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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).

Crowdfunding for our Meta Morfoss App – the starting phase begins!

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Our crowdfunding campaign has begun on startnext.de! With your help, we’re hoping to fund the making of our Meta Morfoss App. We’re currently in the starting phase – that’s the phase when a project draws attention and acquires fans. When we have 100 fans, the funding phase can begin.

And here at long last is our long-awaited pitch video! Watch it and you’ll see how our app prototype works!

Please help us to realize our project, which transforms Peter Hack’s wonderful story Meta Morfoss into a unique book app for all lovers of literature, young and old. There are many reasons for supporting us and here are just a few:

  1. Our Meta Morfoss app combines good literature – not retellings or adaptations – with original illustrations and good design.
  2. We have developed a totally new app format – the reading quest. The animated illustrations do not distract users from the text like other children’s book apps do, but instead they can only be activated through reading.
  3. The app lets users switch between German, English and Russian. Our stretch goal – if more money is donated than expected – is to develop other language versions, such as Spanish!
  4. So far, there are few book apps in German for children who are of reading age, let alone innovative ones.  Our Meta Morfoss  book app is for children aged 8 and above. It is also a box of treasures for literature lovers and experts of all ages!
  5. We hope to combine the fun of reading with the fun of technology with our original experiment.

And now we need you! Please go straight to www.startnext.de/meta-morfoss-app and become our fan! We need 100 so the funding phase can begin. And you don’t have to make a donation to become a fan! Nor do you have to register with startnext – you can simply become a fan on Facebook or Google+.

Cultural propaganda (#HerrMaffrodit)

Ruin is not caused by lavatories but is something that starts in people’s heads” says Professor Preobrazhensky so succinctly of social shocks and upheavals in Bulgakov’s “Heart of a Dog”. Today, Russian society is trying to create an identity by normalizing gender roles and sometimes finds a peg for this in the oddest of places. This does not only have to do with homosexuality.

What does this have to do with a children’s story from the GDR, with a story written by Peter Hacks 40 years ago? We’ve come to the conclusion that the subject of metamorphosis, or metamorphoses, can be widely interpreted. A detailed analysis would find that much of the world’s cultural heritage doesn’t tally with current perceptions of morality. What could be more amoral than the pagan “atrocities” of the ancient world? Not only were sexual relations in no way “traditional”, such aberrations took place then that today would make some people’s hair stand!

This is all being jumbled up in the minds of people who literally do not have the right classical education. Moreover, the new legislative initiatives, which were first taken on the banks of the Neva, are not helping matters. Indeed, they are leading to “ruin in people’s heads” – and especially those of young people who seem to be more open minded since there is little pre-programming.

Drawing of parts of the human brain by Leonardo da Vinci wikimedia commons
Drawing of parts of the human brain by Leonardo da Vinci wikimedia commons

We were also suddenly caught up by reality when we were setting out our budget – completely unexpectedly! We had started calculating and preparing documents so we could invite bids from Russian programmers (companies and freelancers). We wrote a storyboard for our Meta Morfoss app to help prospective bidders understand better. We set out the whole story page by page, describing and naming all the scenes and characters in detail.

In the story, the main character – a girl called Meta – has an aunt called Maffrodit. She has a mustache and likes to knit. Although, we should have seen it coming, we had a bit of fun and talked about Hacks’ intelligent playful approach to meanings and his imagination. We sent out five requests for offers and waited. It didn’t take long: “Hello Nick! We’ve read everything. We’re completely against hermaphrodites any anything of the like. Nobody in the team wants to have anything to do with the project.”

Mosaic of Hermaphroditus, North Africa, Roman period, 2nd-3rd century AD wikimedia commons
Mosaic of Hermaphroditus, North Africa, Roman period, 2nd-3rd century AD wikimedia commons

What terrible fate would have befallen the app programmers from Petersburg  if Hermes and Aphrodite had known that they would be against their son?

There are many such “experts” when it comes to ancient mythology in Russia.

Can it really be that an interactive book about Meta Morfoss, who can transform herself into anything at all, might be considered reprehensible?

Daktylos Media will make good book apps

Girls reading Story Book Apps on a tablet (c) Daktylos Media
Girls reading Story Book Apps on a tablet (c) Daktylos Media
Children love books and being read aloud to – and contrary to widespread fears they also like to read on their own! Moreover, they are completely fascinated by mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. Who has not experienced how a child can plunge for hours into the seductive world of apps with such a device, unless worried parents prevent him or her from doing so? Such fears are understandable but they are also stoked by well-known writers who voice warnings. We wondered how we could combine reading with new technological possibilities in such a way that their full potential was tapped but children were not only distracted and amused but also motivated to read. Our thoughts seem to have arrived at the right time since we are not the only ones to have noticed that there is a lack of innovative apps, and not only in Germany.
That’s why we founded Daktylos Media, a publishing house for creating and producing interactive children’s books as apps for iPads and Android tablets. We have invented new formats for book apps. We will start with “reading quests” and then move on to “adventure stories”. A reading quest combines e-book with interactive hidden object game. The reader can animate illustrations by finding and tapping on keywords that are located on each page of the story. Thus the animated elements of our storybook apps do not distract from reading, but provide the motivation for doing so. Our second “adventure story” app format, which is still in the planning stages, will combine fiction with non-fiction literature about human history and culture. Daktylos Media apps are available in three languages – German, English and Russian We want to be number one when it comes to buying high-quality app contents for children and youths!

Apple and Google’s stores don’t have any further search functions for book apps, which is why we’ve set up this blog. We intend to write about children’s book apps and children’s e-books in German and Russian. Anyone looking for good and sensible app contents and who wants to know more about the digital trends in children’s literature in the 21st century is in the right place.

Our first app will be the Meta Morfoss reading quest, a story by Peter Hacks about a little girl who is constantly transforming herself into something else. The app combines this wonderful story with illustrations by the Russian illustrator, animator and game designer Max Litvinov (aka KClogg). We will soon report upon our planned crowdfunding campaign, thanks to which we hope to produce the Meta Morfoss reading quest.

woodleywonderworks@flickr, CC BY 2.0
woodleywonderworks@flickr, CC BY 2.0