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The Return of 'Slovenly Peter'


One of the most popular children's books of 1845 is back in bookstores. Like many children's stories of that era, Der Struwwelpeter was written to frighten kids into good behavior.

Few Americans today know the book, but its influence can be found in other familiar stories. Rachel McCarthy explains.


Loosely translated as Slovenly Peter, this new version of the 19th century collection of cautionary tales looks like a typical children's book.

Ms. LINDA KAPLAN (Grandmother): Come on kids. Why don't you come over here?

MCCARTHY: Linda Kaplan sits surrounded by her grandchildren. She holds up the book cover showing Peter, an unruly boy with a mess of out of control hair and sharp fingernails half as long as his arms.

(Soundbite of children)

MCCARTHY: Der Struwwelpeter had a huge following in the States, up until World War I, when anti-German sentiment caused a dip in popularity. But the stories have lived on, influencing cartoon bad boys, the Katzenjammer Kids and later Dennis the Menace.

The book also helped set the stage for children's book classics like Where the Wild Things Are and the beloved Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Artist Bob Staake says his parents introduced him to Slovenly Peter, and it's still a rite of passage for children and grandchildren of many German immigrants.

Mr. BOB STAAKE (Artist): (Reading from Der Struwwelpeter) One day Mom said, Conrad dear, I must go and leave you here. But mind you, Conrad, what I say. Don't suck your thumb while I'm away. The great tall tailor always comes to little boys that suck their thumbs. He comes equipped, yes, I'm afraid, with scissors sharp as razor blades.

MCCARTHY: Staake says the pictures inside Slovenly Peter are even more disturbing than the cover.

Mr. STAAKE: Everything that would be nightmarish to an eight-year-old, playing with matches and burning in a fire, sucking your thumb and this tall tailor comes busting down the door of your home with a huge pair of nine-foot scissors and simply lops off your thumbs. At the end of the story he's just sitting there in a pool of tears, and of course an accompanying pool of blood underneath each thumb. So you know, when I look at this illustration, I'll tell you right now, I don't want to get my thumb near my mouth.

MCCARTHY: The gruesome stories made such an impression on Staake, now 48 and a well-regarded illustrator, that he's created a new Der Struwwelpeter. He wanted to resurrect the stories in part because he thinks children's' books today tend to be too tame.

Mr. STAAKE: Pick up any children's picture book about dinosaurs, okay? And you'll find every single dinosaur has rounded teeth, okay? There's no pointiness to them whatsoever.

MCCARTHY: Staake has worked on his share of happily ever after children's books. He is well aware that publishers need to cater to their customers. Customers such as parents who often want to shelter their children from hair-raising stories.

But back when the book was originally published, things were a lot different.

Professor JACK ZIPES (German and Comparative literature, University of Minnesota): In the 19th century there was a general belief that although children might be innocent, and might be blank slates to a certain extent, they were thus open to temptation, that they could easily be mislead by the devil.

MCCARTHY: That's Jack Zipes, professor of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota.

Professor ZIPES: In the Brothers Grimm's tales, which were very popular in the 19th century, or Hans Christian Anderson, it was very, very common to beat children, to punish them, to really inhibit any type of curiosity that they had if they wanted to explore the world. And the literature, to a great extent, reflects that.

MCCARTHY: The stories of the time were also a bit unimaginative. At least that's what Frankfurt doctor Heinrich Hoffmann thought. So Hoffmann set out to write and illustrate Slovenly Peter for his three-year-old son, Karl(ph).

It was full of vivid illustrations and catchy rhymes, meant to hold Karl's attention long enough to teach him proper behavior.

While the brutal cautionary messages were clear, Professor Zipes says Hoffmann's playful presentation clashed with the frightening story lines.

Professor ZIPES: I think that he used exaggeration and humor so that he and also the readers, including his son, would perhaps gain a little distance from the situation.

MCCARTHY: The complexity of the tales may be why the irrepressible Peter is still embedded in American popular culture. Adult popular culture, that is.

Remember Edward Scissorhands? His irreverent ways, wild hair, and of course his long, sharp fingers closely resemble Slovenly Peter. And then there's a musical, Shockheaded Peter, which ended its run in New York last year. It's a dark comedy that spins each Slovenly Peter story into song.

(Soundbite of Shockheaded Peter)

MCCARTHY: The musical is even more over-the-top and sadistic than the book, and unmistakably intended for adults.

Bob Staake says his editors were expecting a similar approach with his new Struwwelpeter.

Mr. STAAKE: And they said, Now, remember, you know, this is a children's book that's aimed for adults. And I said, No, absolutely not. This is a children's book.

Ms. HOLLIS RUDIGER (Librarian, Cooperative Children's Book Center): It's the same dimensions as most picture books. The covers are hard with a board inside, and the papers are real shiny and glossy.

MCCARTHY: Hollis Rudiger is a staff librarian at the Cooperative Children's Book Center. She's sure the bright, bold images and traditional children's book feel will immediately attract kids.

Ms. RUDIGER: That's the part that's so tricky, is that this book is deceptive. And just because it looks like something we know to be a children's book doesn't mean that it is.

MCCARTHY: And while Rudiger agrees with Bob Staake that challenging and even scaring kids can be good for their development, these stories won't be found in her children's collection.

Ms. RUDIGER: Because the chances of a child, or even a young adult, of coming across this book and reading it and not understanding it to me is just too, essentially damaging to kids.

MCCARTHY: That's where adults come in. When Linda Kaplan reads with her grandchildren, she's careful to ask them what they think the stories mean, and she shares her own childhood impressions too.

Ms. KAPLAN: I thought they were so severe that they were just too much so, and that I didn't take it very seriously.

MCCARTHY: As Kaplan turns the pages she doesn't look too worried about scaring them for life.

(Soundbite of children)

MCCARTHY: But just in case, she decides not to read them the thumb-sucker story.

For NPR News, I'm Rachel McCarthy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rachel McCarthy