Book of the Week: The Three Robbers

January 20, 2014

The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer

Images and text by Carter.

[ Note from Design Mom: I have this post, and one more from Carter, that she kindly prepared last month. I'm going to share this one today — it's so good I don't want to to miss it! — and the other next week, before I return to my own book write-ups. ]

I tend to get a tad hyperbolic with enthusiasm about picture books. Even my youngest students have questioned the impossibility of each and every book being my favorite. Guilty. There are worse things, right? But when I say that Tomi Ungerer’s The Three Robbers is the best of the best, I hope you hear my urgency and adoration. Let me try.

It’s a cover that both intimidates and beckons. Caped in darkness, a hovering red axe, and three piercing pairs of eyes. It takes a spot of courage and trust to even open it, but the reward is great. These three robbers are no ragamuffin crew. With their blunderbuss, pepper-blower, and that red axe, they wreak havoc in the night. Ruthless. Relentless. But then one bitter night, an actual blunder. The carriage they stopped held no treasure, only an orphan named Tiffany. She wore a frilly little dress and a bow-tied bonnet, and like any good robbers would do, they took her home and put her to bed. The three baddies didn’t know this, but she was on her way to live with a wicked aunt anyway. Could they have, perhaps – saved her?

The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer

In the morning, Tiffany stumbles upon their embarrassment of riches and asks an accidentally poignant question: “What is all this for?” And the robbers’ response? They choked and sputtered. Choked and sputtered. I love those words, that sentiment, that moment when their guts are gobsmacked by this tiny blonde thing. So far, Ungerer has cloaked their world in rich blacks and blues. But when you turn the page from this revelation over the treasure chest, those dark colors yield to light and color. From then on, the robbers’ mission becomes one of rescuing other lost, unhappy, and abandoned children. Their odd crew grows into a family, a castle with three tall towers at its heart.

The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer

It’s a book to absorb and experience by letting Tomi Ungerer’s storytelling genius wash right over you. Sure, some parts are unsettling and on the verge of frightening. There’s beauty in recognizing that, and there’s hope that lives in the darkest of places. Maurice Sendak credits Ungerer for the sheer existence of Where the Wild Things Are, a celebration of the genuine, unbridled chaos of childhood. Sendak said, “I think it is unnatural to think that there is such a thing as a blue-sky, white-clouded happy childhood for anybody. Childhood is a very, very tricky business of surviving it. Because if one thing goes wrong or anything goes wrong, and usually something goes wrong, then you are compromised as a human being. You’re going to trip over that for a good part of your life.”

I find a great deal of freedom and wisdom in Sendak’s words and Ungerer’s redemption story. What do you think?

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Sonja January 20, 2014 at 9:26 am

My mother gave this book to my 5 year old nephew, and it immediately became one of his favourite books and a bedtime story regular, despite its darkness. And I absolutely agree with him, it’s a great story. I myself can say that the books that made the deepest impact on me as a child and that I still remember most vividly and pass on to my nieces and nephews are those where not everything is bright and happy for everyone, but where there is acknowledged that problems and sadness and loneliness are a part of life even for children. So I would absolutely have to agree with Sendak, childhood is a very scary thing, and you have to acknowledge that to give children the feeling of being taken seriously.


2 Carter Higgins January 21, 2014 at 7:58 pm

So true. The last sentence of your comment is so lovely!


3 danielle @ this picture book life January 20, 2014 at 10:26 am

Resonate with everything about this. And love Sonja’s comment above. (But I haven’t read the book! So it’s now on hold at the library.)


4 Julie Rowan-Zoch January 20, 2014 at 10:33 am

You’ve gotta know I adore this! And though it does not fit into the perfectly-written-PB-formula, I think that’s exactly what makes it stand out!


5 Peter McCleery January 20, 2014 at 11:45 am

Hey Carter,

This brought back memories of last year’s SCBWI Western Washington last year! Mac Barnett’s standing room only PB session where he broke this one down page by page.

I love these kind of dark picture books. This one is a perfect blend of words, image and design!


6 Carter Higgins January 21, 2014 at 8:00 pm

We are so lucky to have spent that time with Mac Barnett, right? I think about that often, and how it was a mini-master class with a sure legend.


7 Danzel January 20, 2014 at 12:35 pm

This is one of my family’s favorite books! It is so different and wonderful, and I love Ungerer’s illustrations.


8 Nicole January 20, 2014 at 2:29 pm

This is one of my 6 year olds favorite books (our whole familys’ fave) If anyone get’s a chance, the cartoon (Scholastic) is soo wonderful, the narrator makes the best sound effects – which are now included when we read the book at home. Wish the book was available to buy new.


9 Carter Higgins January 21, 2014 at 8:01 pm

Oh, great tip! I’ll check it out!


10 sofia January 20, 2014 at 2:43 pm

My kids love this book!


11 jweed January 20, 2014 at 3:04 pm

thank you for sharing this! i like to think of myself as a picture-book fanatic, but i have never seen nor read this. i cannot wait to get my hands on a copy. and thank you for sharing the sendak quote. so poignant.


12 Carter Higgins January 21, 2014 at 8:01 pm

Good luck! Try the library. It’s out of print, but you can find some used copies floating about.


13 sylvia January 20, 2014 at 5:14 pm

When I scrolled through and saw the illustrations, I gasped: it brought back a flood of memories I’d forgotten about somewhere. I loved this book as a kid! There’s nothing like a happy childhood memory jumping up to surprise you. Thanks for sharing!


14 alison January 20, 2014 at 8:05 pm

So beautifully written. I am going to miss Carter so much! I’m so glad you included this article.:)


15 Carter Higgins January 21, 2014 at 8:08 pm

Thank you, Alison! Big hug.


16 pececito arcoiris January 21, 2014 at 2:42 am

That book was given by Santa to one of my sons.. We love it!!
The colors are amazing, and the story so different to other children books…Yes, the dark part makes a point!
I also have to confess an addiction to children books as you. I’ve packed three hundred of them during our moving…


17 Melissa Guion January 21, 2014 at 2:17 pm

One of my favorites, too! And did you know that if you visit the Children’s Literature Research Collection at the University of Minnesota, you can hold some of Ungerers originals in your hand? HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.


18 Carter Higgins January 21, 2014 at 8:02 pm

Minnesota?! Is that also where they have Kate DiCamillo’s first draft of BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE. Bundling up, here I come.


19 melissa January 21, 2014 at 3:52 pm

Haven’t checked out this one, but I will. I love Tomi Ungerer- have you got of The Mellopp’s stories she wrote? They are so lovely.


20 Carter Higgins January 21, 2014 at 8:02 pm

Yes! So good.


21 melissa January 21, 2014 at 3:53 pm

…or, rather “he” wrote?


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