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When I Was a Boy (Als Ich ein Kleiner Junge War)
(Erich Kästner)

Erich Kästner’s autobiography about his early childhood years before the outbreak of World War I was first published in England in 1959 with the title When I Was a Little Boy; the title was shortened to When I Was a Boy for its American publication in 1961. Although the book ostensibly concerns only the first fifteen years of Kästner’s life, in content it extends beyond those years in two ways. First, before he mentions his own birth in 1899 at the end of chapter 4, Kästner slowly works his way through history, beginning with the sixteenth century. With his mother’s birth in 1871, Kästner begins to provide detailed personal information from chapter 2 onward. Second, he interrupts his chronological account with various asides about later events, always excusing them as being "beside the point." Yet they never really are, as Kästner himself acknowledges when he writes that childhood experiences reveal their true meaning only much later. The most striking characteristic of Kästner’s autobiography is the authentic mixture of sincerity and humor that is the trademark of the children’s books for which he is so well known in Germany. On the one hand, Kästner cheerfully begins with the motto "No book without a foreword," directly addressing his readers as he does throughout the book. For example, he cuts short a description of his native Dresden and promises that he will "ask the artist to please make a special set of drawings" of Dresden. On the other hand, Kästner does not gloss over bad childhood experiences. Chapter by chapter, readers watch little Erich grow up in poverty and cope with brutal teachers; they see him caught in the rivalry of his parents’ love for him, and dealing with his suicidal mother. Kästner is aware of his young audience and continually points out that life brings with it much joy as well as trouble. Consequently, he states that leaving out accounts of hard times would be "wrong" but also warns against doing the opposite—after all, he notes, "Life is not all rosy nor all black but multi-colored." Playful as always, the book ends with an epilogue in which Kästner’s cats criticize his autobiography. Yet the work allows its readers to understand some of the experiences that are behind the many stories Kästner later wrote, especially those for children. The German original has an immediate appeal to its readers; however, a new translation into American English (as opposed to late-1950’s British English) would improve the reading pleasure of an already delightful book for young American readers.

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