and do things like people. So like there's scenes of like cats in human clothes, like they're at the dinner table, they're in a restaurant, the cats are at school. There's a cat who's driving a taxi, a cat's brushing his teeth at a, you know, at the bathroom sink. Cats are wearing glasses.
(Chuckling) So the illustrations in this book are wonderful. What - and the book is about a cat who hates being kissed by his mother and hates all the terms of endearment that she uses for him.
GROSS: Why was this book - which was published in '74 - why was this book given the DUD of the Year Award?
UNGERER: Well, because a lot of the gruesome details - like the father works in a rat processing factory, and he reads comic books in the toilet. You're not supposed to be - and then he smokes cigars and things like this. You know, and this is a book that breaks all the taboos. But actually, it's more - that book is really Maurice Sendak's fault, because Maurice did a very sweet book for Else (unintelligible) called "A Kiss for Little Bear." It was "A Kiss for Little Bear." And my answer for "A Kiss to Little Bear" was "No Kiss For Mother."
GROSS: How'd he like that?
UNGERER: Because my mother, you see, my mother loved me much too much and she poured her affection in the most sloppy ways, I mean over my cheeks and everywhere. And I couldn't stand to be kissed or even touched by my mother. She really overdid it. So that is, there again, is a book where I can tell it's absolutely autobiographical, absolutely autobiographical. I hated to be kissed.
GROSS: So that's funny. So this book wouldn't have existed without one of Maurice Sendak's books. And Maurice Sendak says that "Where the Wild Things Are," his most famous book, wouldn't have existed without your earlier work, because you broke certain children's literature taboos as he ended up doing too.
GROSS: I have a question about Maurice for you. I know you were good friends. And late in his life, he came out and told people that he was gay. It was something he couldn't possibly have done early in his career because I don't think America would have tolerated somebody who was gay writing children's books. There was so much homophobia. I mean there still is, but it was much worse then.
UNGERER: Oh, god. I know. Yeah. Yeah. Absolument.
GROSS: Did you know?
UNGERER: I know. I know. I remember.
GROSS: Did you know that he was gay and did you have to keep that secret?
UNGERER: Well, I knew it right away. Oh yeah.
UNGERER: Well, but, you see, we spent a lot of time together. So I mean we were very close. We were really in this children books thing. Well, there were others who - kind of like Shel Silverstein. I brought Shel Silverstein to Ursula Nordstom.
UNGERER: I mean we were really kind of a small group of people determined to change things, you know, all those kind of little sweetie, little nimble-pimby, mushy-fushy little children's books. No. No. No. I mean, but as I said, Maurice wouldn't have any of this problem, or me, in Europe because it's just a different way of looking at things. Now England would be like America, I would say. It's Anglo-Saxon, in a way. Anglo-Saxon, I presume.
GROSS: So you left America because your erotica and your political artwork basically were making you persona non grata.
UNGERER: Yeah. Exactly.
GROSS: So you move to Nova Scotia for a few years, and then you moved to Ireland, which is where you live now. When did you leave the United States?
UNGERER: In '71.
GROSS: And so, now that so many years have elapsed since then, and you've gone back to children's books and those books have been published - some of those books have been published here. Some of your books have been republished here in new editions. Do you meet people who grew up with your children's books and then later found out about your erotica? And if so, what's their reaction?
UNGERER: Well look here, I mean in Europe I have absolutely no problem. I did an erotic book which is based on the "Kama Sutra." But instead of human beings, the positions are taken up by frogs, you know?
UNGERER: And people come to me and say, you know, I was brought up with you. It's called the "Kama Sutra of Frogs." And as I say, you know, I was 13 years old and I saved money to buy your "Kama Sutra." I had already been brought up with your books. It's no problem. You know, I've been ambassador at the European Council for Childhood and Education and my eroticism has never bothered anyone.
GROSS: In the documentary about you, you say that you still have nightmares many nights and in those nightmares you're often being arrested - which was your big fear when you were growing up, that the Germans would arrest you or your mother.
UNGERER: Yeah. Yeah. We were arrested once by the Gestapo. But my - that's in my book, and my mother was brilliant. She was a great comedian. You see, the Nazis arrived and within three - after three months it was forbidden to speak a word of French. You could be arrested for a bonjour or just a merci. Just any word in French you could be immediately arrested. And I had to learn German in three months - which shows you that with a knife on your, you know, on your neck, you can learn a language in three months. It's my brother who taught me.
But my mother insisted on speaking French at home and somebody overheard her and she was denounced and then we had to go to the Gestapo. And before we went, she dressed - she was a beautiful woman - and then typically, you see, she was - no fear. She took me along because she figured it's a good thing to have a young son of the Fuhrer, you know, along. And winking her eyes, she said to me - I have to translate in French - you'll see they are all idiots. (French spoken). So we were there and my mother comes instead of the Obergruppenfuhrer in his big office and salutes, Heil Hitler. The guy was already impressed, and then he says well, ma'am, you know you are in - Madame Ungerer, you are in a state of immediate arrest because you've been reported speaking French. And my mother said, speaking French? Yes, we speak French, Herr Obergruppenfuhrer. And I will keep on speaking French, and I'll tell you why. After the final victory, if nobody speaks French anymore, how is our Fuhrer going to administrate France if we don't have any Germans speaking French? And electrified, the officer came up, came in front of my mother, gave her a hand kiss, clicked his heels and said, at last I meet a true daughter of the Fuhrer. Madame Ungerer, Frau Ungerer, I give you the exceptional permission to speak French with your children. So that shows you that when you're clever you can get away with it.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. And I wish you well. Be well.
UNGERER: Well, and you too. I have a feeling you deserve it.
GROSS: Well, that's so nice of you to say.
UNGERER: You are very nice.
UNGERER: No. No. It was very nice.
GROSS: Tomi Ungerer spoke to us from Ireland where he now lives. The new documentary about him is called "Far Out Isn't Far Enough." You can see some of his children's book illustrations and one of his anti-war posters on our website, FRESH AIR.npr.org.
Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz reviews Kenneth Branagh's new film adaptation of the Mozart opera "The Magic Flute."
This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.