Children’s Book Blog: Recommended read – Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner
When a low, rotten train thief pinches £7 from young Emil Tischbein’s pocket, Emil teams up with half the boys in Berlin to get his money back.
Who’s it for?
Children around eight years old – give or take a couple of years – and grown-ups in a nostalgic frame of mind.
Why should I read it?
Because Emil is the original child detective! He caught his first villain – the train pickpocket in this book – back in 1929, long before the likes of the Famous Five appeared on the scene. What made Emil’s story stand out from the crowd – besides the ripping adventure through the streets of Berlin – was that it focused on plausible children with real problems in a real setting. Emil and his widow mother, despite living happily together, often struggle to make ends meet. The Berlin boys, meanwhile, represent a cross-section of contemporary German society though, being children, they don’t waste much time on such boring subjects as class politics.
Philip Pullman has described the events in Emil and the Detectives as ‘democracy in action’, and he’s quite right. Emil and the other boys pool their money between them and every one of them is involved in the decision-making processes that lead to the thief’s eventual capture. Hitler and his cronies were, sadly, less keen on Kästner’s ideals, and the author saw a great many of his books burned in 1933.
Luckily for generations of young readers, Emil has subsequently been translated into 59 languages and has never gone out of print. While some of the expressions used are pretty outdated (Emil and his chums like to say ‘smashing!’ a lot) and you might occasionally feel like punching Emil’s female cousin Pony when she says things like, ‘A woman’s work is never done’, the adventure and its hero are so compelling that you can’t help but be swept along with it all.
Adult readers will find themselves looking back fondly on simpler times when children could play out in the street without their parents worrying about them. That said you don’t have to peer too intently between the lines to detect dissatisfaction brewing in the post-World War I Germany setting. It’s also a depressing fact that, were they real, many of the plucky children in the book would have grown up to become young Nazis and possibly meet their end in the Second World War… but I try not to think about that too much because it’s just too upsetting.
Best character: Gustav, the leader of the Berlin gang, who marks his arrival on any scene with a loud blast from a motor horn, which he carries with him at all times.
Best line: ‘It was all so thrilling that Emil began to feel almost pleased that his money had been stolen.’
If I like this, what other books might I like?
Five on a Treasure Island by Enid Blyton
Rebecca Davies is a journalist and children’s author and completed her middle-grade novel, Shirley Smart and the Nix’s Curse earlier this year. You can read more of her children’s book blogs here
Follow Rebecca on Twitter @TheStoryMonsterTagged in: Emil and the Detectives
Recent Posts on Arts
- Friday Book Design Blog: The Ariel Poems, and other seasonal pamphlets
- Children’s book blog – Ask the illustrator: Rebecca Cobb
- Piggott's post: Jacobson, Heller and reflections on "real life"
- Ric Blackshaw tells us Scrawl about his street art enterprise
- Children’s books for November: The Something, The Imaginary and Eren
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter