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Ali Mitgutsch, famous German children’s illustrator, dies at 86

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BERLIN — Hippies dance to the Beatles while the downstairs neighbor uses her broom to get them to turn the music down. Several apartments up, a boy with a toothache is waiting for the dentist. The postman is forced to climb the stairs because the children have taken the elevator. In the apartment below that of a man with a broken leg, a married couple has just moved in.

For Ali Mitgutsch, who died on January 10 at the age of 86 in Munich, all these stories unfold on a single abundant page, each told not with words but through images. And pages like that filled her children’s books.

They lined the shelves of generations of children in Germany, where he became a household name and was celebrated as the father of what Germans call the “Wimmelbuch” (meaning teeming book) – books whose detailed drawings of large groups of people may include visual jokes and anecdotes.

During his career, he drew more than 70 books, puzzles and posters. His books have sold millions of copies and been translated into 15 languages.

Their success anticipated similar publishing phenomena, including “Where’s Wally?” by British illustrator Martin Hanford. series. (“Where’s Waldo? In the United States)

His publisher, Ravensburger, attributed the death to complications from pneumonia.

“We have lost a wonderful person and a great illustrator in the person of Ali Mitgutsch,” German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in a statement. “With his drawings, he made us – myself included – laugh, think and dream.”

Mr. Mitgutsch was an unknown illustrator when he discovered his brand concept in 1968. “Rundherum in Meiner Stadt” (“In the bustling city”), his first book in what quickly became a series, featured large paintings – of a city park, a construction site, an apartment building – with a myriad of characters seemingly unrelated to their daily lives. The book, which is still in print, in 1969 won the prestigious German children’s book prize, the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis.

“Cheeky, funny and affectionate, he looked at the world and our human frailties,” said President Steinmeier, who in 2018 awarded Mr Mitgutsch Germany’s highest civilian honour, the Bundesverdienstkreuz.

Mr. Mitgutsch disliked the word “Wimmelbuch”, even though his publisher used it in the titles of several of his later books. He preferred the term “self-narrative picture book“. Indeed, texts were rare in his books; words were usually only found on signs in a picture.

In his 2015 memoir, written with Ingmar Gregorzewski, Mr Mitgutsch recalled lying awake in his bed during the summer during World War II, listening and letting his imagination run wild, eager for the hustle and bustle of city life in its working class. district of Munich. His drawings, done from a bird’s eye view (usually from around the height of his childhood apartment on the third floor), gave views of daily life that were both all-encompassing and intimate; he reminded some critics of the Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel.

Alfons Mitgutsch was born on August 21, 1935, the youngest of four children of Ludwig and Pauline Mitgutsch. His father, who had trained as a baker, became a railway worker after injuring his hand during the First World War. Ali grew up in relative poverty in a building that had belonged to his maternal grandfather until he was forced to sell it during the German economic crisis. troubles in the 1920s.

Mr. Mitgutsch trained as a commercial illustrator before trying his hand at children’s books in the late 1950s. He published several without much success before coming across the format that would make him famous.

He is survived by his second wife, Heidi, whom he married after the death of his first wife; three children, Oliver, Florian and Katrin; and four grandchildren. His son Florian is also a children’s book illustrator.

Not all Mr. Mitgutsch’s childhood memories were happy. He lived through the aerial bombings of Munich; his older brother Ludwig, a hero to him, was killed while serving in the Wehrmacht in Russia. And Mr. Mitgutsch suffered from severe dyslexia, which led to teachers abusing him, he said.

“His childhood has always been a central theme in his inner life,” Mr. Gregorzewski said. “He was never able to let go completely.”

He added, “His art was his way of calling other kids to come and play, and generations of kids have done that.”