Crictor - Thao Lam
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S-N-A-K-E, just saying the word makes my skin crawl. When I was 6, I rushed home from Sunday school with a full bladder. Making a mad dash to the bathroom I was just about to sit down when out of the corner of my eye I spotted something slithering in the tub. My grandfather went fishing that morning and caught an eel. Deciding to keep it fresh for dinner he left it swimming in the bathtub. Technically it’s not a snake, but it’s close enough to make me pee in my pants. From then on, anything that slithers makes my toes curls, the hair on the back of my neck stand up, and gives me a tickle in my bladder. Keep reading…

I debated long and hard about buying this book because the main character is a S-N-A-K-E. Crictor, written and illustrated by Tomi Ungerer is about an unexpected gift. One morning Madame Louise Bodot received a peculiar O-shaped box by mail, inside was a boa constrictor. Her son sent her a snake as a birthday gift, not what I would have in mind for a gift but I’ll give him points for being different. Madame Bodot mothers her new pet naming him Crictor; she knits him sweaters and takes him to school with her (Madame Bodot teaches at a public school). Crictor and his mistress soon become fast friends and even more so when the loyal boa constrictor saves the day as a burglar breaks into Madame Bodot’s apartment. Rewarded for his bravery Crictor is honored with a medal, a statue, and the village named a park after him.

Even with my fear of S-N-A-K-E-S, I couldn’t help but be charmed by Crictor. The art is really simple. Inked line drawings with key points highlighted in black, green, and red. Tomi Ungerer’s style is very unpolished looking, they are more like spontaneous sketches. Not believing in easers, he would quickly sketch out 30 or so of the same scene until he lands on one he likes. Sometimes the simplest illustrations are the most difficult to create, when I work with inks or watercolour it usually takes me longer because I would spend hours trying to capture the spontaneity and fluidity of the medium by recreating the piece over and over again. I find that watercolour is not as forgiving and difficult to control; it’s a perfect medium to capture spontaneity and fluidity.

Crictor, a children’s book review by Thao Lam




Author and Illustrator Tomi Ungerer

Born on the 28th of November 1931 in Strasbourg France, Tomi Ungerer lost his father at an early age. Raising four children on her own, Ungerer’s mother moved the family to Colmar, France. Tomi Ungerer’s educational background was very limited. School became unbearable when the Nazis took over the education of children in Colmar, forcing their principles and ideology on students. Ungerer dropped out of school. He spent most of his early years hitchhiking across Europe, earning money working on cargo vessels, a window dresser and advertising artist for local businesses. He received very little formal art training, he spent only a year at the Municipal School for Decorative Arts in Strasbourg before he was asked to leave (I am curious about what the story behind that). His drawing skills were honed from everyday observations as he drew everywhere he went. Between 1939 and 1945 his drawings bare witness to the war.

With a trunk full of drawings and manuscripts Ungerer headed to New York City in 1956. His career blossomed in New York until his outspoken political views and racy erotic illustrations started alarming American publishers. Ungerer was involved in the Civil Rights movement, fighting against segregation and protested against the American involvement in the Vietnam War. Stirring clear of Ungerer, the American publishers allowed his books to go out of print and his career in the US slowly faded with it. Not concerned about the backlash Ungerer continue to this day to lend his support by speaking out and using his drawing skills to numerous humanitarian operations such as for the French Red Cross against AIDs and for Amnesty International.

To learn more about Tomi Ungerer, check out his website

Publisher HarperCollins; First Edition edition (January 1, 1900)

ISBN-10 0064430448

ISBN-13 978-0064430449