The Queer Syllabus is a joint project from The Rumpus and Foglifter Press that allows writers to nominate works for a new canon of queer literature. When we identify our roots, when we point to the work that shaped us as writers and as people, we demonstrate that our stories are timeless, essential, and important—and so are we. New entries will run on Thursday, September through December, and then will be collected as a living document on the Foglifter website. The Queer Syllabus is edited by Wesley O. Cohen and Marisa Siegel.
Rufus appears to be a typical bat. He hangs from the roof of his cave as he sleeps by day, and flies across the moonlit sky as he hunts by night. But one night he stumbles upon a drive-in movie theater. The bright colors of the cars are lit by the images projected onto the screen. It’s unlike anything he’s ever experienced and his life is changed.
A normal bat would fly right back to what is familiar, but Rufus isn’t normal. He stays up all night and in the morning he discovers an entirely new world. Rufus is so inspired by the colorful flowers, birds, and insects he sees that he adorns his wings with paint from an artist’s palette he finds abandoned in a meadow.
The rainbow-clad Rufus does not find immediate acceptance. The first people who see him are so threatened by his difference they try to scare him away. When that fails, they shoot him. But then a famous butterfly collector finds Rufus felled in his tulip garden. He nurses Rufus back to health, and it’s through their tender friendship that Rufus learns to embrace his true self.
Who could have come up with such a story? Tomi Ungerer was born in Strasbourg, France in 1931, and grew up under Nazi occupation in Alsace, on the French-German border. He came to New York in 1956 with sixty dollars in his pocket and a trunk full of drawings and manuscripts. The following year he was introduced to the visionary and subversive Harper & Row editor Ursula Nordstrom, who published his first children’s book The Mellops Go Flying. Many other titles followed, including Rufus: The Bat Who Loved Colors in 1961.
Ungerer’s stories aren’t simple morality tales. Three robbers steal a young orphan who opens their hearts, eventually leading them to share their wealth with other lost, unhappy, and abandoned children. A lonely tax collector finds unexpected camaraderie with the curious beast who has stolen fruit from his beloved pear tree. The Man in the Moon hitches a ride to Earth where he is jailed for being an invader before devising an ingenious plan to find his way back to the place where he belongs.
None of Ungerer’s subjects are explicitly represented as gay, but like the author himself, they are queer in the broadest sense. Outsiders and outcasts, they must overcome disadvantages and even violence to find companionship or realize they prefer solitude and are entitled to it. In place of dispensing easy answers, Ungerer invites young readers to think hard. He often struggled to be understood by adults, and like Rufus, he didn’t always succeed.
Throughout the 1960s, Ungerer also wrote several books for adults, including a 1969 self-published collection of erotic drawings depicting people engaged in sexual activities with pleasure machines. He was invited to the annual convention of the American Library Association, but some of the librarians were unable to accept that a children’s book author could also produce provocative adult-themed work, and they attacked him. Blinded by anger, Ungerer famously defended himself by saying, “‘If people didn’t fuck, you wouldn’t have any children, and without children you would be out of work.”
In retaliation, libraries across the country purged his children’s books from their collections. Although his career in America was effectively ended, Ungerer remained active elsewhere, publishing over one hundred and forty books, and earning the Hans Christian Andersen Medal for his contributions to children’s literature in 1998. Ten years later, Phaidon began republishing his work in the United States.
I remember reading Rufus for the first time when I was about six, many years before I had any concrete awareness of my sexual identity. I only knew that I was different, and that I was alone in that difference. As I turn the pages again, I’m taken back to the moment when I first discovered that I might find my place in the world after all. This is still the best and queerest book I ever read.
Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.
Foglifter is a queer journal and press showcasing powerful, intersectional writing that fosters queer writers and galvanizes the queer community through literary events and programming.