One of the wonders of bookwormery is the sometimes surprising journey of discovery.  One book leads to another and suddenly a whole new world emerges.   So it was as I read Clare Dudman’s 98 Reasons for Being, an historical novel about Dr Heinrich Hoffmann, a Frankfurt psychiatrist and author of what some call “the most famous children’s book on earth” – one I’d never heard of! Utterly incredible given that I lived in Frankfurt am Main for 8 years. OK – I was young and single and not at all child-oriented at that stage.  But how many times had I walked past the Struwwelpeter fountain on the Hauptwache and not even asked what all the strange figures on it were?  (If fact, just how long has that fountain been there?  Did I really not register it for 8 years?)

Struwwelpeter Fountain, Frankfurt am Main - By sabine0301 on flikr)
Struwwelpeter Fountain, Frankfurt am Main - Courtesy of sabine0301 on flikr

Hoffmann wrote and illustrated Struwwelpeter  (Shock-headed Peter) in 1844 because he could not find a decent story book for his son’s Christmas.  It’s comprises of 10 poems, each a tale of a naughty child and the bad things that result from the behaviour.   The children are naughty,  it is true. The poems, however, are wicked  – not at all PC or attuned to modern day sensibilities.   Really bad things happen to these children and the illustrations don’t gloss on it either.  The girl who plays with matches  comes to a fiery end.  The boy who refuses to eat his soup dies too.  And the boy who continues to suck his thumb, well, he’s horribly mutilated (but at least he survives).

The stuff of nightmares, indeed, although quite funny in a very noir kind of way.  I struggled to pick a favourite.  Flying Robert, maybe – the child who went out in the rain with a brolly and, well take a look (you’ll understand it even if you don’t speak German).  Certainly  a poem that should definitely not be told in Scotland! In the end though, I plumped for Hans Stare-In-The-Air because I’m forever not paying attention to where I’m going – which might just explain how I’ve never seen the Struwwelpeter fountain with my own eyes!

 Bob Staake, who has redrawn Struwwelpeter for the C21st Century  says “When I was given the book as a kid, I didn’t know if it was a joke or not, but my German parents weren’t laughing. The illustrations and stories just creeped me out beyond words. ”  Beyond the nightmare effect,  its iconic characters have spawned an industry.    Window displays in Frankfurt are full of Struwwelpeter china. The exhibition at the Struwwelpeter museum displays dozens of  translations, advertisements, movie posters and further reworkings – not all of them German in origin.  Jasper Fforde alluded to Hoffmann’s work in “The Fourth Bear” when creating a town with terrified, but obedient children, who always eat their soup, don’t play with matches, and don’t suck their thumbs. Some folks in town are actually missing their thumbs, courtesy of a scissor wielding maniac in red pants. 

And then there is Dr Schrecklichkeit’s (Dr Horrors)  Struwwelhitler, penned in English and illustrated in 1941.  A heavily satirical piece of wartime propaganda designed to show the bad things coming to those nasty continental fascists.   It’s a delight, though definitely of its time.  Stalin is portrayed as a good guy.  As a taster, here’s what happens when Flying Robert is transformed into Flying Rudolf.

When the heads came tumbling down
At the Führer’s angry frown
All good little Nazi boys
Stayed at home to mind their toys.
Rudolf thought “No place is surer
Than to strut beside the Führer”.
So he did, and for a bit
He was IT.
All the Führer’s joy and pride.
Here you see them side by side.

But there eyed him still askance
Himmler’s cold and fishy glance
And the Führer screamed, “Don’t dare
Take a plane into the air!”
Rudolf thought: “To leave by stealth
Will be better for my health.”
So he flies
To the skies,
Never heeding Adolf’s cries,
Till appears a tiny dot
O’er the land of Burns and Scott.

Is it Rudolf’s parachute!!
Can a rift be in the lute?
Has he come to seek for solace
On the soil of Bruce and Wallace?
Down he bumps on Scottish ground
And they’ve put him in the pound.
Now, it isn’t very clear
What he’s wanting over here,
Only, this one thing is plain,
Rudolf won’t go back again.

History proving what it has, unlike the originals,  these poems are a guiltfree pleasure and the book is worth purchasing for its illustrations alone. The detail in them conveying many unspoken messages.  As “cruel Adolf” lies in bed, the doctor brings him medicine.  The label on the bottle tells us he is administering rat poison!  What’s not to love?


Struwwelhitler is not available online but you can, depending on your sense of humour,  enjoy Hoffmann’s illustrated original in either German or English at