Struwwelpeter: Background information when reading The Gustav Sonata

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The Gustav Sonata

by Rose Tremain

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain X
The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2016, 256 pages
    Sep 2017, 256 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kate Braithwaite

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This article relates to The Gustav Sonata

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In The Gustav Sonata, Gustav and Anton share a love of the German children's book, Struwwelpeter, which was written by Dr Heinrich Hoffmann in 1844. NPR noted that Struwwelpeter "set the stage for children's book classics like Where the Wild Things Are and the beloved Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

Struwwelpeter There have been countless editions of this collection of frightening and cautionary stories, delivered in jaunty rhyming couplets, and it has been translated into 35 languages. Most striking are the drawings — the famous children's book author Maurice Sendak called Struwwelpeter "graphically, one of the most beautiful books in the world." English readers may be more familiar with the translated name for Struwwelpeter, Shockheaded Peter — a dirty boy with tangled blond haired and long fingernails who is the subject of the first story and reviled for being slovenly.

The book, written for the author's three-year-old son, cautions children against a range of bad behaviors, some of which are dealt with more harshly than others. Anton's favorites include "The Story of Johnny Head-in-Air" and "The Story of Flying Robert." Here are a number of other stories to be found in Struwwelpeter:

Fidgety Philip In "The Story of Fidgety Philip," a young boy, in a scene that will be familiar to modern-day parents, fidgets at the dinner table, rocking back and forth on his chair. Ignoring his parents' complaints, he carries on until he falls back to the floor pulling the tablecloth and all the meal down on top of him.

In "The Story of Cruel Frederick," wicked Frederick tears the wings off flies, kills birds and throws a kitten down the stairs and whips his nurse. But when he kicks and whips his dog, it finally fights back and bites Frederick. Then, while Frederick is sick in bed, the dog enjoys a good meal.

Frederick, the reader assumes, will soon recover, but not all the naughty boys and girls in these poems survive the consequences of their actions. In "The Dreadful Story About Harriet and the Matches," two talkative cats foretell the bad end that Harriet soon comes to when she plays with matches when her mother is out. Augustus, in "The Story of Augustus Who Would Not Have Any Soup" throws a tantrum at the soup he is given to eat and in only a matter of days has grown thin and died.

Not fatal, but still shocking, is "The Story of Little Suck-A-Thumb." Little Conrad is left at home and specifically told not to suck his thumb in case the great tall tailor comes and cuts it off with his great sharp scissors. But:

Mamma had scarcely turned her back
The thumb was in. Alack! Alack!

The door flew open, in he ran,
The great, long, red-legg'd scissor man.
Oh! Children, see! The tailor's come
And caught out little Suck-a-Thumb.
Snip! Snap! Snip! The scissors go;
And Conrad cries out – Oh! Oh! Oh!
Snip! Snap! Snip! They go so fast,
That both his thumbs are off at last.

These tales, coupled with wonderful, colorful illustrations, make Struwwelpeter a highly memorable read.

Pictures of Struwellpeter by Heinrich Hoffmann
Illustration of Fidgety Philip by Heinrich Hoffmann

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Gustav Sonata. It first ran in the October 5, 2016 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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