November 22, 2006: A moment with...
Ulrich Knoepflmacher *61
Professor Ulrich Knoepflmacher *61 has the white hair of a scholar who has taught for decades, but few readers, young or old, savor a good children’s book as much as he does. In his popular course on children’s literature, Knoepflmacher helps Princeton students understand how texts that are often derided as “kiddie lit,” like Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, and multiple incarnations of fairy tales, are sophisticated works of literature that bridge childhood and adulthood. Knoepflmacher, who plans to retire in June, was a speaker at an international conference held at Princeton’s Cotsen Children’s Library last week, and he will receive a lifetime achievement award from the Children’s Literature Association in June. He spoke with PAW editor Marilyn Marks *86.
Your course is extremely popular among students, but does children’s literature get the respect of other scholars?
I begin the course by telling the students, “Your fellow students and some of my colleagues think that all I do is give you lollipops and security blankets and allow you to regress. Let me assure you that this course is more serious.” The fact is that there is no such thing as a pure child’s text. Children’s books are written by ex-children, who are recovering a child’s wishfulness, their own childhood histories, and their childhood traumas. So when children’s literature gets derogated as “kiddie lit,” it’s tremendously unfair, because children’s texts are always in a double-reader position — for the child and the adult.
You spend a lot of time in class on fairy tales. Why?
Fairy tales used to be adult texts. So my students are shocked when they read an early version of Sleeping Beauty: Instead of having a demure prince who goes into the palace and gently kisses a sleeping teenager, there is this rapist king, who goes through a window, sees this beautiful sleeper, rapes her, and impregnates her with twins. Totally repulsive!
We have a Chinese version of Cinderella — it’s something like 1,100 years old. If you think about the notion of small feet, in China, with foot-binding, it makes a lot of sense. In recent history, there are two main versions of Cinderella. The godmother appears in the [Charles] Perrault version. Cindy learns from this older woman not only how to market her beauty, but to be smarter than everybody else. The Grimm version has a brutal ending. The stepmother tells her older daughter, “You’re very beautiful, but your feet are too large, so cut off your toes.” The prince puts her on the horse but then sees the blood running down. Then the mother says to the second one: “Cut off your heel — you’re not going to need shoes once you get in the palace,” and the same thing happens. When the story made its way to England and was translated, that ending was left out.
Who is writing the best books for children today?
I like Philip Pullman. His stuff is similar to Harry Potter — fantasy, alternate worlds. Pullman is basically rewriting Milton’s Paradise Lost as a children’s book, which is quite a feat. I also like parody. Gregory Maguire, who wrote Wicked [the novel on which the Broadway musical is based], did a wonderful Cinderella story called “Cinder-Elephant.” He has a king and a queen who cannot have any children, then a kangaroo comes and asks the queen to drink a liquid, which she does, and she gets bigger and bigger and gives birth to an elephant. [The elephant attends the ball with glass pie plates on her feet.] The story takes an established text and plays with it.
What was your favorite book as a child?
I find myself attracted to stories about child destitution and restitution. That’s why I’m attracted to A Little Princess. My parents and I fled from Vienna in 1939 — we were Jewish — and went to Bolivia. There, I reread a story by a German writer, Wilhelm Hauff, called Zwerg Nase, or Dwarf Long Nose. A boy named Jakob, an only child and the center of his parents’ life, goes to the market with his mother. There is an old woman who looks vaguely like a gypsy, with long spidery fingers, who buys some cabbage heads from his mother. After the boy helps the woman carry them home, she gives him a great soup, and he falls asleep. When he awakes, the old woman teaches him to become a master cook. After seven years, the boy is released and goes back to his parents. The mother screams: “You ugly, deformed dwarf!” He’s got a hump; he’s got a nose this long. She doesn’t believe this is her son. The story appealed to me as a refugee child, who viewed himself an outsider.
Why do you focus on children’s literature?
I’m really a Victorian scholar. When I got here, the Victorian novel was being taught by a young assistant professor. The Victorian era was the golden age of children’s literature, and I had just begun to teach children’s literature at Berkeley. So I started to teach children’s literature here. It was sort of by default, but I love it.