This is a collection of ten shockingly hilarious rhyming stories, where you can put aside all ideas of over-earnest political correctness, cut through all that parental pussy-footing around, and let rip with a bit of macabre exaggeration.
Written in 1845 by Dr Heinrich Hoffmann, a physician and psychiatrist, Struwwelpeter’s original title was “Funny Stories and Droll Pictures.” It was written, apparently, because he couldn’t find any suitably interesting books for his son, so it was not intended to be cruel or overly moral, but entertaining in it’s extremeness, and its graphic pictures beautifully illustrate the gruesome consequences of the various misdemeanors of different children.
There is Shock-headed Peter who doesn’t wash or ever comb his hair, Cruel Frederick who mistreats animals and gets his comeuppance, the thumb-sucker who gets his thumbs cut off, Johnny Head-in-the-Air who ends up nearly drowning in the river, and Flying Robert who thinks it’s fun to go out with his umbrella in windy weather and is blown away, never to be seen again, as well as several other equally dramatic stories.
Hoffmann took his ideas from stories he collected over time, but wrote and illustrated on the spur of the moment, for his younger patients to distract them while he attended to their illness, or condition. Some of his stories actually describe habits of children which, in extreme form are indicators of mental disorders, which he would have been familiar with as he worked as a medical specialist at a lunatic asylum, as well as being a regular physician. For example, Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is also called ‘Zappel-Philip-Syndrom’ (Fidgety-Philip syndrome) colloquially in Germany. The story of Augustus who would not eat his soup, is a classic case example of anorexia nervosa, Harriet exhibits strong pyromaniac tendencies, and apparently there is a condition known as Uncombable hair syndrome, which could explain Struwwelpeter’s shock-headed appearance. But these stories are intended for the plain fidgety, fussy, messy or otherwise errant young individuals, and as entertaining moralising, they certainly do stick in the mind, even as an adult.
I did read this book to both my sons when they were small. I had bought it for myself, well before they were born, whilst working as Art book buyer for a bookshop in Camden, London. I love strong images, whether in art, illustration, or photography, and I just loved the graphic colour-blocked illustrations (as well as the miscreant behaviour and the extremeness of it all!) My two boys thought it was hilarious and loved the gruesomeness of it all too. Not sure it did any moral good though...they were just too busy laughing.
This book, considered the main precursor to comic books, is like a breath of fresh air in our carefully controlled, and often bland approach to child care today. It has been published in many different languages, many times so is obviously enduringly popular. By 1848 it was in its sixth edition and had sold 20,000 copies. In 1891 Mark Twain wrote his own translation of the book and named it “Slovenly Peter” but due to copyright issues it was not published until 1935, 25 years after his death.
The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb, a boy called Konrad who could not resist sucking his thumb despite warnings of the Scissor-man cutting them off, obviously sparked the imagination at large, as it has been diversely referenced from W.H Auden poetry to Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands.
In 1982 the name of the book was used to form the British post-punk band, Shock Headed Peters.The book was also used as the basis of a musical in 1998 called Shockheaded Peter, which combined pantomime, puppetry and songs into a bizarre, subversive, macabre merriment; a darker more sinister version of the book’s text. The musical was created by the founders of London’s Improbable Theatre with music and lyrics by the underworld cabaret act The Tigerlilies and it won awards for best design and best entertainment.
The New York’s Public Library Rare Books Collection has one of the four known remaining original copies from 1845 and it has Hoffmanns’ original enchanting hand-coloured illustrations. The illustrations have been reworked over the years with increasingly elaborate detail added, as wood block colour-printing took over from hand-painting but the drawings are still very similar and they have retained all the quirky and slightly disturbing qualities of the originals.
The stories themselves are, of course, timeless, as they are about the usual everyday behaviours of young children. Reluctance to eat what has been cooked for them, to have their hair brushed, to look where they are going, or to do what they have been told; what child doesn’t behave like this. So Struwwelpeter will always be popular, because it deals in truths we will always be able to relate to, it maintains its shock value by being extreme, and makes us laugh for both those reasons.
Here in our Darwin Rare Books Room we have a lovely old 1890 edition of “The English Struwwelpeter” for £82, with its illustrations still bright and bold. We also have two modern 1990 copies in our warehouse, and online, if you want all the shock of the stories without the price tag. But when you visit, just make sure you behave impeccably, because….
“Naughty, romping girls and boys
Tear their clothes and make a noise,
Spoil their pinafores and frocks,
And deserve no Christmas-box.
Such as these will never look
At this pretty picture-Book.”
You have been warned!