Rufus, The bat who loved colours

Tomi Ungerer

Phaidon Press, 2015

Hbk, 9780714869728 AUD $19.95

If diversity is a theme – or indeed a project – of children’s publishing today then Tomi Ungerer must be considered a pioneer and a champion of the cause.  The creator of Three Robbers (Trois brigands) has celebrated outsiders and pushed the boundaries for more than half a century. Since 2008, English language publisher Phaidon Press have been steadily reissuing his books in beautiful, and very affordable, hardcover editions.

Phaidon's  Tomi Ungerer reissues are superb productions. Chapeau!

By the time that Rufus The bat who love colours was published in 1961, Tomi Ungerer was already well on the way to being an established figure in children’s literature. Crictor, the tale of the unlikely friendship between a boa constrictor and an elderly lady published in 1958, appeared on numerous awards lists, including the Horn Book Fanfare Honor List and the ALA Notable Books. Rufus appeared in the same year as The Three Robbers. Let’s just say that writer’s block was never a problem.

Rufus looks into the light

Rufus absolutely rocks with colour, from the moody night scene of the cover, through the orange hardcover jacket, the vivid yellow end papers and Rufus’s startling plunge out of the cave and into the daylight. Breathtaking! Clearly, Rufus is not a bat to go gently into that good night. No, he finds an abandoned palette and paints himself in spectacular colours, like the birds and flowers he seems all around him. But this strange and wild creature frightens the earth-bound types threatened by the unknown. Luckily, Rufus is found by a butterfly collector, Dr Tarturo, who believes that he has discovered a rare specimen. Realising his error Dr Tarturo takes care of Rufus, nursing him back to health and creating a lifelong friend who care share his passion for wild and unusual creatures.

Ungerer’s pages have a freewheeling energy that more than 50 years cannot dim. In part, it’s the economy of the storytelling and the text. In part, it’s the visual economy honed in advertising and magazine work. And in part it’s Ungerer’s own impish wit and style. The modulation of light and dark, of colour and white space, is a little master class as the reader moves through the pages. There is a saying that ‘the best picture books don’t work on radio’, and it was never truer than in Rufus as it moves from caves to night skies, dazzling daylight, dim basements and living rooms and sunlit gardens.

Rufus, not your average bat.

Rufus, not your average bat.

Mr Tarturo

I suppose there are a number of anachronisms that children today might need explained. What is an open-air cinema? Why are they watching a black and white television? Let’s agree that this is part of the magnificent, vibrant and surprising world Tomi Ungerer creates and which will endure for many, many more decades to come.

Standing out in a crowd comes with a cost.

To return to the theme of diversity, one thing that helps sustain Rufus and many of Ungerer’s best books is that if there is a message, then it is wound tight into the story and characters. There is nothing didactic in this book. Rufus is not a symbol for anything other than his own curiosity and joy. This is Ungerer's best response to the punishers and those who would impose rules upon our human freedoms. Rufus is a lasting delight.

About the illustrator

Tomi Ungerer is a giant of book illustration. Born in Strasbourg in 1931, Tomi Ungerer grew up under Nazi occupation, after Hitler’s armies took over the Alsace region. The precocious Ungerer recorded these events in detailed and nuanced drawings, pictures that survive to this day. After liberation in 1945, the French authorities reasserted their presence. Yet Ungerer felt alienated all over again. Aged 25 he left Europe for New York City, where his career as an illustrator quickly took off amid a boom in magazine publishing. There are few, if any book illustrators of Ungerer's stature, whose work is so widely known. Maurice Sendak said that without Tomi Ungerer there would be no Where the Wild Things Are. "Tomi influenced everyone," Sendak said.

After twenty five years in the United States and Canada, Tomi Ungerer and his family moved to Cork in the west of Ireland, reconnecting him to Europe. He has been a tireless campaigner for French-German relations. Among many, many awards he was awarded the Legion d'Honneur in 1990 and the Hans Christian Andersen Prize for Children's Literature in 1998. 

His life is documented in the film Far Out is Not Far Enough. It's a fascinating and frank portrait of unique and important artist. It's well worth chasing up.