I loved Erich Kästner’s books as a child. I don’t know how often I read The Flying Classroom and watched the movie adaption. After the disappointment of reading Pippi Longstocking with the kids, I was a bit hesitant to share Erich Kästner with them. But it is German Lit Month, and I hadn’t read any “long” books to the kids in a while. So over the weekend, we sat down with Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives. And… we had a wonderful time! I am so glad!
Emil and the Detectives, originally published in 1929, was Kästner’s first major success. At the time, it was unusual in that it had a realistic setting—nothing fantastical here—with realistic characters, meaning that not all of them are benevolent and kind. It also did not moralize, but rather let the characters’ actions speak for themselves, which was unusual in children’s literature back then.
At the beginning of the story, Emil Tischbein is getting ready to visit his relatives in Berlin. His mother, a widow, is sending him off with money for his grandmother. While it is a modest sum, it has taken her months to save it, so Emil is extra careful not to lose the money. On the train to Berlin, after meeting a mysterious stranger, Emil falls asleep. When he wakes up, the money and the stranger are gone. In a panic, Emil gets off the train in a different part of Berlin. He spots the stranger and follows him, convinced that he is the thief. During his pursuit, Emil meets a boy named Gustav, who offers his help. Emil gladly accepts, and in no time at all, Gustav has assembled a large group of neighborhood kids, the “detectives,” who are all eager to catch a real thief. After following the stranger to a hotel and watching him all night, the kids follow him to a bank where Emil is able to prove that the money the stranger tries to exchange is his. The stranger is arrested, and when the police find out that he is part of a gang of bank robbers, Emil receives a large reward.
I think there are several reasons why the story worked so well for us. For one, the setting is still (mostly) realistic today. Granted, the amounts of money are outdated, but for kids, that doesn’t matter. A thief is a thief, whether 6 dollars or 600 are stolen. The tone is perfect to entertain young readers. It is conversational, but not dumbed down. And Emil is a good kid with whom it is easy to identify. He wants to do the right thing, but sometimes he “has to try really hard to be good, as hard as some people try to give up sweets.” In the context of the story, his thoughts, worries, and actions all make perfect sense.
The suspense is also just right. Of course there is trying to catch the thief, but there is also the adventure of being on your own in a big city, hedging a plan to outsmart a grown-up, and staying out all night. The kids are working together, but it is not with a cloyingly sweet “let’s all be friends forever” sentiment. There’s some perfectly normal arguing, and not everyone is happy all the time. I think this really helped my kids to “live the story,” and I, as an adult, found this infinitely more appealing than most of today’s kids’ programs, where everyone is always so unnaturally friendly.
Our verdict: Two thumbs up, even though Kid #1 wished there were more girls in the story. (As it is, there’s only one girl, Emil’s cousin, and if this book were written today, she would probably not spend the final scene serving hot chocolate to the boys.) Still, we have unanimously decided to read Kästner’s The Flying Classroom over winter break. I’m looking forward to it!
Here’s my favorite passage. Emil is talking to Gustav, aka the Professor, about his mother.
“My mother and I talk a lot about money because we’ve got so little. She has to earn it, and works jolly hard, but even so there’s never really enough. Yet when there’s anything on, like a school outing, she always manages to give me as much as the other boys have to spend—sometimes more.”
“How can she do that?” asked the Professor.
“I don’t know, but she does. Of course I always try to bring some back.”
“She expects you to, does she?”
“No, nothing of the kind. But I like to.”
“I see,” said the Professor, “that’s the way things work out in your home.”
Emil nodded. “Yes, just about. Sometimes I go out in the evenings with Protzsch, who lives on the floor above us, or with some of the other boys, and Mum says I needn’t be home till nine. Then I usually get back a bit earlier, perhaps by seven, so that she doesn’t have to have supper alone. She says I should stay out with my pals, and I do sometimes. But it isn’t much fun when I know she’s all by herself, and she’s really always pleased to see me back, whatever she may say about it.”
“It’s not a bit like that in my home,” said the Professor. “If by any chance I get home early, I’m sure to find everyone’s gone out to dinner or the theatre or something. We’re quite fond of each other of course, but we all go our own ways.”
“Well, it doesn’t cost anything to be together,” Emil said. “But don’t you go thinking I’m a mummy’s boy or anything like that. I’d bash anyone who said so. See what I mean?”
“Yes, I do,” said the Professor.
They stood under the archway in silence for a while. Night came down. The stars were clear and glittering, and the moon seemed to be watching the overhead railway out of one eye.
The Professor cleared his throat, then said, without looking at Emil, “I expect you and your mother are very fond of each other.”
“Yes, we are,” Emil replied simply.