Tough Tales For Dark Times

Erich Kästner’s books for children shows that that difficult ideas don’t have to be kept from young readers

Books Family Germany Literature
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.

In The Flying Classroom, set in a boys’ grammar school, one of the pupils, Kreuzkamm, is captured by yobs from the school in town as he is carrying books through the streets. They burn the dictation exercise books and tie Kreuzkamm up in a cellar where they give him six slaps every ten minutes.

Naturally, the boys from the grammar school, led by our heroes Johnny, Martin, Matthias, Uli and Sebastian, triumphantly free Kreuzkamm and beat up the gang from town. Their victory is marred only by having to do the dictation test again in fresh exercise books.

But the torture scene in the cellar is unsettling. Anthea Bell, who has translated the Kästners for Pushkin, says: “You can see where the seeds of the concentration camps were sown.”

The burning of the exercise books, too, is significant. The Flying Classroom was published only a few months before the night in the Opernplatz.

Kastner was twice arrested by the Gestapo for publishing political journalism and poems. After 1942, a complete ban was placed on his literary activities. His biographer, R.W. Last, writes that he “stubbornly continued working as far as possible and for as long as possible.”

Anthea Bell calls the boys in The Flying Classroom a “bunch of right-thinking children”. To English readers who have been brought up on Jennings, Just William and other boarding school books, the grammar school boys may at times seem more Fotherington-Thomas than Molesworth. They share their cakes, draw pictures for their parents, venerate their headmaster and cry when they are homesick. But they are saved from being treacly by also being ready to jump off ladders, duff up the bullies and suspend each other in buckets from the classroom ceiling.

What is striking about the children in all Kästner’s books is their resourcefulness. When Emil has money stolen on the train to Berlin, he sets off in pursuit of the thief, recruiting a gang of boy detectives to help him. When Luise and Lotte in The Parent Trap (twice made into a Hollywood film, with Hayley Mills in 1961 and with Lindsay Lohan in 1998) meet at a summer camp and discover they are twins, separated when their parents divorced shortly after they were born, they swap identities and each return from holiday to the parent they have never met. Their ingenious switch reunites their parents, who marry for a second time.

The heroine and hero of Dot and Anton are particularly sympathetic characters. Anton’s mother, who is recovering from an operation to remove a tumour, is too weak to go to work, so Anton goes out every night after he has done his homework to sell shoelaces and make enough money to buy sausages and potatoes for their supper.

His friend Dot, the daughter of a wealthy civil servant, dresses as a beggar and sells matchsticks to raise money for Anton. Together they foil a burglary.

Dot is a delightful creation. Though a tiny thing—she is given her nickname (Pünktchen in German) because she was so very small when she was born—she has enough imagination for ten schoolgirls. She tucks her dog Piefke into bed as the Wolf in Little Red Riding Hood and is furious when he refuses to eat her. She pretends to be Christopher Columbus sailing to America, splashing a bowl of salted water all over the carpet as she goes.

Anthea Bell fondly calls her “a remarkable proto-feminist”. This she shares with Pony, Emil’s cousin in Emil and the Detectives, who rides madly around Berlin on her bike and gives the boys what for. There’s a wonderful scene in which she pertly tells Emil, “Woman’s work is never done.”

Lotte in The Parent Trap teaches herself to cook because her mother, a picture editor on the local illustrated paper, comes home from the office too tired to make dinner.

Dot and Anton, published in 1931, ends with a postscript. Kästner admits that some readers might write to him to say that Anton is too like Emil. He replies to the accusation with this:

I wrote about Anton, although he really is like Emil Tischbein, because I believe that we can’t tell too many stories about boys like that, and we can’t have too many Emils and Antons.

Perhaps you will decide to be like them? Perhaps, if you have come to like them and think they are good examples, you will be as hard-working, right-minded, brave and honourable as they are?

That would be the best reward I could have. Because Emil, Anton and all who are like them will grow up to be very good men. The kind of men we can always do with.

Kästner felt he was living through an age with too few Emils and Antons, Dots and Ponys; when thugs like those from the town in The Flying Classroom were burning books and hauling people off the streets to be imprisoned and tortured. He wanted his books to have a clear, didactic moral purpose.

A child reader will adore the pug dogs and cream cakes and Christmas lights, all winningly illustrated by Walter Trier—the Quentin Blake to Kästner’s Roald Dahl. An adult, though, will see behind the pigtails and street chases, to signs of a Germany which had lost track of morality and reason.

“The young need something to model themselves on,” Kästner wrote after the war, “just as much as they need milk, bread and air to breathe.”