Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Emil and the Detectives, by Erich Kästner: an adventure for the child in us all

The story of Kästner's schoolboy sleuth throws a lasting light on Germany in the 1920s, before the darkness fell

Xmas picks - Emil and the DetectivesEmil and the grownups … Photograph: Marc Brenner

My comfort reads are mostly children's books. The point, surely, is that to soothe a book should be welcoming, simple, not requiring great effort. Also, I expect a comfort read to reconnect me with the joy of reading – so I go back to the books that, as a child, gave me the greatest pleasure.

There are several I have reread as an adult. And, now as a parent, I have read some out loud to my sons on summer holidays: Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, and – best of all – the archetypal children's crime novel, Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner.

I still have my childhood copy, a Puffin with a bright yellow cover and a colourised version of one of the wonderfully expressive cartoons by Walter Trier that punctuate the book. The cover illustration shows a young, skinny lad in a smart suit, with a suitcase and a bunch of flowers, being presented to a scruffy but friendly gang of boys in shorts and workers' caps.

"To Paul, With love, from, Helen & Mark xx" is inscribed on the title page in my older brother's beautifully neat handwriting. From the publication date I guess Mark must have bought it for my ninth birthday, which means he would have just turned 13, and he thoughtfully added our little sister's name to make it a joint present. She'd only have been six and so unable to fund a gift of her own. Even one priced 20p.

No comments: