Friday, January 7, 2011

Otto: The Autobiography of a Teddy Bear

"No one, I dare say, no one was as original."
--Maurice Sendak

"He never lost the feeling of how a child sees the world. And a child's view is not really sentimental."
--Burton Pike, professor of comparative literature at CUNY

"The most famous children's book author you have never heard of."
--Phaidon Press

Who do the above quotes refer to? None other than Tomi Ungerer, one of my all-time favorite authors. I was an Ungerer fan as a child, poring over my tattered copies of The Three Robbers and Emile again and again. As an adult I came across The Beast of Monsieur Racine and fell in love with this exuberant story about a retired tax collector whose life is changed forever when he finds two young friends where he least expected. Read the book. It's one of my top 10 favorite picture books.

Many of Ungerer's books are now out of print. (One reason he fell out of favor here was his not-so-secret hobby of erotica.) Luckily, Phaidon Press is in the process of reprinting 26 of his titles. The latest is Otto: The Autobiography of a Teddy Bear. Originally published in German in 1999, the picture book tackles a disturbing subject, World War II. Like all of Ungerer's work, the book doesn't shy away from the gory realities of war and what happens to soldiers and to civilians, children included.

Otto, the teddy bear of the title, tells the story of his life, beginning with his creation in a toy workshop in Germany in the 1930s. Not one to shun unpleasant truths, Otto admits that being stitched together "was quite painful." Given as a birthday present to David, a young Jewish boy, Otto spends blissful day playing with the boy and his best friend, Oskar, who is not Jewish. Then things begin to change. David must wear a yellow star on his jacket. Next he and his family are taken away. In a moving illustration, David hands over Otto to Oskar for safekeeping. Interestingly, Oskar is the one who looks upset and is crying, not David.

During wartime, Oskar's building is bombed and Otto is sent flying. Again, the illustration of the carnage, with the bodies of dead soldiers, is unsparing. He's picked up by an American soldier, thereby saving the soldier's life when a bullet hits them both. (Quibble: Could a stuffed teddy bear be enough of a buffer?) The soldier takes Otto home and gives him to his daughter. Loved again, Otto enjoys being pampered until he's snatched from the girl's arms by "three nasty boys" and finally ends up in a trash can. An old woman rescues him and bring him to an antique shop, where he stays in the window for many years. One rainy night, an old man spots him. Yes, dear reader, it's David, the original owner, who survived the war (although his parents didn't). David takes him home, and the story is written up in the newspaper, which leads to Oskar (another survivor) contacting David, and the three friends are reunited.

Despite the involved plot, the text for Otto is relatively straightforward, although there are a few vocabulary words to chew on, such as "indelible," "charred rubble," and "mascot." Would a Level 3 reader be able to get through the book by herself. Yes. Should she? No. A trusted adult's presence is strongly recommended, as a child is bound to have many questions. The illustrations, as with all of Ungerer's work, are amazing. Done in soft watercolors, they can be playful (as when David and Oskar dress Otto as a ghost and dangle him in front of a neighbor's window), touching (Oskar saying goodbye to his father as he heads off to war), and graphic (the wounded American soldier clutching Otto to his chest to staunch the flow of blood). Even Otto's expression subtly change each time he undergoes another reversal of fortune. I highly recommend this book, and I'm looking forward to seeing more of Tomi Ungerer's work reissued by Phaidon.

Otto: The Autobiography of a Teddy Bear
by Tomi Ungerer
Phaidon Press, 36 pages
Published: September, 2010


  1. Thank you for stopping by!

    Not too similar, but your description here reminds me of a book I loved as a girl, WHEN HITLER STOLE PINK RABBIT.

  2. I was totally hooked by your review 1- when I saw the name Burton Pike who was my professor and served on my dissertation committee and 2- when you wrote the book was written German and 3-when you wrote it was about WW II,
    This sounds like a wonderful book and I will be sure to look for it. Your review was so insightful and made Ungerer sound like on of the great German writers of kids books in league with Erich Kästner. You have introduced me to a whole new German writer (we never read kids books in German classes)

  3. Ungerer was born in Alsace and is trilingual. He's written books in English, German, and French. An amazing man!

  4. Catherine, I absolutely love the intent of your blog. Having an eight year old, a seven year old and a four year old, early readers have and will continue to be a part of our lives for a while yet. Their value is often overlooked. Excellent post. So glad I came across you on The Comment Challenge site.

  5. OK, I need to try Ungerer again. I "discovered" him about 6 months ago and got all the books I could through the library, but they didn't do it for me or my girls. Maybe I had had too high expectations. But given your review here I shall try again and maybe this time the missing magic will be there!

  6. I'll definitely look into this one. I often need shorter books for my struggling 8th grade readers, and this one looks like it might be good for the Holocaust unit.