Today I’m flying to Germany to visit my daughter for a couple of weeks. She’s in her third year of teaching there, and oh! we miss her. I’ll be traveling with my sister and my niece, and we all are looking forward to it very much!
So, I set myself a challenge to find books set in five of the cities we’re visiting: Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden, Prague, and Edinburgh.
What I’ve become aware of especially since my daughter has been living in Germany, is that nearly all our American children’s lit about Germany, is oriented around the Nazis. These are powerful, important stories, but I find it quite sad that this is the only picture our children have of this beautiful country and its remarkable people. Germany is far more than the low-point of their long history.
So, my additional goal was to find books about these places, which weren’t focused on Hitler’s Germany, and let me tell you — that made it much more of a challenge. In the end, I was surprised, intrigued, and pleased by what I found:
The Spaghetti Detectives, by Andreas Steinhöfel, translated from the German by Chantal Wright
first American edition published 2011 by Chicken House, Scholastic Inc.
First stop: Berlin.
This novel, which I’ll tell you right off the bat is PG-13, won the German version of the Newbery some years back. The author has published extensively in Germany, but this is his first book to be translated into English. It’s unusual and riveting and thought-provoking and funny.
The narrator is a boy named Rico Doretti. He’s a likeable boy with significant learning glitches, deeply wounded by his father’s death, living in Berlin with his mom, who is quite the stunner. Rico’s twitchy brain gives him great difficulties with everyday life — hiding important bits and magnifying trivialities such as the piece of pasta lying on his sidewalk, a random find that precipitates the crazy, thrilling, dangerous, escapades of this story.
There’s a serial kidnapper in Berlin just now, nicknamed Mr. 2000, who
Miss Marple figures into the plot as well!
has abducted five young children in just a few months. How does one limp piece of spaghetti lead Rico to meet Oscar, the child prodigy? How do the two of them with their unusual minds sleuth out the identity of the kidnapper? And will they live to tell about it?
It’s a compelling plot, set in Berlin, with a host of flawed adult characters who form a surprising community for Rico. Rico’s voice is wonderfully authentic, his perspectives just off kilter enough to be at times very funny, at times piercingly honest. It’s not only a taut mystery, it’s a deep story about loss and community and the pain of being different and our need for love. I think it could make a great book club read for middle-grade boys.
But as I say, it’s definitely PG-13 with Harm to Children front and center, a serial kidnapper who lures kids into cars, plenty of talk about chopping people into bits, Rico’s processing of his dad’s death, Oscar’s excessive phobias, a scary chase in the dark, and Rico’s mom and other adult friends dealing with depression and bad marriages. This sounds like a boatload of trouble for just 170 pages, but for kids old enough to handle it, all of it contributes, amazingly, to a great read.
Sebastian: A Book about Bach, written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter
published in 1999 by Browndeer Press/Harcourt Brace & Co.
Next up: Leipzig
Here I was looking for a great little book about Bach. It is one of those subjects that you confidently type into the library search engine expecting a raft of options and…hmm. Not very many books for kids about Bach.
This one is out-of-print, but I liked it especially because Winter spends a nice chunk of time in Leipzig. But much more than that, Winter is a great non-fiction author and has gracefully and colorfully presented Bach’s life from his birth into an amazingly musical family, through his death as an old man, composing until his final breath.
She packs vivid detail into not so many words, keeping this very accessible to young elementary children, and illustrates her work with bold, friendly, acrylics. Super engaging. This is strictly a biography, and does not present any of his music per se, nor give a discography.
Another pint-sized book, Johann Sebastian Bach by Paule du Bouchet, illustrated by Charlotte Voake, is more about the music than the man, and comes with a CD featuring many musical excerpts. It’s originally French, has a distinctly European flavor, and is suited for kindergarten through early elementary children.
An Elephant in the Garden, by Michael Morpurgo
First U.S. edition 2011 by Feiwel and Friends, Macmillan
For a stop in Dresden, I found this middle-grade novel by one of Britain’s foremost children’s authors, and though it is a World War II story, it’s quite unusual as it’s told from the German perspective.
The Allied bombing of Dresden, so late in the war, is a prickly subject. So much devastation there, such carnage. War is awfuller than awful. It is only recently that some of their incredible landmarks have been restored. I think it will be a very moving city to visit.
Morpurgo’s novel is narrated by an elderly woman, looking back at her traumatic, life-changing escape from the incendiary bombing of Dresden in February, 1945. As a 16-year-old, she fled with her asthmatic younger brother and their mother. And an elephant. There actually is a plausible reason why they are bringing an elephant with them, and Morpurgo bases it on a newspaper story he read.
This little group is part of a vast flood of refugees heading west, preferring to encounter the American army rather than fall into the hands of the Russians approaching from the East. Along the way, they stumble upon a Canadian RAF pilot, shot down and in hiding. Can such enemies find a way of forging peace in order to save themselves from death?
Complex issues of war are addressed head-on here, as well as forgiveness, hope, fortitude, and even a compelling look at the rich stories of elderly people who ought to be listened to. It’s an intriguing story, a painful look at the cost of the war to the German people, many of whom, like the family in this story, did not support Hitler, an honest story of family, and a surprising glimpse of the glory of elephants. How’s that for a unique combination? Thought-provoking novel for ages 11 and up.
The Three Golden Keys, written and illustrated by Peter Sís
published in 1994 by Doubleday
Celebrated artist Peter Sís was born in what was then Czechoslovakia, and lived many years in Prague. He wrote this entrancing story to introduce his young daughter to her rich, Czech heritage and the gorgeous city of Prague, since she grew up in the U.S.
It’s a moody, magical story of a man being blown off course in his hot-air balloon and landing in the deserted square of an old city. Soon he realizes that it’s Prague — the city of his childhood. In order to open three padlocks barring his entrance into his old home, the man must locate three golden keys.
Journey around the landmarks of Prague, and hear her ancient legends, as an entire year spins by in one enchanted night. One by one, the keys are discovered in such strange, dreamlike circumstances, and for one brief moment, the doors to his memories are flung open. An unusual, evocative story for elementary-age listeners, perhaps a bit challenging to navigate on their own.
Greyfriars Bobby, written and illustrated by Ruth Brown
published in 2013 by Andersen Press
originally published in 1995
Our final stop is Edinburgh, and this is the sweetest, friendliest book in today’s list of five.
Perhaps you already know the story of this loyal little dog, who was so faithful to his master, Old Jock. It’s been made into a movie, and written about, certainly, many times.
Ruth Brown tells and illustrates animal stories with such a loving hand. I think no one could do this story more justice than she does.
Two young children, bored of sightseeing, happen upon the famous drinking fountain statue, then search out the nearby churchyard where they hear Bobby’s story. It’s simply and tenderly told by a gardener in the churchyard where Bobby watched over his master’s grave for 14 years.
Brown’s warm, rich paintings of 1870s Edinburgh, and her plainspoken, short text are just right for children ages 3 and up.