We store stories deep in the recesses of our minds, and they keep surprisingly well. To me, Tomi Ungerer created some of the most memorable stories ever. It’s his birthday today. He turns 86.

One night in my first year of undergrad, I was studying when suddenly the theme song from the animated version of The Three Robbers started playing in my head. It wouldn’t go away. I absently started muttering, “Ba ba ba BUM, ba BUM, ba BUM!”

My poor roommate was also trying to study, but very quickly it was impossible.

I couldn’t remember the name of the story, or any of the words. But I could remember the black capes, the blue faces, the red caps and capes. I remembered the puff puff puff of the pepper sprayer, the tiddly-ink of the coins, the galloping of the horse. I remembered a very foggy outline of the plot. I described all of these to my roommate, and we searched the internet for the name of the story. But we soon stopped, because homework called.

The next morning… “Ba ba ba BUM, ba BUM, ba BUM!” My roommate had caught the bug and was now making the sound effects. For the next few weeks, the song continued to turn up erratically in our dorm room.

Over winter break, I went to my hometown library and sang the theme song to the children’s librarians, and described the illustrations. I had read the story when I was 4 or 5, and none of the librarians were on staff when I was that age. They told me they had no idea what story I was describing.

But I was determined. I scoured the internet with every relevant search term. Eventually I must have typed “three” and “robbers” and “picture book” (sounds so obvious, doesn’t it?). When at last I found it, and the animation, it was like reuniting with an old friend.

The Three Robbers may not be as charming as Ungerer’s The Hat, which is about a magical hat that enables a poor old man to help others and then moves on like karma (animated version here). But The Three Robbers will always be particularly special to me because of its way of surfacing to my consciousness after being inert for a decade and a half. By doing so, it showed me that the stories I consumed as a child were deeply embedded in my view of the world, the way my brain works, and my identity.

Happy birthday, Tomi.


(For his birthday, Tomi Ungerer’s team invited fans to illustrate something from his stories. I made for him this painting of the three robbers in an iconic scene where they are gathered around a chest of coins and jewels. Except here, they’ve given up thievery and taken to baking massive cakes instead. Red icing, in honor of the red caps and capes, of course.)