Inspiring Young Readers

posted on 11 Jan 2021

Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown, illustrated by Tomi Ungerer

I have always loved this hilarious story about a young boy, Stanley Lambchop, who makes the best of an unfortunate accident. When a bulletin board above his bed falls on him and crushes him completely flat, he and his family are resolved to look on the bright side and think about the many advantages of being two dimensional. The edition I am used to sharing with children is vividly illustrated by Scott Nash who does a good job of showing how Stanley copes with his new body shape. But I didn’t realise that the original 1968 illustrations were by the great Tomi Ungerer (1931-2019) which give the story a very different atmosphere.

For a start, this book format is smaller and the colour palette is restrained to black, white and orange which for me better suits the unfolding quiet domestic drama. On the first page we learn that his parents appreciate politeness and the precise use of language. Their younger son, Arthur summons them urgently to see what has happened to Stanley:

‘Hey! Come and look! Hey!’ …. ‘ Hay is for horse, Arthur, not people’

Despite the dreadful accident, Mrs Lambchop is keen that they all have breakfast before taking him to see Doctor Dan who examines him carefully and finds nothing seriously wrong. The ever practical Mrs Lambchop asks the forbidding looking nurse to take Stanley’s measurements so that she can sort out the necessary alterations to his clothing.

Stanley seems to adjust to his new shape very quickly and finds that he can get under doors, through the bars of a grating to recover his mother’s lost ring and in one of my favourite episodes, even travel a long distance safely contained in a sturdy envelope.  In fact he seems to be having rather a good time, which causes Arthur to become quite jealous. He even tries to get himself flattened as well by placing a huge pile of books on top of himself – but to no avail. Stanley excels himself by helping to stop a robbery at the Art Gallery by posing as a character in a painting in order to trap ‘a gang of sneak thieves’. Despite all these many adventures and increasing notoriety, Stanley is not happy because he is too different from other people. He even starts to get bullied by other children and begins to feel desperate. Will he ever get back to normal? 

I am a natural Pollyanna who tends to be irritatingly positive about what life throws my way. It isn’t always sufficient and of course some problems can’t be solved, but I appreciate how this story gives the message of reassurance and the need for flexibility. It is a comfortable cartoon world that allows Stanley to be eventually re-inflated with Arthur’s inspired idea of using a bicycle pump. And even though Mr and Mrs Lambchop are a bit put out by the boys being awake so late at night – they celebrate his transformation with toasts of hot chocolate before settling down to sleep.

I already have several books illustrated by this prolific artist and draughtsman and know that he published over 140 books ranging from many iconic works for children to controversial books for adults. His website explains that:

‘Ungerer’s stories and illustrations for children are injected with generous helpings of the absurd, his books are brimful of creativity, irreverence and humour and he doesn’t shy away from challenging vocabulary or topics that have been traditionally considered out of bounds within the genre’.

And in his own words:

‘I think it is crucial to show children that no matter what one’s flaws are, there is always a way to survive and win by being different and making the best out of what one has. I want to show children that everyone is different but equally unique’.

I have also discovered that much of his work is exhibited at The Tomi Ungerer Museum in Strasbourg – definitely a trip to plan for in the near future where I might even be lucky enough to see an original drawing from ‘Flat Stanley’.

First editions like this are as rare as hen’s teeth so we were lucky to find one in a second hand bookshop priced at £30. There don’t seem to be any copies available online but I strongly recommend that you keep searching – it’s a treat.

Karen Argent

January 2021