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“Children? I don’t know any at all.” A discussion about Peter Hacks and his writing for children

Our first book app brings Peter Hacks’ story Meta Morfoss to iPads and Android tablets. Daktylos Media spoke to the publisher Dr Matthias Oehme about Peter Hacks and his wonderful texts for children.

Peter Hacks, 1976. Foto: Bundesarchiv
Peter Hacks, 1976. Photo: German Federal Archives

Daktylos Media (DM): How did you meet Peter Hacks?

Matthias Oehme (MO): I had known him as a poet for a long time, but I met him much later on. It happened when I took over Eulenspiegel Verlag, about 1994, and I was trying to acquire Hacks as an author. And although this didn’t take place immediately, he was very friendly, open and really interested in what was happening with the old GDR publishing house. I had the impression that our meetings and talks, sometimes in the office, sometimes at his home in Schönhauser Allee or outside Berlin on his land, were overwhelmingly filled with sympathy and consent. He did want us to publish him.

DM: What particularly has stayed with you?

MO: Even if it’s only one aspect, it should not be underestimated: I had the impression that he was extremely curious; he always wanted to know the latest about issues and people, whether this had do with the publishing industry, political developments or literary gossip – it just had to be new. He was easily bored by anything else. And of course he had a judgment to make about everything; I’m not saying opinion because his judgments were usually better founded than simple opinions.

T. reads Stories about Henriette and Uncle Titus, Kinderbuchverlag's second edition 1982 (c) Daktylos Media
T. reads Stories about Henriette and Uncle Titus, Kinderbuchverlag’s second edition 1982 (c) Daktylos Media

DM: Hacks, who didn’t have any children himself, wrote wonderful children’s literature. What in your opinion makes the texts so timeless and so powerful?

MO: They don’t overshadow children, they’re not didactic, they’re full of coherent logic and amusing wisdom, which children like very much. These are powerful, imaginative fables, and in terms of language the texts are clear and original and highly poetic, and confident attitudes and actions are always expressed. This is not literature for times of crisis or phases of decline only. What remains true is: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”

DM: Do you know what significance writing texts for children had for Hacks, what role this played in his life, what he associated with it?

MO: He wrote about it in his essay: “What is a drama, what is a child?” and I don’t want to presume to know better than he did. But I think that in terms of literary aesthetics writing for children was not so important to him, and to that extent these texts are flowers from the margins of poetry. However, producing these things did come naturally to him, i.e. he often enough really felt like doing it apparently. The way some great playwrights sometimes wrote poems or narrative texts. He also had a highly developed sense of genre so that it was clear to him that certain subjects could only be treated within the realm of children’s literature. In 1977, he gave this answer to a question posed by the GDR Kinderbuchverlag about why he wrote for children and how come he knew them so well:

People ask: ‘Of course, you have children?’ And I respond: ‘No’: So they ask: ‘How come you know them then?’ I answer: ‘I don’t know any at all.’ And then people get confused and say: ‘But you seem to like them!’ – Is that really so difficult? I have no children and therefore I don’t know any and for those two very reasons it thus takes very little effort to keep my good opinion of them.

DM: Hacks’ stories, such as Meta Morfoss or Stories about Henriette and Uncle Titus, emerged from playing with language and its different meanings. Sometimes they come across as absurd. Can one say that there was an absurd narrative trend in East German children’s literature comparable to such developments in the English-speaking world or in the early Soviet Union? Or is Hacks an isolated case?
MO: I would presume that the similarities are very superficial. The absurd label does not fit the workings of Hacks’ imagination. Hacks is indeed an isolated case, I do believe that, but he is definitely grounded in realism; perhaps it’s his range, the fertility of his understanding of realism, that makes him unique. Everything that seems so fantastical, even absurd, like a bear who has the say at a rangers’ ball, is found in stories that are steeped in reality and adapted from reality with wit and twists and humor that children do not mistake for the countless grumpy products of anthropomorphosizing half-teachers? They have an unerring nose for these.

The Bear at the Hunters' Ball. Illustrations by Walter Schmögner (c) Eulenspiegel Verlag
The Bear at the Hunters’ Ball. Illustrations by Walter Schmögner (c) Eulenspiegel Verlag

DM: A Russian team of developers that we had approached to program our Meta Morfoss app refused with the excuse: “We don’t want to have anything to do with ‘hermaphrodites’.” Do you know whether Meta Morfoss has ever been considered offensive in the past?

MO: I find that refusal funny but not only funny. No, I don’t know of anything although there were always some objections to Hacks right from the start, including to his texts for children. It’s teachers, the real ones and those who purport to be, who often have their problems with him. But I don’t know of such a sophisticated prejudice; and that’s all that is. I don’t know if it can trigger a socio-political debate. Don’t forget that a GDR child was less easy to deceive than a West German one. Thanks to Hacks in the end!

DM: Thank you for taking the time to conduct this interview with us!


Matthias Oehme, Geschäftsführer des Eulenspiegel Verlags und Peter Hacks Verleger. Foto: Simone Uthleb (c) Eulenspiegel Verlag
Matthias Oehme, CEO of Eulenspiegel Verlag and publisher of Peter Hacks.

Photo: Simone Uthleb

(c) Eulenspiegel Verlag

The publisher and literature specialist Dr Matthias Oehme was born in 1954. He studied German in Leipzig and was awarded a PhD in 1984 for his examination of dramaturgy and drama theory in Schiller’s late works. In 1993, he and Jacqueline Kühne took over the publishing house Das Neue Berlin and Eulenspiegel Verlag, which continued to be run together by a new company. He still works as an editor occasionally (Herder, Schiller, Brecht, Hacks).

Momotaro

(c) Ghost Hand Games
(c) Ghost Hand Games

We haven’t had our iPad for very long. We recently downloaded The Legend of Momotaro. “When are we finally going to watch the app with the beautiful blossom?” our eldest six-year-old daughter T asked a few hours later. Till then, she had only played a few Toca Boca games, which she really loves and with whose characters she identifies. (She even wanted to ban her brother from feeding “her” blue monster in Kitchen Monsters. But back to the “beautiful blossom”: This is actually a peach with a stem that looks like a blossoming bud – the Momotaro app icon has now taken its place next to the cheerful Toca Boca faces.

The Legend of Momotaro is a storybook app created by the Saratoga Springs, NY state-based gaming company Ghost Hand Games. It is one of the interactive books that came very close to our ideal in all the descriptions and reviews, as we searched for good book apps. We haven’t found anything comparable in German yet.The app recounts a well-known Japanese legend in English. The wish of an older couple is granted when a child appears in their lives. The boy’s specialness is already clear from the fact that he arrives on Earth in a giant peach that the old woman fishes from the river. They call him Momotaro – Peach Boy. He grows up to be a great fighter and frees the country from ogres.

The design incorporates many elements from traditional Japanese culture. The story opens up on a scroll that is unrolled sideways. Each part of text has its own scene or “stage”, on which different changes that correspond to the narrative flow take place. The reader is immersed in a Japanese landscape, in which many things, such as a plum tree, wooden shoes or paper fish, can be discovered. They are depicted in kanji characters in the bottom bar and can be found either when either the kanji or the identified object in the picture are tapped. Then a small flower unfolds into a piece of origami paper, on which the item is depicted and both the English and Japanese words for it are written. Users can also hear the pronunciation by tapping the word. The Japanese word is also available in hiragana signs which represent syllables. The kanji character can be copied by users with their finger. Traditional elements of Japanese society and culture such as carps, peaches or shrines are explained on a sheet of “paper”.

The Legend of Momotaro: Die alte Frau findet beim Wäschewaschen am Fluss einen Riesenpfirsich (c) Daktylos Media
The Legend of Momotaro: Die alte Frau findet beim Wäschewaschen am Fluss einen Riesenpfirsich (c) Daktylos Media
The Legend of Momotaro: Kanji für
The Legend of Momotaro: Kanji for “house” (c) Daktylos Media

When our 10-year-old son took a look at the app on his own, his first comment was “Boring!” He had hoped that by tapping on scenes reminiscent of Japanese woodcarvings, there would be more animations. But this is not an animated “playbook” like Alice for the iPad. Later on, before going to bed we finally had time to look at Momotaro’s story in peace. Our youngest daughter was already sleeping and the oldest one was cuddled up with me in bed. I started telling her the English story in German. Her brother sneaked in and cuddled up to us too. Children love fairy tales, at any time of day or night, in any situation.Apart from the clear, saturated and piercing sounds of a koto that begin the app, generally the sound is very discreet and meditative: There are a few summer sounds such as the murmur of the water and the wind, the chirping of crickets, the twittering of birds or the quiet and the homey bubbling of soup in a pot. The narrative conforms to traditional fairy-tales. We had plenty of time, so the children could listen to the story calmly and try out each interactive element after each episode. My daughter repeated the English and Japanese words enthusiastically and copied the kanjis with her finger. My son was interested in comparing the Japanese words with the English ones, many of which he already knew.

Both children had fallen asleep within about 40 minutes so we only got through two thirds. Maybe we’ll look at the rest tonight.

My conclusion: The Legend of Momotaro is a wonderful book app that can provide a great deal of pleasure, both for the mind and the senses. Adults should take a look at it with the children so that everyone can enjoy quality time together, but also so that that expectations and attention can be somewhat guided. Although, it’s impossible to tap about wildly and trigger cartoon-like experiences, it’s good if children can take their time to become curious about the story as well as the strange language and culture, so that they can have a lot of fun reading and watching.

The Legend of Momotaro
Ghost Hand Games LLC
Preis bei iTunes: 2,69 €
Size: 179 Mb