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Two Classic Erich Kästner Stories

 

Abby Phillips takes a look at two of the lesser known classic stories by the German writer Erich Kästner – Lottie and Lisa and The Little Man.

 

Lottie and Lisa

 

Two little girls meet at a German summer camp. Shock horror they are identical! After some initial dislike, the girls discover that they are twins and swear eternal sisterhood. Parted in infancy by divorcing parents, it's up to Lottie and Lisa to reunite the family and overcome any obstacles to do so! 

 

If you read that and think it sounds rather like The Parent Trap, you're right. The film is inspired by an Erich Kästner's book Lottie and Lisa. A childhood favourite of mine, I was very interested to re-read it with a more critical eye and was delighted to find that the story is still charming and the narrative voice is wonderfully pitched. My only real criticism is that the book is a little dated (it was written in 1948), but this seems to add to the slightly fairytale quality of the story.  Such realistic fantasy is an apparent hallmark of Kästner. His book The Little Man brings magic to the everyday and Emil and the Detectives sets a thriller adventure in the tougher parts of Berlin. In Lottie and Lisa the unlikely premise and happily ever after ending for characters so ordinary is enhanced by the distance of their world from the modern day. 

However, Kästner is not an author of twee tales for girls and was probably aware that the one parent upbringings of his heroines rather than their happy ending bore more resemblance to the home lives of many of the children touched by war who read the book when it was first published.  A newspaper writer censored for opposing the Nazis, Kästner's stories for children are frank and were remarkable in their era for not moralising or shying away from what may have seemed unsavoury subjects. 

Kästner is good at writing stories that have enjoyable, exciting often quite light story lines and contrasting the action of his novels against darker backgrounds; Emil and the Detectives is set in less salubrious parts of Berlin, something most people would have left out of a novel for children. 

Lottie and Lisa similarly deals with divorce and Kästner actually takes swipes in his novel at those who felt that he talked about an 'adult topic' despite divorce having an impact on children. It is a mark of his great skill that he gently explores these situations and casts them as backgrounds to happier stories; acknowledging sad or harsh realities and turning them into something positive or fantastic without ignoring the real word. 

Kästner also gets away with his subject because he is a wry, amusing author with a knack of making his narrative conversational. His prose reads beautifully, creates a vivid picture and makes you feel like you are having a chat with a true friend. More importantly when you're eight or nine, this friend thinks you are worthy of a grown up conversation but still knows how to make you laugh. Lottie and Lisa is peppered with funny anecdotes and quirky characters and perpetually lets the reader, the narrator and Lottie and Lisa have the last laugh over the adults in the book. 

Essentially, Lottie and Lisa is a well written read with a narrator that children will want to know. The old fashioned settings may seem quaint to some but will charm others and the continued popularity of Enid Blyton stories and novels like The Railway Children suggests that the period aspect will be a point of interest rather than a barrier. The protagonists (especially goody goody Lottie) are probably more likely to strike a chord with girls than boys, but this merely serves as a great excuse to introduce boys to Emil and the Detectives instead, so that they do not miss out on a truly wonderful author.  

The Little Man

 

Maxie Pichelsteiner, 'The Little Man' is only two inches high, but that doesn't stop him joining the circus and becoming world famous. Maxie becomes so famous that a millionaire tries to steal him! How is someone as small as the Little Man able to escape and survive in the big, wide world?  

 

Erich Kästner casts his spell once again in one of his later novels and brings alive some truly fantastic characters. Kästner is wonderful at adding a touch of the surreal and unlikely to the most ordinary situations and the circus setting here provides him with plenty of opportunities for fun. Maxie and Professor Hokus von Pokus come up with a magic act that is nicely built up to and which will leave children laughing out loud. Even the scenes in which Maxie is kidnapped are amusing rather than scary and The Little Man seems less serious in this respect than some of Kästner's earlier novels. 

The Little Man focuses much more on comedy and really downplaying any frightening moments. When Maxie tries 'kitten taming' (the equivalent of lion-taming when you're Thumbelina sized) the inherent danger goes unnoticed because the situation is described so humorously. When he has a peculiar dream, it only become sinister at the end and when he is kidnapped, the man who imprisons him seems more of a laughable clown than a villain. In this way, The Little Man may be seen as a puzzle since the very gentle dark edge in the story might suggest it is almost for younger readers but the narrative voice, length and language of the story definitely make it a higher level read than Lottie and Lisa. Perhaps the best description for The Little Man is to say that it is a longer book, but one which is deliberately light and funny, Kästner's attempt at straight comedy perhaps. 

Kästner has an excellent narrative voice and moves his book along brilliantly. With a conversational style of storytelling, the pages of The Little Man fly by and it is easy to get engrossed because it seems like Kästner is really talking to you without being patronising, (something he detested in books for children). The book is very vivid too, and the hilarious anecdotes really come alive, particularly good ones being Maxie doing his 'kitten taming' and Maxie's first circus show although you'll really be laughing all the way through. 

It is a book that is just asking to be read aloud and since all the chapters divide up nicely into stories it is a perfect book to share with a child or use in the classroom. This would also be a good book for children who are starting to read chapter books on their own, as the chapters are a decent length and come to natural breaks, in the story.

The Little Man is a pleasing read and has a story line that ought to appeal to lots of different children, capturing all interests and giving a lot of pleasure along the way. If I had to make a comparison, I would suggest that The Little Man perhaps has the universal appeal of some of Roald Dahl's books, which make children (and adults) laugh on a regular basis all over the world thanks to their simple humour and inventive plots. Although the two authors choose very different topics, Kästner, like Dahl, has a story telling gift. If you can find new prints of his books or second hand copies, sit back and let him tell you a wonderful story. 

Abby Phillips (2012) Outside In World

 

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Two Classic Kastner Stories

 

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