A sanctuary for funny and playful literature
Dr. Stefan Neumann in the Jahr100Wissen interview on the 100th birthday of the author Max Kruse
His mother was Germany's best-known doll maker, his father a renowned sculptor. But it was his books that inspired generations of children. Max Kruse invented an unforgettable character with his Dino Urmel. How he came up with it and what role a refrigerator played in the process is revealed by Germanist Dr. Stefan Neumann in the Jahr100Wissen interview on the 100th birthday of the successful author.
His mother was a famous doll maker, his father a renowned sculptor. Max Kruse is considered one of the best-known German authors of books for children and young people. He would have turned 100 on November 19. Who was this man?
Neumann: Max Kruse was a very quiet man, often taciturn in conversation. And at the same time, he was an eloquent writer whose books such as "Urmel aus dem Eis," "Don Blech" and "Der Löwe ist los" are still among the classics of German-language children's and youth literature.
The first children's book, "Der Löwe ist los," was actually written at the urging of his mother, Käthe Kruse. Why?
Neumann: Käthe Kruse had already encouraged her youngest son to write in his youth. Then, in 1947, she wanted a children's book text to be staged with photos of her dolls. This became Max Kruse's first success, "Der Löwe ist los" ("The Lion is Loose").
Everyone in Germany actually knows one of the characters in his children's books. Who is that character?
Neumann: It's Urmel, the lisping dinosaur who survived the extinction of his species as an egg in the ice. Urmel is the center of a small, manageable world of diverse animals that live with Professor Tibatong on Titiwu Island. This professor has the gift of teaching animals to speak and the animals of the island learn it from him - absolutely voluntarily, mind you!
A freezer plays a role in the idea for "Urmel". What's that all about?
Neumann: According to Max Kruse himself, the idea that frozen food survives time came to him when he returned home after a conversation with Manfred Jennings and saw the frozen trout for dinner. At the time, Manfred Jennings was the in-house writer and director of the Augsburger Puppenkiste, which had a major influence on the success of the Urmel series.
The funny thing about the animals in the Urmel series are the various speech defects of the protagonists. Did he simply reverse the Dr. Doolittle principle there?
Neumann: Yes, at least that's what Max Kruse says himself in an interview. But the fact that animals and humans can talk to each other is nothing new in children's literature - and not only there. There is hardly a fairy tale in which people and animals don't talk to each other. And that has to be the case. This has to do with what the developmental psychologist Piaget calls animism, the phase that a child goes through in which it considers everything around it to be animated, to be human-like, teddy bears, bicycles, but above all animals. And what is animate can of course also speak - speak and understand.
The speech defects that Max Kruse invented for his characters simply serve the purpose of comedy. Word jokes and language games are incredibly funny for children with their anarchic humor. They also serve to help them acquire language, to deal with it independently, to discover it. That's why all good children's literature, especially for younger children, plays with language in some way. Adult literature, too, of course.
Many teachers were very outraged by the incorrect language at the time. But it didn't hurt the books, did it?
Neumann: Not to the books, and certainly not to the children who read them or had them read to them.
What is special about Kruse's children's books?
Neumann: To understand that, you have to look at the time in which these children's books were written. Germany and Europe were in ruins. Six million Jews had been bestially murdered. What right did adults who had destroyed the world in such a way have to give children any moral message? Pedagogical literature had had its day for the time being, and it was thanks to people like Max Kruse, Michael Ende, and Ottfried Preußler that a new tone developed in German-language children's literature and finally prevailed. No literature with a raised forefinger, no drastic or brutal stories. It was the quiet, imaginative, perhaps even a bit offbeat tales that began with Kruse's "Der Löwe ist los". Playful stories that were always funny, and in which a child was allowed to be a child. In children's and youth literature research, one speaks of the phase of childhood autonomy. The children are the heroes of these stories, they are one with their environment. They are independent of the established adults and vastly superior to them in everything. Just like Pippi Longstocking, the Swedish sister of the characters by Kruse, Ende and Preußler.
"Urmel aus dem Eis," which didn't come into being until 1969, was then something of a counter-program to the problem-oriented literature that gained popularity in the late 1960s, literature that focused on social problems and deliberately confronted children with them. With Professor Tibatong, Tim Tintenklecks, Urmel, Wutz and der Mupfel, Max Kruse preserved a sanctuary for funny and playful literature on the small island of Titiwu.
With the abundance of digital offerings, it's easy to get the impression that children today don't read much. How important is literature for children?
Neumann: Children don't read enough, and we've known that at least since the PISA study. Because you can only learn to read by reading. And you only like to do that if you a) find good stories and b) have someone to show you how to read. Not just how to decipher letters and make sense of them. But also simply reading aloud, making people curious about stories, snuggling up on the sofa with children and reading aloud for an afternoon or evening. And that works great at school, too. I loved it when my teacher read aloud.
The book has not been the leading medium in our society since the 1960s. Back then, it was replaced by television. And since about 2010, the Internet has been the leading medium of our time. You can regret that or not, but you won't be able to change it in the foreseeable future. I also don't believe that digital offerings per se keep children from reading. There are now cross-media offerings that can promote reading. By the way, "Urmel aus dem Eis" is a good example of this. After all, the success of the Urmel series is inextricably linked to the Augsburger Puppenkiste, which owes its nationwide popularity exclusively to television. But I think it's always important to ask what role models adults are. Do parents, educators, and teachers read themselves, or do they preach one thing and do another? Children notice this immediately.
Uwe Blass (conversation from 17.11.2021)
Dr. Stefan Neumann works in the Faculty of Humanities and Cultural Studies at Bergische Universität in the area of Didactics of German Language and Literature.