Sunday, September 30, 2012


by Heinrich Hoffman

Every once in a while, even if it is considered horrifying in today's context, it can be a worthwhile excursion to have the kids 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), is one such.

Tired of boring children's books, Dr.Hoffmann wrote this for his three-year-old son Carl Philipp. 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. 

From 1851 onwards Dr.Hoffmann 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.

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. "Horrible things happen to children if they don't heed caution..." seems to be the underlying message, a rather extreme approach to teaching safety.

Struwwelpeter in English Translation (100th edition) instantly became the 7 year old's favorite, nicknamed,  the "Weirdo Book" and gets chosen from our bookshelf often, just for the fun of it.

When right above the Copyright information on the first page, we read a note from the publisher, "... 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, the kid at home 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 the top 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 views.

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.

Many interesting short discussions have come about in our house thanks to this book. Is it horrifying? Why/Why Not? How would you to tell the same story/message today? Do we even need such messages today? How do children today know to be safe and respectful if they don't read stories like these? What if all children's books were of this sort, would kids be interested in reading them? (Which made us even more grateful for all the amazing books available to children today!)

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 history, if only to reiterate the unacceptability of its repetition (or a grand chuckle at its absurdity), can prove to be of vital educational significance.

[image source:]


Choxbox said...

Awesome review Sheels.

This is indeed a book that is a trigger for many interesting discussions. The resident 7-year old declared how glad she was to be born in today's times, versus 150 years ago :)

I love the book too!

sandhya said...

Had a teeny-tiny glance at this book in a hurry at Choxbox's place, Sheela. Am going to borrow it at the earliest from her. Thanks for bringing this to ST.

On a related note, check out Hilaire Belloc's 'Cautionary Verses'. We have enjoyed that at home.

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