I had never heard of Reinhardt Jung until I searched the library catalog for translations by Anthea Bell. (That proved far more fruitful than a search for “German Literature,” which gave me lots of books about German Shepherds.) A Google search for Jung didn’t give me much: He was born in Germany in 1949, worked as journalist and copywriter and for the international children’s organization “terre des hommes.” In 1992, he became head of children’s broadcasting in Stuttgart, where he died in 1999. He received numerous prizes for his children’s books, among them the renowned Janus-Korcak-Prize.
Judging solely by the number of reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, I am surprised that his books have been translated and even more surprised that my library carries both Dreaming in Black and White and Bambert’s Book of Missing Stories. But I am certainly glad about it, because both books are well worth reading. I do believe, though, that it is up to the parents to judge whether the books are suitable for their children.
Jung must have believed in “writing up” to children. He does not mince words, and so both books give plenty of opportunity for grown-ups to discuss historical events with young readers.
In Dreaming in Black and White, Hannes lives in present-day Germany and is assigned a history project that has him research the Holocaust. Soon, his dreams transport him back to the 1930s, where he is persecuted by fellow students and teachers. Hannes is disabled and deemed “not worth living” by the Nazi regime. His mother protects him without question, but his father seems to be swayed by the Nazi propaganda. Soon, his dreams are becoming all too real.
Jung based this short novel on two books: Euthanasia in the Nazi State and Operation T4, both of which research the Nazis’ effort to murder anyone who did not fit the ideas of an Aryan master race. This is not easy reading, and I was particularly struck by the arithmetic exercise Hannes has to perform in one of his dreams, which was taken from a textbook of the time:
“According to conservative estimates, there are three hundred thousand mentally ill patients, epileptics, cripples, and so forth in institutional care in Germany. a) What do these people cost annually, in all, given expenses of four Reichsmarks a day per person? b) How many low-interest government loans of one thousand Reichsmarks each could be made per year to young married couples with the same sum of money?”
Bambert’s Book of Missing Stories is much less jarring, although here, too, is plenty of food for thought and discussion, with allusions to cruel events in history. But it is also a heartwarming and moving book.
Bambert lives alone in his attic home, and because of his physical handicap, he feels isolated and alone. He finds comfort in writing stories and decides to send 11 of them into the world so that they can find their own, true, setting. Slowly, his stories return to him, with postmarks from all around the world. Only the fate of his 11th story, which Bambert had left blank, is still unknown. Will it write itself?
I think this short book—with its beautiful, imaginative illustrations—is suitable for both young readers and adults. (If you like the cover, you will like the content.) It is fun to find out where the stories have been and how each unique setting fits the story itself. And readers who like the entanglement of reality and fiction in their reading will enjoy the ending. However, as you might imagine, Bambert’s stories are not necessarily happy ones. One hints at the imprisonment of writers in the Soviet Union and another at the persecution of handicapped people in Nazi Germany, for example. So, I think it is best for a parent to read this book first and be ready for explanations before handing the book to his or her child. But I have no doubt that reading this book will be a rewarding experience for anyone who decides to pick up this book.