• Happy birthday Ed Young (Seven Blind Mice) and Stephanie Calmenson (The Principal’s New Clothes).
  • It’s the birth date of poet William Blake (1757–1827). Read A Visit to William Blake’s Inn by Nancy Willard and illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen.
  • It’s Red Planet Day (referring to Mars), commemorating the launch of Mariner 4 on this day in 1964. During its voyage, the spacecraft eventually came within just over six thousand miles of Mars. Read Cars on Mars: Roving the Red Planet by Alexandra Siy.

Today we celebrate the birthday of one of the most original, and certainly most creative, members of the children’s book community. Tomi Ungerer was born in Strausbourg, France in 1931, and knew both poverty and tragedy at an early age. His father died when he was three. Then, because of economic hardship during the Great Depression and the onslaught of World War II, his mother was forced to move in with her own mother. In one telling quote, Ungerer said: “My whole childhood was a schooling in relativity, in figuring out for myself who were the good guys and who were the bad.”

In 1956 Ungerer emigrated to the United States and found work as a freelance illustrator, beginning his children’s book career with The Mellops Go Flying. Susan Hirschman, who founded Greenwillow in 1974, felt that Crictor, one of Ungerer’s early offerings, should be the example for every young writer of picture books. She trained them by having them type the text and examine the page breaks to see how brilliantly Ungerer could pace a book. Ungerer’s attraction to the macabre can best be seen in his work in the seventies, in fascinating titles such as The Beast of Monsieur Racine. As a young reviewer, I championed his books—works like No Kiss for Mother, destined for far too short a life. After all, mothers tend to prefer to buy Guess How Much I Love You over a  title with the promise of no kisses.

In 1962 Ungerer created, The Three Robbers, one of the most graphically brilliant books in the canon. Now reissued in an attractive edition by Phaidon Press, the book can be studied for its use of black space, rather than white space, in a book. Drawing on his many fears in childhood, for this book of darkness and shadows Ungerer presents three fierce robbers who go about the world in dark capes and tall black hats. They carry a blunderbuss, a pepper-blower, and an ax, and search the highways and byways for victims. But one night, they make a fatal mistake. They stop a carriage with a cheerful orphan named Tiffany. As she is going to live with a wicked aunt, she’s delighted to meet the robbers—and then she begins to change their castle. It becomes a place for orphans, for children without homes, and eventually grows into a village that honors the three robbers. Who are the villains, and who the good guys? This question from Ungerer’s childhood forms the core of his unforgettable story.

In 1998 Tomi Ungerer won the Hans Christian Andersen Award for the body of his work: In 2007 a new museum, Musee Tomi Ungerer/Centre International de I’Illustration, opened in his hometown to showcase his work, and he now lives there part of the year. Today I’d like to wish him happy birthday from all of his American fans. The books he created in the fifteen years while living in this country not only inspired children to read but also inspired artists like Maurice Sendak to face the dark side of their own psyches. Where the Wild Things Are appeared only two years after The Three Robbers. Ungerer’s books remind us that no matter what the scars of childhood, they can be healed and transformed by creative work.

Here’s a page from The Three Robbers:

Originally posted November 28, 2011. Updated for .

Tags: Art
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for The Three Robbers
One year ago: Moonshot


  1. My kids and I read Christmas Eve at the Mellops’ last night to celebrate his birthday. I think this should be a must read for the holidays — true meaning of Christmas.

  2. Vicki Solomon says:

    I recently read The Three Robbers to a first grade class…they were captivated. And the same was true when I read The Beast of Monsieur Racine (is there any way to help get this book back in print?) to a second grade class. I think that Tomi Ungerer is brilliant, and it’s rewarding to have children affirm that.

    Thank you, Anita, for highlighting him…and for your most wonderful daily children’s book page.

  3. Melody says:

    I was delighted to see the recent Tomi Ungerer exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum. Such a wry sense of humor. My story hour kids in the 1970s always loved The Three Robbers. There was a wonderful movie version too. I did find a book of his in London in 1984 at Foyles Book Store on Charing Cross Road. Little did I realize until on the way home when I examined it more closely that US censors might not let me bring it into the country. Children’s librarians tend to forget that their authors and illustrators produce adult material as well as children’s.

  4. suzi w. says:

    oh how special to discover that Tomi (who I have only discovered through your earlier posts) and I share a birthday!

    My mind is blank or I’d add some pithy remark.


  5. Cathy M says:

    I have absolutely loved Crictor since I was little. What a masterpiece! Never understood how anyone thought Babar could hold a candle to Crictor. It was extremely difficult to find Crictor to share with my own children. Anything we can do to encourage the re-publication of Tomi Ungerer’s books would be well worth the effort!

  6. Ella German says:

    I read a library copy of No Kiss For Mother over the weekend with my three (ages 3-7). Loved every word of it. So funny! A shame that I can’t purchase a new one to keep. Please continue to champion his books!

  7. Amy says:

    I just recently read The Three Robbers for the first time. It was interesting to read a little about Tomi’s life and possible inspiration for The Three Robber’s unexpected plot twist. Thanks!

  8. Bookjeannie says:

    My students love this book, & my daughter, an art student graduate, knew all about him! Putting this on the grandloves Christmas list! As always, thanks Anita!

  9. D. T. Gray says:

    I have not read any of his work, but I am very intriqued. I write supernatural stories, and I haven’t really heard of children’s books written in that style. Most definitely on my wish list!

  10. G. Perry says:

    Well, how did I miss this one!

    I’m headed out to find it.

  11. Whitney says:

    I was introduced to this book through the picture book videos that have been made and showed to elementary school classes. When the kindergarten class I worked with and I saw this video it completely charmed me. By the end of the year, all the children knew that when a book video was shown at my request, it would be The Three Robbers. It makes me smile, just remembering.

  12. Anita says:

    Gordon and Whitney: Nice to hear from you on Thanksgiving 2013. Hope you find some great books to enjoy today.

Leave a Comment

Daily children’s book recommendations and events from Anita Silvey.

Discover the stories behind the children’s book classics . . .

The new books on their way to becoming classics . . .

And events from the world of children’s books—and the world at large.