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A guide to Erich Kästner: the father of German children’s books

When most people think of German authors, Goethe, Kafka and Mann are the first to come to mind - but Dresden-born Erich Kästner has also made a huge impact on the German literary scene. You may be surprised to see some stories you recognise included in this list of his major works.

Florian David Fitz as Eric Kästner
Florian David Fitz plays German author Erich Kästner in the drama, "Kästner and the little Tuesday". Photo: picture alliance/dpa/ARD Degeto/Dor Film/ | Anjeza Cikop

Erich Kästner was primarily known for his numerous children’s books, many of which have been adapted into classic films, both in English and in their original German language.

His works are noted for their realistic settings, which was a major change from most children’s novels at the time, and the fact that their social commentary is still considered relevant today. Kästner frequently depicted the adult world in a negative way, contrasting with that of children, symbolizing a hope for the development of humanity and its future.

He was also a pacifist and actively opposed the Nazi regime, which resulted in much of his work being banned and burned in the spring of 1933.

Since then, however, most of his works have remained in publication.

Here are five of his most popular works and why they continue to stand the test of time.

Lottie and Lisa (original title: Das doppelte Lottchen)

This classic novel revolves around a set of twin girls separated at birth who reunite years later at a summer camp. English-speaking audiences may be more familiar with the two Disney adaptations, titled The Parent Trap, but there have been many others in a number of languages, including German, Japanese, Hindi and Korean.

While Kästner came up with the concept as a film in 1942, due to strict film laws by the Nazis, the project was dropped, and Kästner worked out the story into a novel after the war. The subject of divorce plays a major role in the novel and the introduction of an independent, single and working mother as a character was praised. The work also stands out for its two main characters being girls, which was unusual for Kästner’s work at the time. The central storyline is used as inspiration in a number of modern works, and even a tramway in Dresden was named after the two title characters.

Parent trap
A scene from the 1990s Disney film, Parent Trap, which was based on Kästner’s ‘Lottie and Lisa’. Photo: picture-alliance / dpa | Ipol

Emil and the Detectives (original title: Emil und die Detektive)

Probably one of Kästner’s most well-known works, Emil and the Detectives was published in 1929 and became an instant hit upon its release. It contrasted with most of German children’s literature at the time by not being fairytale-like or moralizing, instead depicting humour and adventure in a modern, mundane setting.

The story follows Emil Tischbein, a twelve-year-old boy who has his money stolen from him on the train to Berlin, prompting him and several children to gather, find the thief and solve the crime. Like in many of his works, it is the children who are the heroes of the story, restoring peace to society, in contrast to the adult’s ineptitude. The novel has had several adaptions, both in film and on the stage as well as a sequel, which was published in 1934. You can also view the original typescripts of the novel, as they are on display in the Literaturmuseum der Moderne in Marbach, Baden-Württemberg.

READ ALSO: From shocking storytelling to diverse characters: How Germany’s children’s books are changing

The Flying Classroom (original title: Das fliegende Klassenzimmer)

The Flying Classroom is set in a boarding school in Bavaria and follows five friends rehearsing for a play (“The Flying Classroom”, hence the book title), who face a rivalry with another school amongst other everyday issues. The novel has been deemed timeless by critics and has been applauded for addressing issues such as childhood abandonment, poverty and the yearning for approval. The book has had three film adaptations, starring popular German actors such as Joachim Fuchsberger, Ulrich Noethen and Sebastian Koch, and has become a permanent feature in many German school’s curricula.

Statue of Erich Kästner
A mask is placed on the statue of Erich Kästner outside of the Erich Kästner Museum in Dresden. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Sebastian Kahnert

Annaluise and Anton (original title: Pünktchen und Anton)

Published in 1931, Annaluise and Anton explores the lives of two children from vastly different social classes, Annaluise coming from a wealthy family living in a mansion and Anton, from a poorer family, who has to care for his sick mother in their small, run-down apartment. Despite their different backgrounds, the two become close friends.

The novel has been praised for its social commentary, with Kästner interspersing so-called “afterthoughts” between the chapters of the story, in which he addresses several ethical questions. Like most of Kästner’s works, Annaluise and Anton has been adapted into two German films, released in 1952 and 1999 respectively, as well as a children’s opera, a musical and a play. It was also one of Kästner’s novels that was burnt in the Nazi book burnings – a moment commemorated by a stone memorial plaque in Bonn’s market square to this day. 

READ ALSO: How a Hamburg woman handled her father’s secret Nazi past

The Animals’ Conference (original title: Die Konferenz der Tiere)

The Animals’ Conference was Kästner’s first novel published after the Second World War in 1949 and therefore carries many allusions to real-life events in Germany at the time. In the book, representatives of all animal species on earth call an international conference to achieve world peace, due to the political failure of humans.

Puppet show
Actors use puppets in a dramatisation of Kästner’s Animal Conference in Leipzig. Photo: picture alliance / Birgit Zimmermann/dpa-Zentralbild/dpa | Birgit Zimmermann

It is probably Kästner’s most obvious portrayal of his anti-militarist, pacifist views, and the need to protect the welfare of children – a frequent motto used by the animals in the story is “It’s about the children”. The book also features strong satire on German bureaucracy and the military. It is therefore no surprise that this novel remains relevant today and is willingly read by both children and adults. Two animated film adaptations have been released, though Walt Disney himself turned down the opportunity due to the story being too political.

While these books are aimed at children, their messages and impact can be appreciated and understood by people of all ages. It is therefore no surprise that Kästner has become a household name of Germany, being a recipient of a number of literary prizes and having over 96 streets and 100 schools named after him.

If you’re interesting in finding out more about this classic German author, you can visit the Erich Kästner Museum in Dresden or find plaques honouring the author in his birthplace in Dresden and at his former residences in Berlin.

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CULTURE

10 of the best festivals around Germany in 2023

From Stuttgart's Cannstatter Volksfest to the Bremen Freimarkt, there are plenty of local festivals around Germany to check out. Here are some key dates to keep in mind this year.

10 of the best festivals around Germany in 2023

What is a Volkfest?

Volksfeste or folk festivals are regional celebrations and events in Germany that usually have a long history. They are often based on local culture and the seasons as well as holidays like Easter and Whitsun can play a role. Depending on the region, folk festivals can also be called “Kirchweih”, “Kerbe”, “Messe”, “Jahrmarkt”, “Schützenfest” or “Kirmes”.

Germany’s biggest and most famous Volksfest is Oktoberfest (which takes place in Munich from September 16th to October 3rd this year). But there are plenty of other local celebrations to check out. Here’s a look at some of the best folk festivals across Germany. 

Kiel: Kieler Woche (Kiel Week or Kiel Regatta)

From June 17th to 25th, the Kieler Woche, billed as the largest sailing event in the world, will take place. In 2019, 3.5 million people attended the event, which is based in venues spread all over the city. At the Olympic Centre Schilksee, international regattas are planned, while the Willer Balloon Sail on the Nordmarksportfeld sees colourful hot-air balloons take to the skies.

For concerts and theatre, crowds head to the open-air stage at Krusenkoppel and the Fördebühne at Bernhard-Harms-Weg. And in the Scandinavian fishing village on the Reventlou Loop, a market with northern European charm and a lighthouse attract visitors.

READ ALSO: Eight unmissable events in January in 2023

Hamburg: Hamburger Dom

Hamburg’s famous funfair takes place on the city’s Heiligengeistfeld, St Pauli three times a year. Visitors to the festival get to experience a mix of carousels, lottery stalls, snack bars, sweet stands, bars and rides.  In total, there are over 230 different attractions, and the Volksfest dates back over 700 years. In 2023, the Spring Dom is planned from March 24th to April 23rd, the Summer Dom from July 21st to August 20th and the Winter Dom will be in place from November 10th to December 10th. 

Hamburg

Winterdom in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Georg Wendt

Hamburg: Hafengeburtstag (Harbour Birthday)

The city’s Hafengeburtstag is a street festival taking place on the banks of the river Elbe. It involves boating traditions and offers people the chance to stroll, hang out and feast along the harbour mile. Check out the fireworks on Saturday night at the Landungsbrücken. The festival takes place from May 5th to 7th.

Bremen: Freimarkt (Free Market)

Founded way back in 1035, the Bremen Freimarkt is one of the oldest folk festivals in Germany. It attracted 4.4 million guests in 2019, making it one of the biggest in Germany. Its name derives from the fact that here – in contrast to the usual weekly markets – non-local and local merchants were both free to sell goods. Otherwise only members of other Bremen guilds were allowed to trade. It was not until the beginning of the 19th century that it became solely an amusement festival complete with a rollercoaster, ferris wheel, ghost train and almost 50 other rides. It takes place at the Bürgerweide near the main railway station.

Things are a bit more tranquil at Bremen’s market square at the “Kleiner Freimarkt”, with doughnuts, roasted almonds, liquorice and nostalgic carousels. In the nearby market village dating back to 1382, blacksmiths, glassblowers and stonemasons will be demonstrating crafts, while jugglers and singers will provide entertainment. The whole fest is taking place for the 987th time from October 13th to 29th.

Paderborn: Libori

Expect culture and fun activities at the nine-day Libori Festival. The town hall square becomes a concert mile and dance floor, the Franz-Stock-Platz a “place of the arts” with acrobatics, comedy, theatre and puppet shows. Another tradition is the beer fountain, where barley juice flows instead of water. The festival originated in 836 when the holy relics of St Liborius were brought back from Le Mans to the episcopal city of Paderborn. The next Liborifest is set to take place from July 22nd to 30th.

Soest: Allerheiligenkirmes (All Saints’ Fair)

Europe’s largest old town funfair, which has clocked up almost 700 years of tradition, attracted almost 1.3 million spectators in 2019. Its unique atmosphere is based on the juxtaposition of colourful high-tech fairground rides, historic half-timbered houses and the almost 1,000-year-old cathedral.

In the centre of what was once one of the most important Hanseatic cities, almost 50,000 square metres is reserved for the festival, taking place from November 8th to 12th this year.  A culinary speciality at the North Rhine-Westphalia fair is honey liqueur, served in edible “schnapps glasses” made of chocolate-covered wafers.

Snacks at the Allerheiligenkirmes festival in Soest in 2021.

Snacks at the Allerheiligenkirmes festival in Soest in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | David Inderlied

Düsseldorf: Größte Kirmes am Rhein (Largest funfair on the Rhine)

The third-largest Volksfest in Germany, the ‘Größte Kirmes am Rhein’ attracted four million people in 2019. Held on the Rhine meadows between the Rheinkniebrücke and Oberkasseler Brücke bridges, the festival is hosted by the St. Sebastianus-Schützenverein.

Among the rides, the Bayern Tower stands out. The world’s tallest maypole, at 90 metres, rotates 73 metres above the ground. Don’t forget to check out the fireworks display. Put these dates in your diary to check it out: 14th to 23rd July.

Herne: Cranger Kirmes

Among the 50 or so rides at this fair in North Rhine-Westphalia, the ferris wheel offers great views and cool experiences: guests can have a picnic, tapas or coffee in the cabins on the ride. The funfair programme includes a horse market, musical performances plus the tapping of the barrel by the mayor as well as a large parade. A fireworks display traditionally forms the finale. The Cranger Kirmes takes place from August 3rd to 13th. 

Nuremberg: Nürnberger Volksfest (Folk Festival)

There are two editions for this festival at the Großer Dutzendteich: the Spring Festival from April 8th to 23rd  and the Autumn Volksfest set for August 25th to September 10th. There are lots of fairground rides for the whole family. The programme includes the samba show Bateria quem é, Punch and Judy in the Frankendorf, a classic car parade and the ‘Night of 1000 Lights’ – a fireworks display over the Dutzendteich. But there are also contemporary events such as ‘apprentice speed dating’ in the Ferris wheel, where major employers from the region try to fill their apprenticeship places (yes, really!). 

Revellers attend the Nuremberg Volksfest in June 2022.

Revellers attend the Nuremberg Volksfest in June 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Löb

Stuttgart: Cannstatter Volksfest/Wasen

The Cannstatter Volksfest is known as the Wasen after its venue in Neckarpark in Stuttgart’s Bad Cannstatt district. It attracted around 3.5 million visitors in 2019 and is celebrated between September and October. A huge number of fairground operators set up in the city. During the parade on the first Sunday of the festival, expect outlandish costumes and music bands from all over Germany marching through the historic streets of Bad Cannstatt to the Wasen.

The spring edition of the festival – a “Wasen light” – is to take place from April 22nd to May 14th. The regular folk festival is scheduled for September 22nd to October 8th.

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