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?