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‘We need the literature of other countries to expand our
horizons and stimulate our ideas. Without it, we are not only
diminished, we are starved’
(The Times, Magnus Linklater 29/06/05)
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Little Man (The)
by Erich Kästner
Age Range: 9-11
Maxie Pichelsteiner, ‘The Little Man’ is only two inches high, but that doesn’t stop him from 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 here 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.
Kästner is good at writing stories that have enjoyable, exciting often quite light storylines and contrasting the action of his novels against darker backgrounds; Emil and the Detectives is set in less salubrious parts of Berlin and Lottie and Lisa looks at feelings of deep unhappiness within a family although both novels are light-hearted. The Little Man seems to lack this darkness, focusing 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 becomes 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, Kästners’ 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 patronising you (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. The book is just asking to be read aloud and since all the chapters divide up nicely into stories, this is a great book to share with a child or use as a class reading book. 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, breaking the story into chunks of a pleasing length.
The Little Man is a pleasing read and has a storyline 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 storytelling 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)