Monday, May 11, 2015

Stories are Timeless, but Books? Not so Much.

The Dilemma of Erich Kastner's* Emil and the Detectives.

Emil and the Detectives was one of my favorites as a child. Decades after I'd last read the book, this is what I remembered.

    The cover art by Walter Trier, two boys in caps standing next to a phone booth, spying on a
    grown man wearing a derby against a brilliant yellow background.

    The author's description of how he would lie flat on the floor and stare at the ceiling, waiting
    for the pieces of the story to fall out of the sky and into his head.

    A gang of young boys chasing the man wearing a derby through the Berlin Zoo.

    Emil never eats fish, because fish makes him ill. 

That's what I remember.  The plot, I vaguely recalled, involved Emil being robbed on a train to Berlin,  identifying the man in the derby as the thief, and getting help from the gang of boys in Berlin to get his money back.

Were my memories correct?  Some were; some weren't.  I was remembering my story, after all, not the author's book. I was close on the cover art, but it was a column, not a phone booth.  Total score on the scene with the author.  A gang of boys followed and surrounded the man in the derby, but not at the Berlin Zoo. Nobody went to the zoo; it was mentioned as one of the train stops. And Emil most definitely can't eat fish.

And the plot. I did remember the basics of the plot.

So, I decided to reread the book and write a review.

First problem: none of the libraries had it in their collections. Yes; it's an old book, first published in English in 1929 from the German original, but I've found older. It's absence was surprising, but now I was curious, so I ordered a copy, making sure that it was the original version, translated by May Massee. I received it in the mail a few days later, and read it that night. Below is a synopsis of Emil and the Detectives. After you read that, we'll delve into the reason why - for this version only - you'll no longer find it in most libraries.

All is not lost.

Book #13: Emil and the Detectives: a story for children by Erich Kastner (1929).  Translated from the German by May Massee. Illustrated by Walter Trier. 224 pages.

The book begins with a short introduction by the translator May Massee, explaining the meaning and pronunciation of German names, and some of the wordplay Kastner uses in naming his characters. Emil's last name, Tischbein, means table leg. Massee also acknowledges individuals who helped her with the translation.

The second, longer introduction, is from the author. Kastner holds a conversation with the reader, telling them about how he had started another book entirely, a South Seas adventure, and then abandoned it after three chapters, lost on how to proceed. He then held a conversation with a waiter named Herr Nietenfuhr, who suggested that he write about something he actually knows about.  Herr Nietenfuhr is not the deferential sort, but Kastner concedes that he has a point. And from that conversation, he wrote Emil.

Next, Kastner introduces the cast of characters and places, with illustrations of each by Walter Trier. Then, finally, the story begins!

Emil's father died when he was five years old. His mother supports the two of them as a hairdresser in the town of Neustadt.  Money is tight, but Frau Tischbein has been saving, and there is now enough for Emil to visit his aunt and grandmother in Berlin. Emil loves his mother very much and is a good son and student, but he is not a mama's boy. Emil, along with some other boys, played a prank one day and painted a bright red nose and black mustache on the statue of the Grand Duke in the Square, narrowly avoiding capture by Officer Jeschke of the police. Emil suffers a guilty conscience as a result, but not guilty enough to confess.

Once on the train to Berlin, Emil is very conscious of the money he's carrying and worried about losing it, so he decides to pin the money to the inside of his suit jacket pocket. The train compartment is full of people, and one man offers Emil a piece of chocolate, which he accepts. Eventually, only the man and Emil are left in the compartment, and Emil falls asleep, dreaming strange dreams. Waking up as the train pulls into the station one stop prior to his own, he recognizes that he is now alone and his money is gone. Realizing that the man who gave him chocolate must have stolen it, he looks up and sees him exiting the train. Grabbing his suitcase and the flowers his mother sent for his grandmother, he takes off after the man, following him to his hotel.

While watching the hotel, he meets Gustav, the boy with the automobile horn and a born leader.  Gustav quickly agrees to help Emil recover his money, and in short order collects a gang of boys, the detectives, to help devise a plan. In the meantime, Emil's aunt and grandmother are worried that Emil was not on the train, so Emil's cousin, Pony Hutchen, gets on her bike and goes looking for him. Pony finds Emil and the detectives, gets the scoop, and goes back to reassure her mother and grandmother that Emil is fine, but will be delayed a day arriving because of personal business.

The boys decide to not only follow the thief, but surround him. When the thief leaves the hotel the next day to go to the bank, he is surrounded by boys. When he tries to exchange the stolen money for smaller denominations, Emil tells the bank teller that the money is his, the boys set up a commotion, and the bank president gets involved. Emil claims that he can prove the money is his, because each of the bills has a small hole in the corner from being pinned into his jacket.  Sure enough, the hole is there, the president calls the police, and the thief is taken to jail. Emil gets his money back, the boys get their pictures in the paper and a front page story, and Emil finally goes to his grandmother's house for a wonderful meal of macaroni and ham.

The next day, Emil learns that the thief was also a bank robber, and that there was a reward for anyone who assisted in his capture. With the reward money, Frau Tischbein travels to Berlin to join Emil, and Emil insists that she buy herself a new winter coat and a hair drying machine for her business. The grandmother then declares that in the future, never send money, only a money order, and everyone laughingly agrees. End of story.

Emil was unique in its day for the nature of the story and the style of the writing.  Emil lived in a single parent household. Money was tight. This was a working-class to lower middle class household.  Emil was a good boy but a real one who also could get into trouble. Kastner's writing style was dry, direct and never condescending to his young readers. Life was certainly full of troubles, but Kastner made it quite obvious that he believed children were perfectly capable of handling those troubles without any interference from grown-ups. The city of Berlin, large, loud and bustling, was a character itself in the story, and a fascinating one. The book was made into a motion picture by Disney in 1964.

Emil and the Detectives at Amazon

So, why is this version of Emil and the Detectives no longer a standard in children's collections?

Because the book, not the story, is harmful.

Books can be harmful, and that's the reason for the title of this week's post. Stories are timeless, but books are the product of specific individuals who exist in a set time and a set place.  Every book ever written, to some degree, considered or unconsidered, will always reflect the experiences and worldview of the author, and the vocabulary of that time.

In his Introduction, Kastner writes about a little black and white checked cannibal maid who has only a first name, Petersilie, Parsley in English.  Later on, he compares table legs to a family of little black  boys, later using the description, "…how many little darkies..."

The book's off the table, out of the stacks, and banished from the children's section.  That's not the dilemma, there's no dilemma here, just a cut-and-dried imperative. Do no harm is not exclusive to physicians.

The dilemma is whether of not we can save Emil's story, not Kastner's book. It is a wonderful, wonderful story, a story children can still read and enjoy. Is it possible?

I believe that you can save stories, if not books, in certain cases under certain conditions. But before we discuss Emil's situation, let's take a look at the original players.

Erich Kastner (1899 - 1974) was born in Dresden, Saxony (now Germany) the only child of a harness maker and a hairdresser. He attended various schools, including the University of Berlin, and was awarded a Ph.D. in 1925.  

Kastner worked as a journalist, an adult novelist, a playwright, an essayist, an editor, a prominent social critic and an author of children's books. He was drafted in 1917, and his experience was so brutal he became a lifelong pacifist and anti-militant. He also developed a chronic heart condition. He won many awards, including the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 1960.

Kastner's father was a master-craftsman whose livelihood was swept away by industrialization. To pay the bills, Kastner's mother, at the age of 35, became a hairdressing apprentice. Kastner, who never married, was very close to his mother, and Kastner was the center of her universe. As a boy, he felt the need to succeed to deserve all her devotion. The two of them frequented the theater and opera whenever they could, sometime standing on line for hours. Kastner worked as a journalist to support his university education, and in 1928 he published two volumes of poetry and Emil, to huge commercial success. 

In 1933, Kastner witnessed the public burning of all his books except Emil by the Nazis. Despite this, he chose to stay in Germany rather than live in exile.  (Here is an interesting article from 2013 on the book burning from the British newspaper, The Independent.) Kastner felt that, as a writer, it was his professional duty to remain as a witness so at a later date he could testify as to what he'd seen. Banned from publishing in Germany, he published several works in Switzerland.  After the war he returned to Dresden, which had been totally destroyed by firebombing. He later moved to Munich, where he died at the age of 75.

The Erich Kastner Museum in Dresden contains biographical information and bibliography.

May Massee (1881 - 1966) was born in Chicago and moved with her family to Milwaukee at the age of five.  She graduated high school at sixteen, taught elementary school, then, after attending the Wisconsin Library School worked in various libraries.  In 1913, she became the editor of ALA's The Booklist, growing the magazine's and her own professional reputation until in 1922 she was invited to establish a junior books division at Doubleday in New York City, only the second to be established in the country.  In 1933, she moved to Viking Press and established a junior division there.  Eventually becoming a director, she retired from Viking in 1960, but remained visible as an advisory editor until her death of a stroke in 1966.

May Massee was a pioneer in children's publishing in many ways. One of the most prominent was her determination to find children's books that focused on life in different countries, cultures and time periods.  The May Massee Collection at Emporia State University lists all of the books published under her editorship from the years 1923 to 1963.  It's an impressive and diverse list, as Massee was also determined to include books on Native American cultures and African-American stories featuring African-American children and written by African-American writers.

What May Massee was not was a professional translator. I did not find one other instance, other than Emil, where she performed as both a translator and an editor.

Emil and the Detectives was brought to Massee's attention by Ernst Reichl, a German-American book designer.  As I mentioned earlier, in the Introduction of Emil,  Massee thanks others for helping her in the translation.  One is Donald Robinson. The other two were Rosika Schwimmer and Gretchen Gugler.  Schwimmer was a Hungarian-born journalist, pacifist, and women's rights activist.  Massee had earlier published her book of Hungarian folk tales. The two women helped Massee with the idioms and slang.  Massee's goal was to stay as close to the original German as possible, in both language and tone, and she succeeded.

Now, let's get back to saving Emil's story.

The optimal solution, author revision is out. Kastner died in 1974. I would like to believe a man living the life he did would be open to the thought. I could be dead wrong; it's simply something that I would like to believe. We are talking a few paragraphs in a 224 page book, and not even the main story itself.

The next would be to publish the book, with Massee's translation, minus the Introduction. I couldn't find any edition traveling that particular path.

The third possibility, and the one taken by Overlook Press in 2007, was to produce a new translation by W. Martin, eliminate the Introduction by Kastner, and replace it by a new Introduction by no less an individual than Maurice Sendak. Click here for the book's description.

If Overlook Press had simply removed Kastner's Introduction and inserted Sendak's, it would have been fine. But they took it one step further by using a newer translation, one that I feel significantly changes the overall tone of the story. Whether of not this is a good thing or bad thing depends on the individual.  I can say unequivocally that this is a perfectly acceptable version of Emil for your elementary libraries. I would recommend the addition, if only to ensure that children have at least an opportunity to be exposed to the story.

Sendak's introduction is wonderful. All of the marvelous original illustrations by Walter Trier are still there. What is different are the goals of the two translators, W. Martin and May Massee.

Massee wanted to be as close to the original German as possible in both tone and idiom. W. Martin states at the end of the 2007 Emil, that this version was commissioned for the twenty-first-century American reader, and White was attempting to render the story into a contemporary, colloquial American idiom.


Why would you want to translate a story, set in a very definite 1920s Berlin, with illustrations highlighting the time and place, into a contemporary anything? It's not a contemporary story. And you know what?  Kids get that, they really do get that. They understand that people in different places and at different times do not act, look, or sound the same way that they do. It's a straightforward concept.  Kids get straightforward.

In the translator's defense, I will confirm that the stated goals were achieved. I never thought I'd read a version of Emil where 1920s Berlin street kids addressed each other as "dude". Maybe I just hoped I never would. Also, most of the German names and place names are Anglicized.  Apparently, someone believed that the concept of German names in a German city would be too mind-boggling for American youth. These are the same kids that can whip off the names of every character in the Lego Ninjago universe without pausing for breath. Please.

But, the fact that I personally don't care for this version of Emil doesn't change the fact that it is the only acceptable version of the story for young readers. And I would rather see kids reading this version than no version.

How do all of you handle great stories trapped in harmful books? Do you have a favorite from your childhood that doesn't translate to the present day? I would love to hear about your experiences.

*There should be an umlaut - a two dot punctuation mark - over the a in Kastner's name.  I couldn't figure out how to put one there in Blogger.  Apologies.


  1. The acceptable alternative would be to substitute an e for the umlaut in Kaestner's name.

    This is an interesting post as it reminds me of many of the similar issues that Debbie Reese (blog: American Indians in Children's Literature) brings up about favorite books still on the shelves in elementary schools, e.g. "Little House on the Prairie," "Indian in the Cupboard," etc.

  2. Thank you for the thorough review - I've been attempting to find a copy of this to read for a long time. Too bad there isn't a version that simply substitutes Sendak's introduction into Massee's translation. Or, perhaps, an edition that adds a note warning the reader of the objectionable content, but leaving it intact.

  3. I loved this.

    Just FYI, you have to options with the umlauted a: you can use ae or Alt + 0228, thus ä. I go back and forth all the time.