by Heinrich Hoffman
In our increasingly global world, as we teach our children to respect themselves and others, as we impart positive messages of compassion and fairness, as we cast away the preconceptions and prejudices, leaving behind the distasteful practices of the past and embracing a thoughtful approach to creating an immaculate future, it seems imperative that a peek into the past, if only to reiterate the unacceptability of its repetition (or a grand chuckle at its absurdity), is of vital educational significance.
All that is to say, every once in a while, even if it is considered horrifying in today's context, it has been a worthwhile excursion to allow the kids to experience a book (age-appropriate) from the past replete with its dated views (which were consistent with its times, naturally) and shocking bluntness.
Struwwelpeter, written in 1844 by a German physician Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann (1809-1894), was a Christmas gift for his three-year-old son Carl Philipp. Tired of boring children's books, he wrote this for his son's entertainment (and possibly education!) - from 1851 onwards he specialized in psychology and staunchly stood by this book despite the strong criticism and disapproval it received. The book has been translated into several languages, and the fact that it is still in circulation 150+ years later must account for its strength.
There are 10 cautionary tales, told in verse, some long, some short, all of them incredibly bizarre and yet quite delightful in a horrifying sort of way.
I love Struwwelpeter! The English translation is reminiscent of some of the children's books/magazines I grew up with - no sugar-coated politically correct phrasing or story.
And when Nana gave Struwwelpeter in English Translation (100th edition) to Ana for the fun of it, it instantly became her favorite, nicknamed, the "Weirdo Book". Knowing my child and what she is able to discern and discard at her age, it was not a tough decision to allow her to read it, although I will be reluctant to share it with any other child quite as young.
When right above the Copyright information on the first page, we read
NOTE: Dover Publication regrets the potentially offensive content of "The Story of the Inky Boys" but has retained the story to avoid censorship of a work considered to be classic.
it is clear that there must be something about that story that must be inconsistent with today's values.
If the cover image is intriguing, it goes with the title story 'Struwwelpeter' or Shock-headed Peter.
Just look at him! There he stands,
With his nasty hair and hands.
See! his nails are never cut;
They are grim'd as black as soot;
And the sloven, I declare,
Never once had comb'd his hair;
Any thing to me is sweeter
Than to see Shock-headed Peter.
And this is possibly the tamest one in the collection.
The Story of Cruel Frederick can be quite disturbing to a sensitive child, but, Ana took it fine, knowing it is just a story and is written expressly to discourage such behaviors.
The Dreadful Story About Harriet And The Matches says it all - of course Harriet is victim to her own curiosity about matches.
The Story of Little Suck-A-Thumb is my favorite despite its sad outcome.
The Story of Johnny Head-in-the-Air and The Story of Flying Robert were Ana's favorites, they are rather silly and comical.
Stuwwelpeter 2000 by Colin Blyth, Heinrich Hoffmann, Georgina Roche and Valerie Blyth includes the original German version, plus some edits to the stories to give a happier ending, to make them more agreeable with today's parents and children.
A later version, Struwwelpeter by Bob Staake and Monte Beauchamp showcases Staake's unique skills as he puts a modern-day spin to these potentially nightmarish tales where nasty things happen to children who don't listen to the warnings given by their parents for their own safety. Take for example the thumb-sucking Conrad. Jarring as it might be that the scissorman came, its extreme approach allows for the comical to materialize.
[image source: photo of my personal copy]