From Kids' Books To Erotica, Tomi Ungerer's 'Far Out' Life

Nov 1, 2013
Originally published on November 1, 2013 3:54 pm

This interview was originally broadcast on July 1, 2013. Far Out Isn't Far Enough has just been released on DVD.

Children's-book writer Maurice Sendak learned a lot from author and artist Tomi Ungerer. In Far Out Isn't Far Enough, a 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.' "

Interview Highlights

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."

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Our next guest, children's book author and illustrator Tomi Ungerer, is the subject of a documentary that's just been released on DVD. It's called "Far Out Isn't Far Enough" and examines his work, his life, and his often controversial ideas.

BIANCULLI: Ungerer's children's books 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.

The documentary "Far Out Isn't Far Enough features interviews with Ungerer as well as with Sendak, cartoonist friend 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. Ungerer didn't mind scaring kids a little. He was exposed to terrifying scenes growing up under Nazi occupation 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 S&M drawings.

His children's books were 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. Terry Gross spoke with him earlier this year.

TERRY GROSS: 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.

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...

UNGERER: Exactly. There we go. Yeah.

GROSS: ...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, I must say we were not really scared, but there was always the anxiety of being arrested by the Gestapo, which is something much deeper, in a way. You know, because 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 were encouraged to draw during World War II when the Nazis took over Alsace, where you lived.

UNGERER: Oh yeah.

GROSS: 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. 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, so 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 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, 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, around 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.


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, you know. And 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? 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.


UNGERER: 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, you know, 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 actually 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: Well, 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...


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 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. 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 anti-war 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 book world are specialized in children's books. But I think most people realized that I had my hands in just so, 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. 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. 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.

BIANCULLI: Children's book author and illustrator Tomi Ungerer speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Our guest is Tomi Ungerer who is famous for his award-winning children's book. The recent documentary about his work and life called "Far Out Isn't Far Enough" has just come out on DVD. It also covers his life growing up as a child on the French-German border when it was taken over by the Nazis, his friendship with Maurice Sendak, and his drawings of erotica. That's where we'll pick up the next part of his conversation with Terry.

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.

UNGERER: Well...

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: know, the book was pulled. So he suffered for that. So I'm just thinking...

UNGERER: Well, I...

GROSS: 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. I always broke every possible taboo, and so did Maurice. Not that we did it on purpose. Well, I'm an argent 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 not 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: 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.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

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.

GROSS: Really?

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: Oui. 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: Mm-hmm.

UNGERER: In '71.

GROSS: 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: 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.

BIANCULLI: Children's book author and illustrator Tomi Ungerer speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. A documentary about his life and work called "Far Out Isn't Far Enough" has just been released on DVD. And just today his latest book, "Fog Island," was named one of the 10 best illustrated children's book of the year by the New York Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.