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An illustration by Walter Trier for Erich Kästner's 1931 story "Dot and Anton": In this Berlin scene, Dot, who has been selling matches on the streets in the pouring rain, is reunited with her parents. (image: 1935 Atrium Verlag A.G. Zurich. Courtesy of Pushkin Press)


On the evening of May 10, 1933, German students in stormtrooper uniforms built a bonfire of books in the Opernplatz in Berlin. Works by Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce were burnt.

"Down with decadence and moral decline!'" a convenor shouted. "Up with discipline and morality in the family and the state!"

One man watched his own books burn: Erich Kästner, the popular author of children's books, who had made his name with Emil and the Detectives, a story of crime-solving boys in Berlin published in 1928.

It was not Emil in flames, though, but Fabian, Kästner's first novel for adults. Fabian, published in 1931, is a hedonistic stagger through a corrupt Berlin: sex and drugs and cabaret. "In the east resides crime," Kästner wrote of the city, "in the centre swindling, in the north misery, in the west lechery, and to all points of the compass destruction lurks."

Not a book for children.

Erich Kästner was a contradiction: the moralising author of children's books, sometimes cloyingly sweet; and of bitter polemics in prose and poetry for adults. He had the opportunity to escape Germany—he was in Zurich in early 1933—but returned. He said it was a writer's duty to "experience how the nation to which he belongs endures its fate in hard times. Going abroad at such a moment can only be justified if his life is in extreme danger. Besides, it is his professional duty to run that risk, if he is to remain as a witness and to be able one day to testify to what he has seen."

These are sober thoughts with which to begin a review of children's books, but Kästner insisted that sad or worrying ideas must not be kept from young readers.

In The Parent Trap (1949), a story of identity-swapping twins and one of three books by the author published in new translations by Pushkin Children's Books, he writes:

Respected readers, both large and small, I think—indeed, I am afraid—that it is time I told you a little about the parents of Lotte and Luise, and particularly about how they came to be divorced. And if at this point a grown-up happens to look over your shoulder and exclaim, "How on earth can the man write about such things for children?" then please be kind enough to read aloud the following remarks to that grown-up . . .

Tell him, from me, that there were very many divorced parents in the world at the time, and very many children who were unhappy about it! And there were very many other children who were unhappy because their parents didn't get divorced! But . . . it would be . . . a mistake not to talk to them about it, in an understanding and easily understood way!

So that is what Kästner did: he talked to his young readers in an understanding and easily understood way: about divorce, poverty, grief, loneliness, violence, crime, hunger, truth and lies.

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