Thursday, August 9, 2012

Pretty Stories and Funny Pictures....

When you were growing up, did your parents ever tell you cautionary tales to get you to behave? Something along the lines of "If you don't stop doing that, [insert bogeyman here] is going to get you"? (My grandmother always told us, in her language from the Old World, that God was going to get us; she went straight to the top for her bogeyman).

Struwwelpeter (or, in English translations, Slovenly Peter: Pretty Stories and Funny Pictures for Little Children) is a bogeyman of sorts, a German children's book designed to warn children away from bad behavior. This book is so cruel and unusual in its punishments it makes you want to giggle. The kind of giggle that bubbles to the surface when you are in really bad trouble. The uncomfortable giggle.

Meet Peter.
I recently ordered Struwwelpeter for a research project I have been working on, and was taken aback when it arrived by the violent, terrifying nature of most of its images. Moreover, the words from the book's author, Heinrich Hoffman (who, as legend has it, wrote and illustrated the book in 1845 for his young son after not being able to find a book for the boy he liked - thanks, Dad), encourage the reader either to ridicule the misbehaving boy or girl or to relish in their demise. Take poor Peter, whom I have been haunted by since opening this sad little book.  Hoffman sneers at his uncleanliness: "Just look at him! There he stands, with his nasty hair and hands ..." Peter doesn't get the worst of it, though. A girl burns to death after playing with matches; a boy, who has been warned to stop stucking his thumbs and doesn't, has his fingers hacked off by the scissor-man. Pretty gruesome stuff.

Would you ever suck your thumbs again? I think not.
You would think that this book would have terrified kids so badly that it would have died its own death after the first printing. Instead, it was wildly popular. I wonder who liked it more - the parents, grandparents, and mean aunties buying the books for their misbehaving offspring or the children themselves? Is it a warning to children from overbearing parents or some strange form of "torture porn" for kids (of the Saw variety for today's young adults)? Either way, I have been thinking about the consequences of such children's books. I don't think it's a stretch to wonder if reading a book like Struwwelpeter conditioned German children to look askance at violence, to ridicule the scapegoat.

Unlike most of the other books in my house, Struwwelpeter remains on a high shelf.  I don't think I want my girls to read it. It scares me. But I do think it's a thought-provoking children's book from the past worth continued exhumation by children's literature scholars and connoisseurs. I find interesting the version linked below, illustrated by Sarita Vendetta (her last name is Vendetta; I love that) and with an introduction by Jack Zipes.

Click on the image to purchase this version at Amazon.
Tomorrow's post, MOVING DAY!!! - or how to make over a little girl's room that is currently covered in wallpaper declaiming the merits of the New England shore, red carpet, and bright blue paneling.
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