Emil and the Detectives, Erich Kästner translated by May Massee

It’s rare that I read a book that I like and have little to say about it, but that’s what I’m struggling with after reading Emil. Many of you may know this already from your own childhood (although I’d never heard of this book before March of this year), but Emil and the Detectives is a classic children’s novel; the copy I read actually belonged to my husband when he was young. A few months ago, he pulled it out for me when I was complaining that I didn’t know what to read next (he also grabbed Don Quixote, which I have zero desire to read having been subjected to many portions of it in school, but he now keeps it on the bedside table and finds the antics uproariously funny). He promised I would like Emil, that it would delight me, and he was shocked that I had never read it before. In fact, I think he was well pleased with himself for coming up with such a book for me to review.

So being the amazing wife that I am, I tucked it back on the shelf and told myself I’d get around to it eventually, ignoring that fact that he has recommended books to me maybe ten times in the six plus years we’ve known each other. Fortunately, he knows me well enough to realize that I have to be in the right mood to appreciate a book, and I wasn’t there yet. Fast forward to last week. A blogger I follow, a woman named Georgi from Australia, has been working her way through the list of 1001 must read children’s books, and she mentioned that she had Emil on her stack. I had just finished reading it when she posted her own thoughts. (I highly recommend checking out her post, since she gets into some of the more interesting history of it as a banned book, which I wouldn’t have known about it had I not been following her.)

Georgi liked the book more than I did. My husband certainly did as well, since it’s one of the few he remembers clearly from his childhood. I thought it was sweet, and it made me nostalgic for the books of my own younger years, but I had one complaint about the story, and that was the role of the only girl, Emil’s cousin, Pony Hütchen.

Now, I know this book was written in Germany in 1929, and it would have been in no way against the times to write a book with a female character who behaved this way, but the fact that her most exciting role in the story is fetching breakfast for the other children…I just found it galling. I didn’t let it ruin the whole experience for me since I knew it was historically appropriate (and the boys were, at least, a bit cowed by Pony and her bicycle), but I couldn’t get fully into it. And I’m the kind of person who enjoys getting breakfast for others! I couldn’t help but read it and think, I just wouldn’t give this to a young girl to read. It’s the same feeling I got after watching Pixar’s Brave…after all these years of films that moved me to tears, that’s the story you came up with for your first female protagonist? Fail. At least Kästner has history (and a strong cast of free range children) on his side.

In fact, what resonated with me most was how self-sufficient the children were in the story. The parents still held the fears that parents do now, but that didn’t stop them from allowing the boys to get into situation where they needed to rely on their own good sense, as well as those of their peers. My very favorite moment of the book is when Emil talks with his new friend about the situation they’ve gotten themselves into:

“Oh well, the average [parent] is all right, answered the Professor. “It is the most sensible way to be. This way, we don’t lie to them. I’ve promised my parents not to do anything that’s wrong or dangerous. And as long as I keep my word, I can do what I want to. He is a splendid fellow, my father.”

“Simply great!” repeated Emil. “But listen, perhaps it will be dangerous today.”

“Well, then, it’s off with the permission,” admitted the Professor and shrugged his shoulders. “He said that I should always see to it that I behave just as if he were with me. And I’m doing that today.” (p 90)

This attitude of self-reliance, of honor, and of certainty in helping a friend with what’s right – those wonderful traits get lost when as adults, we worry about the terrible things that might befall children instead of focusing our energy on teaching them how to handle themselves. Kästner has managed to write a book full of characters with character, and of that, I heartily approve.

9 thoughts on “Emil and the Detectives, Erich Kästner translated by May Massee

  1. I have to agree that the self-sufficient nature of children in kids books in that pre-war era was always the most endearing quality. From the Boxcar Children to the Bobsey Twins, to Little Orphan Annie, the ability of the protagonists to fend for themselves, whether it be for a few hours, or in the case of the former, for weeks and months of time, was what drove me to pick up a second book in a series.

    1. The Boxcar Children and the Bobsey Twins were two of my favorite sets when I was little, and as an adult, I realize it’s because both were about children who were self-sufficient, clever, and decent to their siblings – all characteristics I strived for but often didn’t quite achieve! Those traits are still what I look for when I’m reading good YA and MG today, and although I find them there, it’s rare to see them to the same degree in books for elementary aged children, which I think is a shame.

  2. Erich Kaestner was one of my favourite authors when I grew up (I’m from Germany) and it is great to see one his books represented here! Thank you! You might also like the book The Flying Classroom by the same author, which deals with friendship and the meaning of being brave. Because it is set in a boy’s school there are no girls as far as I remember and it also includes the amazing independence of children. At one point a boy is taken hostage and tortured by a rival school and no adult ever gets involved. It was the last book he published before becoming a banned author, and in my opinion, is his best children’s book.

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