Wednesday, April 12, 2006

For Children Who Enjoy Beating Dogs and Playing with Matches

I was browsing in the Brooklyn Public Library last weekend, growing increasingly frustrated that a library that seems to have a lot of books refuses to actually put them out on the shelves, when I saw a new edition of Der Struwwelpeter. Although this book looks like a children's book, it was shelved with new adult fiction. Interesting. Then, at home I heard a story about this new Struwwelpeter on NPR so since Slovenly Peter is hot, hot, hot these days, I figured we'd take a quick look.

Anyone who ever took a German class has probably heard of Struwwelpeter, a book written by a German physician in the 19th century to frighten children into good behavior. This collection of stories is also the basis for The Tiger Lillies musical Shockhead Peter: A Junk Opera. And if you still don't know what I'm talking about, you might remember when Dwight started reading a book to the kids of the Bring Your Daughter to Work episode of The Office, a book so weirdly inappropriate it made even Michael Scott nervous. That book was Struwwelpeter.

Like those other kooky Germans, the Grimm brothers, Heinrich Hoffman spins macabre tales that a certain class of contemporary Americans find wholely unsuitable for children. Possibly the most famous is Die Gesichte vom Daumenlutscher , about a little boy who sucks his thumb despite his mother's warning and a tailor with a giant pair of scissors comes and chops off the boy's fingertips. Really. The little girl who plays with matches burns alive, a hunter finds the tables turned and is shot at by a rabbit, possibly this one. The stories are
a relic with their politically incorrect language as seen in "The Inky Boys." From the English translation, "Boys, leave the black-a-moor alone / for if he tries with all his might/ he cannot change from black to white." However every German you ask has heard all about Struwwelpeter et al. and many Americans know these stories too.

In Bob Staake's new imagining the illustrations are colorful and inspired. The translation has been updated while retaining a dark edge to the language that matches Hoffman's original spirit. Take a look at this page from the title story, Slovenly Peter. Considering all of the violent images and malicious garbage beamed at kid's today, the controversy around these stories seems almost quaint. But though I am in love with Staake's new book, I'm still not certain if it is something I would hand over to a child. The description on the new Struwwelpeter website says Staake's work is "presented in a faux-children's book format, though aimed squarely at adults and young adults." So maybe hold off on giving it as a shower gift, but definately check it out the next time you're in a bookstore.


Joshua said...

That's awesome and very gashlycrumb tinies which is also awesome.

Lord of the Barnyard said...

while it may claim to be aimed sqar at the youthful of adults, it’s clearly a children’s book masquerading as a young adult’s book masquerading as a children’s book.
why can’t children be allowed access to such useful knowledge? thems some good lessons. and prettily display too.