Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Our Favourite German Children's Writer

Statistically and for sheer strength of passion, our favourite German children's author is Zoran Drvenkar. My lovely little girl has a lot of Cornelia Funke's picture books (including in English translation with the immortal insult "You piratical nincompoops!") and a few by Gudrun Mebs. But there's just no topping the tongue-twisting ex-Yugoslavian Berliner, who apparently lives in a disused corn mill - how cool is that?

The first success was Zarah. To be honest, it was the illustrations that sucked us in. They're amazingly scary, all dark woods and spooky shadows, with the delightfully kooky Zarah and her awful, prissy, horribly realistic so-called friends, no doubt cheerleaders in the making. The illustrations alone make the book worth having, just because it makes you cool to prove you have the stomach for such a darkly scary book. But the story is just as finely crafted, a psychological study of those awful "I won't be your friend any more" type of girls and Zarah, who wants to be their friend but doesn't quite get what they're making all the fuss about. And the plot and the writing and the illustrations (by Martin Baltscheid) are so cleverly interwoven that you laugh out loud at the macabre joy of it all.

Next we read Eddie im Finale. I'm not quite sure how the book ended up on our shelves, because it looks like it's about a girl who likes football, but it's not - it's about a girl who can't stand football but ends up being a hero. I was very cautious about this, as it's done up as an "early readers book". Bad sign. The way the German language works - basically it's logical and easy to pronounce apart from the very long words - means children can learn to read fairly quickly. There's no need for the Janet and John school of writing with only a handful of words in each book, repeated until boredom makes your jaw fall off. But unfortunately, parents need reassuring and that means they like to buy books marked "easy-to-read". I know, I'm not immune. And that in turn often means utter dross. Lacklustre storylines, unimaginitive illustrations (or sometimes none at all), just plain too long to remember the beginning when your reading speed is not exactly herculean. But Eddie im Finale falls right out of that mould, I can tell you. Charming, a quirky story in an enjoyable style. A surprise!

But the number-one hit is Paula. It doesn't look as out-and-out crazy as Zarah, with more subdued, subtly humorous illustrations and fewer of them (Peter Schössow). But that just gives the story more room to unfold. It starts slowly and sadly, describing how Paula got fat. Not just chubby but properly fat, in a family of very thin people. But then something happens - Paula floats. What seems like it might be rather dry and moralising suddenly takes off into the realms of the bizarre, again making you laugh out loud and empowering the little girl inside of you. This was the second ever book that made my daughter switch the light back on after I'd read to her at bedtime - the first being Asterix. She came into the front room and proudly announced "I've finished the whole book!" Then I had to hear a rather long-winded précis, and she insisted on taking it to school the next day. Apparently Sylvie said it was stupid. But Sylvie's the kind of girl who gets lost in the woods - and once went to school dressed as a cheerleader.

Drvenkar has also written two adult novels, one of which I've read - Du bist zu schnell. It was a long time ago but I remember it was excellent in an extremely disturbing way, one of those books that makes you question reality around you. And he co-wrote the screenplay to Knallhart/Tough Enough - possibly the first ever film to premiere in Berlin's down-at-heel borough of Neukölln, about a posh boy who gets bullied after moving there. A couple of friends of mine happened to be passing and were eyed warily by smart cinema-goers spilling out of the Neukölln Arkaden, obviously fearing they'd be beaten up for crossing over into underclass territory. So it must have hit home.

And I know Drvenkar's very talented translator, Chantal Wright. Speaking of whom, the latest issue of Transcript is all about children's books, featuring translations from Malta, Slovakia, Slovenia and Catalonia.

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