Tag Archives: Erich Kästner

Erich und Lisa, and Paul and Matt, too.

No, that’s not a new book.

Travel gods willing, I’m off to Berlin today, so thought I’d ‘fob you off’ with some Berlin books.

I’ve never been, so am writing this blind. I’ll be interested to discover how much of Erich Kästner’s city remains. Having watched all three Emil und die Detektive films, I should know. Only one was made before the war. If Emil was English, it’d be easy enough to film a boy in prewar London now. There are plenty of houses and buildings left. I hope quite a bit of Berlin is also still there.

The other old Berlin I ‘know’ is Lisa Tetzner’s, where her child characters lived in tenements in the 1930s. Surely some remain? And I have no idea how large Berlin was in those days. I’m assuming the children in no. 67 lived quite centrally.

You can find countless children’s books set in today’s London. There must be a Berlin counterpart. It’s ‘just’ that we don’t get to see those books.

The more recently written novels that come to mind are British. There was Paul Dowswell’s Ausländer ten years ago. Orphan Monster Spy by Matt Killeen from last year. Both showing life within Germany. Both featuring WWII. There’s more to Germany and Berlin than that.

Death in Berlin, by M M Kaye, set in postwar Berlin. It’s decades since I read it, and I recall a sense of bleakness.

Ich bin ein Berliner, as JFK said. Whether or not that makes us doughnuts I will leave unsaid. I’m certainly rounded enough.

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Dot & Anton

Erich Kästner, Dot & Anton

This is another feelgood story by Erich Kästner, with iconical illustrations by Walter Trier. I settled in with this as a special Easter reading treat, thinking how ‘idyllic’ that period between the wars in Germany seems in literature. No sooner had I thought this, but I realised that it’s not true. There was a lot of poverty, as well as riches. Rather like now.

It’s about little rich girl Dot, who is quite an unusual child. When we meet her she appears, to her bemused father, to be selling matchboxes to the wall in her room. There is obviously a reason for this. Dot’s father is rich, her mother is a woman who shops and ‘has migraines,’ and they have several staff; a chauffeur, a maid and a governess.

Somewhere, some time, Dot has met Anton, who is a poor boy with a sick mother, trying to make ends meet while still going to school.

It’s fascinating to see how the two children get on, despite the differences in their lives. And in a fairy tale sort of way there are wicked crooks and brave children, policemen who do what policemen are supposed to do, and everything works out in the end.

It’s the moral happy ending which proves this is historical fiction and not set now. It would be less likely to happen today. Unfortunately.

The child in me wishes it could still be like this.

Dot & Anton is a quietly humorous story, and the moral musings by Erich Kästner at the end of each chapter make for a different style of book. He tells the reader what he believes, and then invites the reader to consider what their opinion might be.

The Flying Classroom

Occasionally you just have to cry. A little. When a book is so wonderful it is all you can do.

Erich Kästner, The Flying Classroom

The Flying Classroom by Erich Kästner, illustrated by Walter Trier and translated by Anthea Bell, is such a book. You can take my word for it.

If you know Erich Kästner you will know this is an old story, like Emil and the Detectives. First published in the 1930s it’s a marvellous piece of history, as written by someone who didn’t know it at the time, but who just wrote what was natural and normal. Finishing in the Kur-fürstendamm before the war, it necessitates historical somersaults for someone my age. You know, what it was, what it became, what happened after, and finally what it is now.

Set in a boys’ boarding school, it is far removed from the traditional British story set in a similar place. The Flying Classroom – a school Christmas play – is only incidental to the plot, which focusses on a group of five or six boys, who I think are around 13 years old. Both young and mature at the same time. They are lovely.

So is the school and their house master and a man outside school whom they befriend. Even the boring headmaster is lovely and the boys’ dry German teacher as well. But this is no cloying loveliness. It simply is.

Erich Kästner, The Flying Classroom

There is the abandoned boy, the clever but poor boy, the large and hungry one, the little ‘cowardly’ one, and so on. They all get on and all look out for each other. They even ‘get on’ with their arch enemies from another school, for goodness’ sake!

If you want to use your hanky, I can thoroughly recommend The Flying Classroom. It is sheer old-fashioned Christmas goodwill to all mankind and love and friendship. Boys are allowed to admit to loving their mothers. This book moved me to a place that few books do.

Oh, just buy it!

Translated

It should have been like Desert Island Discs, where you are encouraged to think beyond the world of the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare. The authors should have been told that ‘no, you can’t have the Moomins; people always pick it. Think of another translated book!’ (Apologies to Gill Lewis who was allowed to choose the Authors’ Author.)

After all, the rest of the world must be able to offer one or two children’s books not originally published in English (which is a great language, but not the only one). There’s the Moomins. Still leaves at least one other book.

In The Guardian’s list of favourite – translated – children’s books nine authors have picked theirs. It’s everything from Tove Jansson and Astrid Lindgren to Janne Teller and Kim Fupz Aakeson and Niels Bo Bojesen. It is a varied list. But I suppose I’d hoped for something different. As I said, ban Astrid and Tove, and probably Erich Kästner, too, and what do you get?

The Resident IT Consultant muttered about classics, but it’s hard enough to get children to read English language classics. I’d like to see more recent fiction translated. You know, the kind of books German and Italian and Finnish children have enjoyed in the last five or ten years. (And I don’t mean Harry Potter!)

I don’t know what they are. That’s why I rely on publishers, whose job it is to bring out books. But I do know that the few modern French books I’ve read, have all been better than average. I’m suspecting there could be more where they came from.

Even setting aside very country specific fiction, there must be a few books that would appeal to British and American children? I’m not counting the Australians or readers in New Zealand, because those countries seem more open to books from ‘other’ places.

Mårten Sandén, whose book I reviewed on Monday, has written lots of books. He’s not the only Swede to have done so. Take a group of successful children’s writers from maybe ten countries, and you should have a lot of choice. Nordic crime is popular with older readers, so why not for children?

There are one or two ‘crime novels’ from my own childhood which still stand out in my memory. I have no idea how well they’d do today. It could be that the grass seemed greener then. In which case there must be some fresh grass to replace my hazy memories.

Gunnel Linde, Osynliga Klubben och Kungliga Spöket

And if you think children don’t want to read about strange children in strange places, there were millions of us who consumed Nesbit and Blyton despite their foreign-ness, and don’t even get me started on Harry Potter…

Emil and the Detectives

More urchins in the streets. More spines to stare at and very stroke-worthy they are too. I have to admit to brief moments of book stroking and general admiring of the simple and beautiful cover designs of some oldies that recently arrived at Bookwitch Towers.

Erich Kästner, Emil and the Detectives

Plenty of urchins where the New Cut Gang came from. Or not, since they roamed Victorian London, and we are now in 1930s Berlin in the company of Erich Kästner’s young detectives.

Here I have to admit to more strange behaviour. The witch family became Emil experts a few years ago when Son needed some project to do in German. He picked the Emil and the Detectives films, of which there are three. All in German, and by that I mean they weren’t subtitled. Very educational.

We started with the modern one, where Emil had been updated. It worked surprisingly well. The older films, from the 1930s and the 1950s were worryingly similar, although that was to do with the same script (?) being used for both.

Anyway, we have seen poor Emil lose his money over and over again. He really needs to learn to be more careful with money. And then comes Emil’s meeting with the Berlin urchins, and their subsequent hunting of the baddie and the lost money, followed by their triumphant success.

Erich Kästner’s own illustrations make this new version of Emil and the Detectives doubly attractive. The translation is from 1959, and it has translated the money into pounds, which feels slightly strange to me. You lose both the sense of foreign-ness (possibly a good thing in those days) and any sense of how much money Emil has lost when the £7 disapppear.

But its a marvellous story, which always feels fresh – in a historical, retro sort of way. (There were, as I’ve said before, more books in a similar style and setting, but it’s as if Emil is the sole representative of German books from that era in Britain.)