The Mellops – Retro Review by Travis Jonker

I arrived late to the Tomi Ungerer party. Growing up, the renowned author/illustrator just wasn’t on my radar (note: my entire radar screen was taken up with the large balding head of Roald Dahl). So it was with a completely blank slate that I came upon the Mellops. I’m kicking myself. In 2011 Phaidon re-released of a trio of these picture books starring an adventurous family of pigs. They’ve quickly become some of my favorites.

The Mellops Go Diving for Treasure (1957)

In The Mellops Go Diving for Treasure, Mr. Mellops finds a map leading to a sunken treasure. He and his four sons (Casimir, Isador, Felix, and Ferdinand) find the riches, but end up stranded on a desert island. When they finally make it home their treasure doesn’t last long.

The Mellops Strike Oil (1958)

The Mellops partake in some entrepreneurial fossil fuel drilling in The Mellops Strike Oil. They find what they’re looking for, but a fiery mishap teaches them to leave the drilling to experts.

Christmas Eve at the Mellops’ (1960)

It’s a case of too many trees in Christmas Eve at the Mellops’. Casimir, Isador, Felix, and Ferdinand hit the town on the night before Christmas to spread holiday cheer. Just when it seems their trees will go unused, they find a family in desperate need.

No matter the disappointment or success, every adventure ends with a family meal featuring a giant cream cake. A satisfying way to end these satisfying stories.

While some picture books feel contrived, Ungerer had a gift for creating stories that are quite the opposite – they feel like they’ve always existed. Themes of giving, caring for others, responsibility, and resourcefulness appear, but they are completely incorporated into the story. Overcoming moral and physical quandaries serves to make a rich story, first and foremost.

While the two-color artwork gives off a cool retro vibe for grown-ups, it likely won’t strike young readers in the same way. A perfect candidate for gatekeeper intervention (I’ll soon be pitching “Gatekeeper Intervention” as a cable reality show, BTY). Sharing one of these books during storytime will likely have students grabbing for the others in the series.

A good story is a good story, no matter the year. And these are classics. Singing the praises of Tomi Ungerer isn’t an original move, but I’m happy to join the chorus. It’s time more modern kids get acquainted with the Mellops.

Even our pal Maurice Sendak agrees…

“If you look at the work of Tomi Ungerer, it’s passionate, it’s personal, it’s marvelous and it’s cuckoo, and it’s that kind of veracity that’s always made for good children’s literature.” -Maurice Sendak, in The New York Times, September 2011

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian and amateur Abraham Lincoln impersonator. He writes about children’s literature and tweets as @100scopenotes.