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Posts Tagged ‘Tomi Ungerer’

11 DECEMBER, 2013

Otto: The Autobiography of a Teddy Bear

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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.

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19 MARCH, 2013

Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls: Irreverent Vintage Illustrated Verses by Shel Silverstein, A. A. Milne, Lewis Carroll & Ted Hughes

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“Moral: Never stew your sister.”

In 1963, editor William Cole and beloved children’s book illustrator Tomi Ungerer joined forces on a little gem titled A Cat-Hater’s Handbook. The following year, the two came together in a different yet equally endearing collaboration: Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls (public library) — a charming 1964 collection of “funny, absurd, and truly ridiculous rhymes” ranging from folk limericks to anonymous poems to verses both famous and little-known by literary luminaries like Ted Hughes, Lewis Carroll, Shel Silverstein, and A. A. Milne, accompanied by Ungerer’s signature irreverent drawings.

Cole himself sets the tone with an opening rhyme:

Here in this book, collected for you,
Are hundreds of things that you never should do,
Like stewing your sister, scarring your brother,
Or disobeying your father or mother.

What follows falls somewhere between Edward Gorey’s delightfully dark alphabet and Mark Twain’s playful Advice to Little Girls.

NOTHING TO DO?
Shelley Silverstein

Nothing to do?
Nothing to do?
Put some mustard in your shoe,
Fill your pockets full of soot,
Drive a nail into your foot,
Put some sugar in your hair,
Place your toys upon the stair,
Smear some jelly on the latch,
Eat some mud and strike a match,
Draw a picture on the wall,
Roll some marbles down the hall,
Pour some ink in daddy’s cap –
Now go upstairs and take a nap.

MY BROTHER BERT
Ted Hughes

Pets are the hobby of my brother Bert.
He used to go to school with a mouse in his shirt.

His hobby it grew, as some hobbies will,
and grew, and GREW and GREW until –

Oh don’t breathe a word, pretend you haven’t heard.
A simply appalling thing has occurred –

The very thought makes me iller and iller:
Bert’s brought home a gigantic Gorilla!

If you think that’s really not such a scare,
What if it quarrels with his Grizzly Bear?

You still think you could keep your head?
What if the Lion from under the bed

And the four Ostriches that deposit
Their football eggs in his bedroom closet

And the Aardvark out of his bottom drawer
All danced out and joined in the Roar?

What if the Pangolins were to caper
Out of their nests behind the wallpaper?

With the fifty sorts of Bats
That hang on his hatstand like old hats,

And out of a shoebox the excitable Platypus
Along with the Ocelot or Jungle-Cattypus?

The Wombat, the Dingo, the Gecko, the Grampus –
How they would shake the house with their Rumpus!

Not to forget the Bandicoot
Who would certainly peer from his battered old boot.

Why it could be a dreadful day,
And what Oh what would the neighbors say!

THE GOOD LITTLE GIRL
A. A. Milne

It’s funny how often they say to me, “Jane?”
“Have you been a good girl?”
“Have you been a good girl?”
And when they have said it they say it again,
“Have you been a good girl?”
“Have you been a good girl?”

I go to a party, I go out to tea,
I go to an aunt for a week at the sea
I come back from school or from playing a game;
Wherever I come from, it’s always the same:
“Well?
Have you been a good girl, Jane?”

It’s always the end of the loveliest day:
“Have you been a good girl?”
“Have you been a good girl?”
I went to the Zoo, and they waited to say:
“Have you been a good girl?”
“Have you been a good girl?”

Well, what did they think that I went there to do?
And why should I want to be bad at the Zoo?
And should I be likely to say if I had?
So that’s why it’s funny of Mummy and Dad,
This asking and asking in case I was bad,
“Well?
Have you been a good girl, Jane?”

SARAH CYNTHIA SYLVIA STOUT
Shelley Silverstein

Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout
would not take the garbage out!
She’d boil the water
and open the cans
and scrub the pots
and scour the pans
and grate the cheese
and shell the peas
and mash the yams
and spice the hams,
and make the jams.
But though her daddy
would scream and shout,
she would not take the garbage out.
And so it piled up to the ceilings:
Coffee grounds, potato peelings,
mouldy bread and withered greens,
olive pits and soggy beans,
cracker boxes, chicken bones,
clamshells, eggshells, stale scones,
sour milk and mashy plums,
crumbly cake and cookie crumbs.
At last the garbage piled so high
that finally it reached the sky.
And none of her friends would come to play.
And all the neighbours moved away.
And finally Sarah Cynthia Stout
said, ‘I’ll take the garbage out!’
But then, of course, it was too late.
The garbage reached beyond the state,
from Memphis to the Golden Gate.
And Sarah met an awful fate,
which I cannot right now relate
because the hour is much too late.
But, children, think of Sarah Stout
and always take the garbage out!

RICE PUDDING
A. A. Milne

What is the matter with Mary Jane?
She’s crying with all her might and main,
And she won’t eat her dinner—rice pudding again—
What is the matter with Mary Jane?
 
What is the matter with Mary Jane?
I’ve promised her dolls and a daisy-chain,
And a book about animals—all in vain—
What is the matter with Mary Jane?

 
What is the matter with Mary Jane?
She’?s perfectly well, and she hasn’?t a pain;
But, look at her, now she’?s beginning again!
What is the matter with Mary Jane?
 
What is the matter with Mary Jane?
I’ve promised her sweets and a ride in the train,
And I’?ve begged her to stop for a bit and explain—
What is the matter with Mary Jane?
 
What is the matter with Mary Jane?
She’s perfectly well, and she hasn’?t a pain,
And it’?s lovely rice pudding for dinner again!—
What is the matter with Mary Jane?

THE DUCHESS’ LULLABY
Lewis Carroll

Speak roughly to your little boy,
And beat him when he sneezes:
He only does it to annoy,
Because he knows it teases.

THINK OF EIGHT NUMBERS
Shelley Silverstein

Think of eight numbers from one to nine –
That’s fine.
Now pick up the phone and dial them all –
That’s making a call.
Now wait till somebody answers,
Then shout ‘Yickety-yick!’ and hang up quick.
And sit for a while,
And have a smile,
And start all over again.

BROTHER AND SISTER
Lewis Carroll

Sister, sister, go to bed!
Go and rest your weary head.”
Thus the prudent brother said.

“Do you want a battered hide,
Or scratches to your face applied?”
Thus his sister calm replied.

“Sister, do not raise my wrath.
I’d make you into mutton broth
As easily as kill a moth”

The sister raised her beaming eye
And looked on him indignantly
And sternly answered, “Only try!”

Off to the cook he quickly ran.
“Dear Cook, please lend a frying-pan
To me as quickly as you can.”

And wherefore should I lend it you?”
“The reason, Cook, is plain to view.
I wish to make an Irish stew.”

“What meat is in that stew to go?”
“My sister’ll be the contents!”
“Oh”
“You’ll lend the pan to me, Cook?”
“No!”

Moral: Never stew your sister.

Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls is an absolute treat from cover to cover.

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21 FEBRUARY, 2013

A Cat-Hater’s Handbook: Irreverent Vintage Gem Illustrated by Tomi Ungerer

By:

An ailurophobe’s delight circa 1982.

“If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work,” Muriel Spark advised, “you should acquire a cat.” But while felines may have found their way into Joyce’s children’s books, Indian folk art, and Hemingway’s heart, their cultural status is quite different from that of dogs, which are in turn celebrated as literary muses, scientific heroes, philosophical stimuli, cartographic data points, and unabashed geniuses. In fact, there might even be a thriving subculture of militant anti-felinists — or so suggests A Cat-Hater’s Handbook (public library), a vintage gem by William Cole and beloved children’s book illustrator Tomi Ungerer, originally conceived in 1963, but not published until 1982. The back cover boasts:

What’s so cute about an animal that loves absolutely nothing, makes your house smell terrible, and has a brain the size of an under-developed kidney bean? At last, a book that dares to answer these and other feline questions with the sane and sensible answer:

Not a damned thing!

Also included is a selection of “scathing anti-feline poetry and prose” from the likes of William Faulkner, Mark Twain, and Shel Silverstein.

Cole writes in the introductory pages:

Ailurophobia is, dictionarily speaking, a fear of cats. But words have a way of gradually sliding their meanings into something else, and ailurophobia is now accepted as meaning a strong dislike of the animals. Ailurophobes abound. Quiet cat-haters are everywhere. Often, a casual remark that I was doing anti-cat research would bring sparkle to the eyes of strangers. Firm bonds of friendship were immediately established. Mute lips were unsealed, and a delightful flow of long-repressed invective transpired. It was heart warming to find that what I thought would be a lonely crusade is truly a great popular cause.

What you’ll find, of course, is that underpinning Ungerer’s delightfully irreverent illustrations and Cole’s subversive writing is self-derision rather than cat-derision as this cat-hater’s handbook reveals itself as a cat-lover’s self-conscious and defiant love letter to the messy, unruly, all-consuming, but ultimately deeply fulfilling relationship with one’s loyal feline friend.

The intelligence of cats is a subject that arouses the cat-lover to fever pitch. Of course, there are all kinds of intelligences; the intelligence of a dolphin, for example, is particularly dolphinesque — it is suited to his surroundings and must be equated in those terms. Scientists balk at making comparative statements about animal intelligence. I spoke to one at the American Museum of Natural History who said that ‘ a general judgement, from the literature, would put the intelligence of cats below dogs and above rats.’ (Which is the right place for them, anyway.)

On average, each suburban or country cat will kill 10 to 50 birds a year.

A Cat-Hater’s Handbook is, sadly, out of print, but used copies still abound online and are possibly available at your local public library.

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