A series in which we feature writers and books we think you might like to know better. Pat Thomson introduces Christine Nostlinger
Christine Nostlinger seems less well-known in this country than she deserves to be. Her books have been honoured in German-speaking countries and internationally, and there is certainly no barrier for British readers in the translation, as Anthea Bell works on the books with the kind of skill which could have you believing that they were written in English to start with. Anyone looking for fresh books with a modern, humorous, urban atmosphere should take a closer look at this author.
The books for younger children, about 7-11, usually contain a fantasy element. Mr Bat’s Great Invention is the most conventionally magical. Robert allows his Granny to try Mr Bat’s rejuvenation process and finds himself responsible for an infant Granny.
“`Hey, what did Robert give you to pretend to be his Granny?”
Looking crosser than ever, Granny put out her tongue and went: “YAAAH!”‘
In Lollipop, the magic may or may not be what it seems. Lollipop is the nickname of a boy who by staring through a well-licked lollipop makes others obey him. This becomes his aid to coping with the demands of junior life. Here, Christine Nostlinger is exploring the feelings of a younger age range in a way usually reserved for older children. She does it seriously but with a light touch. On one occasion, for example, the technique backfires on Lollipop. In an effort to persuade his sister that only girls should help with the housework, he practises his compelling stare in the mirror! By the end of the story, he no longer needs this special prop. He can depend on himself.
The Cucumber King is overtly critical of parents. The father is dominated by conventional concerns so when a strange cucumber-like figure emerges from the cellar, it only has to claim that it is a King, ejected from his kingdom by rebellious subjects, for the reactionary father to rush to its defence. The rest of the family loathe it and its nasty ways and make common cause with the downtrodden subjects, so when they defeat the Cucumber King so, in a way, is the father defeated. This author makes no special allowance for adults.
Their motives and self-deceptions are exposed as rigorously as the children’s.
Her most unusual book is Conrad, the story of a factory-made child delivered to the wrong address. The fun lies in the reversal of roles, for Conrad is beautifully programmed to be the perfect child, while Mrs Bartolotti is unconventional and extremely easy-going. The crisis comes when a very disagreeable couple arrive to claim their property, and to save himself, Conrad has to behave like an ordinary boy. As the damp patch on the ceiling spreads, the light fittings sway, and Conrad arrives head first down the banisters, the would-be parents hastily renounce all claims and Conrad and Mrs Bartolotti are left to live affectionately together.
In all these books, Christine Nostlinger speaks very directly to the reader, involving them in an immediate way. She is anti-authoritarian, writing largely from the child’s point of view, but without abdicating adult responsibility. The characters always recognise ultimately that they, too, must contribute to family harmony whatever the parental shortcomings. She acknowledges the pressures of being a father and is often interesting on the role of mothers. They fight to retain their personalities in much the same way as the children do.
In her novels for older readers, two of them make intriguing references to England. Luke, in Luke and Angela, returns from an English summer school with a new, liberated personality which gradually alienates him from Angela, till then his most faithful friend. There is some high comedy, as when Luke patiently, honestly and sincerely explains to the Latin mistress why he is wearing his brother’s cast-off pyjamas and cannot now obey ordinary, stultifying rules. She does not appreciate his sincerity or appearance. At the same time, the book raises the questions about friendship, faithfulness and stability, all serious matters to Luke and Angela and to others like them.
But Jasper Came Instead involves a family’s reactions to an objectionable English exchange student. Anyone who has been involved in such an exchange will cherish the account of the drive back from the airport, Dad valiantly making conversation in English.
“`This is the big oil refinery. This is the Zentralfreidhof. All the dead people of Vienna are lying here!” Jasper didn’t bother to look out of the window in search of all the dead Viennese people living in the cemetery.’
Jasper, in fact, is a great shock to Waldy’s formal parents. It takes Billie, the elder sister, to see through Jasper’s behaviour, discovering his painful insecurity and offering him support and friendship. Realising that Jasper’s problems are so much greater than any of their petty frictions brings the whole family together in a better understanding.
One other book, for mature juniors or teenagers, makes compelling reading for adults, too. It is Fly Away Home, based on Christine Nostlinger’s own experiences in Vienna towards the end of the war. The Nazis retreat and the Russians move in. Christel and her family survive the confusion and disorder which follows. Perhaps when someone has grown up during this period, they see only too clearly that adults are not always right, that conformity is not always the proper goal, and that loving concern for each other matters more than anything else.
These are all contemporary books in urban settings which could be labelled `problem’ novels, but they are saved from being heavy, oppressive documents by the author’s humour, inventive moments and imaginative situations. She has said that she sees four elements in writing for children: their love of humour, what they like to read, what they ought to read, and what she feels compelled to write. She tries to combine these factors while being honest about contemporary life. In doing this, she has succeeded in working out serious themes through fun and an element of fantasy, looking at parents, brothers, sisters and friends and managing to say something serious but funny about all of it.
Titles are published in hardback by Andersen and in paperback by Beaver.
Mr Bat’s Great Invention
0 905478 29 0, £4.95 hbk
0 86264 015 6, £3.95 hbk;
0 600 20707 2, £1.25 pbk
The Cucumber King
0 86264 057 1,£4.50 hbk;
0 09 933940 4, £1.10 pbk
0 905478 03 7, £4.95 hbk;
0 600 32002 2, ’90p pbk
Luke and Angela
0 905478 64 9, £4.50 hbk
But Jasper Came Instead
0 86264 042 3, £4.50 hbk
Fly Away’ Home
(available in hardback January 1985)