Colourful worlds of education and fun: German Children’s books

Believing the teachers of my six year old daughter and my own intuition, reading is the most important skill for young children. Schools in England put huge effort in motivating pupils to read and take an interest in stories and books. I remember when I was a kid, my excessive reading caused raised eyebrows and the accusation of being a “bookworm” who should “go out and see more of the real world.” Today, German libraries are plastered with posters claiming: “Shock your parents! Read a book!”

It’s not outdoor playtime that’s the biggest threat to literature and the learning experiences that come from it today. “Screen time” has become the bigger challenge. Instant gratification, colourful presentation, fireworks of multimedia invite to drift off into virtual worlds rather than those that have to be built within the own mind.

The benefits of reading are huge – so much, that the German government funds a special celebration of literature every year, the German Youth Literature Award (Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis). Authors, publishers, readers and critics meet to discuss, exchange ideas and grant prices to the best books of the last year. Looking at the books in the competition can leave a dizzy feeling, given the wide range of topics and ideas, but also the occasional darkness. War, illness and poverty are among the topics of children’s books in 2019.

This isn’t a new development, though. The best youth literature looks at the world as it is and doesn’t hide the sad or cruel stories. Among the most impressive books I read as a youngster were the novels of Gudrun Pausewang, a famous writer who covered the fear of the nuclear holocaust that was with us everyday during the height of the Cold War (“Die letzten Kinder von Schewenborn”). I also kindly remember the novels by Judith Kerr, who originally wrote in English and described the history of her Jewish family during Hitler’s war against her people (“When Hitler stole Pink Rabbit”)

The gruesome past

Shock and horror have a longstanding tradition in German children’s books. The oldest literature for kids were retold legends of martyrs and heroes, often biblical, and of course religious texts, back in the 17th century. While these have vanished in the mists of time, two master pieces of the 19th century still make their way in many a child’s bookshelf: Wilhelm Busch’s “Max und Moritz” and Heinrich Hoffmann’s “Struwwelpeter”. The latter is written as an educational read for ill-mannered children, Hoffmann was indeed a doctor and psychiatrist – in a time, though, when the idea of PTSD was not yet ingrained in psychologist’s minds. The protagonists of his stories behave poorly, make mistakes – and run into gruesome punishments, like the “Suppenkasperl” (the Soup Jester) who insists on not eating his dinner. From a modern point of view, a psychiatrist like Hoffmann would probably have diagnosed severe anorexia and helped the poor boy –in this old-fashioned book the Suppenkasperl starves to death in a most drastic way.

Wilhelm Busch’s heroes, although much more relatable in a “boys will be boys” way, also find a premature end. After engaging in seven gruesome pranks (and having a proper laugh at the misfortune of others), they end up being ground to bits by an angry Miller and fed to his ducks afterwards.

The chasm of the Cold War

The long decades of Germany being a divided country and the front nation of the Cold War have left many marks on people – and on the books they wrote and read. In general, East Germans had a great culture of reading. Books were cheap, their consumption was encouraged, and in a nation that constantly struggled with rationing of other goods, books were also a great way to pass time.

Literature was also heavily censored and writers restricted in their topics and how they presented them. That in itself is never good for the creation of art, and surely not for literature, but when it comes to children’s books, the ideals of socialism, however far the reality was removed from them, brought up some amazing characters. The heroes of East German children’s books were less occupied with love and general issues of growing up than in popular Western culture, but tended to fight for social justice or endured inequality and hardship in historical contexts.

I remember reading “Mohr und die Raben von London“ (Mohr and the London Ravens) by Vilmos and Ilse Korn; a touching, emotional, exciting story about Karl Marx’s years in London, describing the plight of young child labourers in Victorian times, while at the same time depicting Marx as a friendly, child-loving, helpful fighter for social equality that he might not have been in real life. To be fair, it also made him look like an ideological dreamer depending on the funding of close friends to simply survive, sacrificing the well-being of his family for his work at times.

The eight books of “Die Söhne der Großen Bärin“ by Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich (a name as German as it gets) describes the plight of a native American tribe at the hands of white settlers, and I remember while reading it, I was shook to the bone. Much friendlier, although with similar topics, were the MOSAIK books by Hannes Hegen, the East German answer to Western comic books. Mostly without speech bubbles, but with loving details and historical stories, Hegen takes his readers to worlds long gone in an educational manner that never bores. If you ever have a chance to take a look at his famous “Digedags”, don’t miss it!

West Germany’s answer to these comics was a special breed of Disney books – the “funny pocketbook” (LustigeTaschenbücher), in big parts drawn and written by a German team, but also featuring stories from the US, Italy and Scandinavia, using the Disney characters Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and their families in Duckburg (Entenhausen in German). I have only ever seen these special Disney books in Finland, which is a bit sad, as they are really a brilliant read full of fun and even educational value. Like in any country, Disney has competitors (honourable mention might go to “Fix und Foxi” by Rolf Kauka), but none of them reaches market share or influence of Mickey, Donald and friends. Which in itself is even a bit sad and makes me feel grateful for the East German ivory tower in which projects like MOSAIK could grow undisturbed.

It is hard to find a stop writing about the books that accompanied me through my childhood and youth. It is interesting to see how much literature shapes the mind of people, and how many cultural references in everyday life come from there. Dr Seuss for example was never a big deal to me before I moved to England – although I did read the translated books by Enid Blyton, and I do remember them fondly, although in hindsight I wouldn’t fancy their ideological messages. Much more lovable the books by famous German satirist, poet and novelist Erich Kästner. The man himself was an outstanding personality, who survived Nazi rule living in Berlin, although his books were burned by the fascists and he himself was declared a danger to the state, interrogated by the Gestapo and forced to write under pseudonym. He adapted to the circumstances, which might be questionable, and wrote apolitical books, some of which even were adapted as movies by Goebbels’ propaganda machinery. His childrens books, however, and his writing before and after the war, remain beacons of intelligent literature that shaped many a German mind, and they were critical and thought-provoking in all the right ways.

The novel “Emil und die Detektive“ (Emil and the detectives) describes how a little boy gets robbed in a train, on the way to visit his grandmother, and then is being supported by the children of Berlin in finding the thief, forming an alliance of kids from all walks of life, with lovable characters and plenty of pre-war German atmosphere. His novel “Die Konferenz der Tiere” (conference of the animals) describes how animals and children decide that they can’t leave the planet in the hands of humans anymore, and how they meet up to make things better.

Kästner’s popularity, by the way, is the reason why Astrid Lindgren’s famous little rascal Emil was renamed to “Michel” in Germany to avoid confusion. Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking (Pippi Langstrumpf) is a classic in German literature as well, as well as her junior detective Kalle Blomquist – and before I open a new can of worms, let’s mention one of the most intriguing and fantastic German children’s authors of all: Michael Ende.

His novels “Die unendliche Geschichte“ (The Neverending Story) and „Momo“ won international attention and inspired Hollywood movies, although he was so unhappy about the Neverending Story movie that he did not permit the use of his name in neither the movie nor its promotion. That is not surprising for those who know the book – a tale of learning and searching experiences on the way to find the Inner Self much more than a simple fairy tale.

Well aware that a short article like this can never cover the vast treasure of German children’s literature, let’s mention another giant: Janosch, the painter and drawer, who created the iconic Tigerente (tiger duck), without which Germany wouldn’t be the same. His lovely drawn children’s books are everywhere in German schools, nurseries and children’s homes.

Which brings us to… no. This has to be enough.

If you are learning German, you should find out the depth and width of literature for children, as it is definitely good stuff to train your language skills. You could start with James Krüss’s novel “Timm Thaler”, but I could also stop writing and leave you to it. Enjoy!

Please share with us in the comments which children’s books have inspired you as you grew up.

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