One of history’s most beloved children’s illustrators tackles one of history’s most loathsome episodes.
One of the most persistent critiques of Western children’s literature has always been its lack of diversity, and one of the most powerful yet little-known counterpoints to that critique is Otto: The Autobiography of a Teddy Bear (public library) by the great Tomi Ungerer, originally published in German in 1999 — a story about Jewishness and the Holocaust, featuring a black hero, and exploring notions of identity, age, and class struggle. Unlike the majority of Ungerer’s more playful work — such as the infinitely delightful Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls and The Cat-Hater’s Handbook — this is a tale that deals with one of the darkest chapters in human history, and yet it emanates the most luminous light of the human spirit.
Like all autobiographies, this one begins with Otto looking back on his life. “I knew I was old when I found myself on display in the window of an antique store,” he tells us wistfully, then goes on to recount the happy days of his early life, beginning with his “birth” in Germany, where he was stitched together in a workshop.
Tucked into a box, he soon finds himself delighting a little Jewish boy named David as his birthday present. David and his best friend Oskar, a German boy who lives next door, go on to play with Otto all day, every day, including him in their games, enlisting him in their pranks, and even attempting to teach him to write and type.
All is joyous, until one day David shows up with a yellow star pinned to his jacket.
Soon, David and his parents are taken away by men in black leather coats. Otto, separated from his young friend, stays with Oskar as they watch more people with yellow stars loaded into trucks and driven away. Gloom descends further when Oskar’s father is drafted into the German army, leaving home to join the raging war.
And then the bombing begins. Oskar holds Otto tight as the family hides in the basement while entire city blocks are being blown to pieces, burying innocent victims under the ruins of what were once the homes of children.
Otto, too, is knocked out from an explosion and wakes up several days later in a pile of ashen debris. Tanks and soldiers begin rolling in as he finds himself in the middle of a battle field.
Suddenly, a soldier sees Otto and stops to pick him up.
He picked me up, and at that very moment I felt a sudden piercing pain go right through my body. The soldier, holding me to his chest, fell down moaning. He had been hit by the same bullet.
But the soldier, an American GI named Charlie, is taken to the hospital as he clutches Otto, and survives:
Charlie told all the nurses, “Look at him! Believe it or not this teddy bear saved my life. He took the brunt of the bullet meant to kill me.”
So when Charlie receives his medal of honor, he pins it to Otto’s chest. The newspapers break the story of the teddy bear who saved the soldier’s life, and soon Otto’s picture covers their front pages and he is celebrated as a good-luck mascot for the soldiers.
Once the war ends, Charlie takes Otto home to his little girl, Jasmin, in America. She is delighted and envelops Otto in a blissful existence of love and care.
But one day, a group of mean boys playing in the street take Otto from Jasmin, batter him, and toss him in a trash can, half-blind. Some of Ungerer’s most poignant points are particularly subtle, like his commentary on class struggle found in the vignette depicting the homeless woman who finds Otto and the Coca-Cola billboard behind her, or the fact that while all the mean boys who take Otto are black, one of them wears an NYU shirt in a deliberate antidote to the street gang stereotype.
The old woman sells Otto to the owner of an antique store, who sets about replacing Otto’s missing eye and cleaning his fur. He deems him a “collector’s item” and places him in the store window, where Otto sits unwanted and watches the world pass him by.
Then, one rainy evening, an old man stops by the window and stares at Otto for a few moments, before walking into the store. It turns out that the man was Oskar, having aged and changed, much like Otto, but never having forgotten their bond.
Oskar takes Otto home and, once again, Otto ends up in the newspapers as the story of a war survivor finding his childhood teddy bear spreads. One day, Oskar gets a phone call. Otto can only hear one side of the conversation, and it brims with exuberant amazement:
Hello? Who? What? That’s impossible!
It turns out the caller is David, who survived the concentration camps and lives nearby. He had seen the story in the newspaper and recognized both of his old friends. Oskar immediately rushes to visit David and the three of them reunite, sharing stories of what had happened to each during the war — David’s parents died in the concentration camp, Oskar’s father was killed in the war, and his mother was crushed under the ruins during the bombing. Miraculously, both David and Oskar had survived but had led lonely lives since then. Now, they resolved to live together as a happy trio for the rest of their days.
For the three of us, life was finally what it should be: peacefully normal.
Since our happy reunion I have kept myself busy pounding out this story on my typewriter. Here it is.
Otto: The Autobiography of a Teddy Bear is absolutely wonderful and the screen does it no justice whatsoever. Like its gentle teddy-bear protagonist, this is a treat whose enchantment is of the analog kind. Complement it with the best children’s books of 2013.