On playing with matches and sucking your thumb

Last weekend I was doing a bit of blog-tidying, and realised that there are a few books on the list of 1001 Children’s Books that I have read, but forgotten to write about. So I’ll try and catch you all up on all the books that have slipped through the cracks over the next couple of weeks.

IMG_3705Quite a while ago I mentioned that my Gran gave me a copy of Struwwelpeter by Dr Heinrich Hoffmann. It was given to my Great-Aunt by Father Christmas in 1931, according to the inscription on the inside of the front cover. It is battered and obviously much loved, and I feel like I have received a bit of a family treasure. (I also feel like it is incredibly possible for the whole thing to disintegrate in my hands, and try to handle it with extreme care).


Struwwelpeter is an interesting relic of the time it was written. It is full of poems the author wrote for his son, as he couldn’t find a book he wanted to give him as a present so decided to create his own instead. The poems are all about very naughty children who come to often rather unpleasant endings. There is Augustus, who refuses to eat his soup and eventually fades away until he dies, there is the story of Harriet the girl who played with matches and burns herself out of existence, and probably Hoffmann’s most famous character, the red legg’d scissor man who cuts off the thumbs of children who suck their thumbs. Each poem is dripping with its own particular moral.



The horrid endings that each of these characters come to was no doubt delightful for children when they read them for the first time in 1845, as well as no doubt cautioning them against refusing their dinner, playing with matches and sucking their thumbs. They are still deliciously wicked to a modern reader, but I wonder if the morals pressed into each poem imprints itself into the minds of a contemporary child. After all, modern children still refuse to eat their dinner, are cautioned not the play with matches and still suck their thumbs. But I feel like children reading this book would do so for pleasure rather than to learn the morals that mould each story.

Children are no doubt still familiar with the idea of morals in stories – as long as fairytales are around, morals will be pushed onto children. But I wonder how many stories being written now stink so strongly of morality. I feel like contemporary writing tries to disguise the lessons to be learnt a bit more than older works. The moral behind a story is not as important as the story itself.


Many people, including quite a few of my lecturers when I was studying at university, think that one of the main reasons to push children to read is for educational purposes. Reading is about learning, to them. This may be true to a certain extent, but I think children reading should be about enjoyment, with learning a happy coincidence. I don’t think morals, or lessons, or ‘education’, should be shoved down children’s throats. They should read because they love reading, not because it’s good for them. I wonder how Struwwelpeter fits into people’s view regarding educational reading. Is this book ‘educational’ because it is full of morals? Or is it fun to read despite the fact that it is full of morals? Where is the balance between enjoyment and learning?





  1. The stories in Struwwelpeter always remind me of a) Mark Twain’s “Story of a Bad Little Boy” and “Story of a Good Little Boy” and b) Edward Gorey’s “The Gashleycrumb Tinies”, “The Hapless Child”, and “The Beastly Baby” — satirical takes on the genre.

  2. I entirely agree will your last couple of sentiments.

    When it came for time to choose subject options at age 14 I tried to persuade my wouldbe music students that there was an ideal hierarchy of reasons for making that choice which too many school students reversed. First and foremost choose Music because you enjoy it for its own sake. Then choose it because you want to continue to study it at higher levels. And last and least important, Because passing the exam might get you a good job (for which, many read ‘loads of money’). For too many students in too many different subjects, choosing options was ultimately about getting a job, not for its intrinsic worth to them. And too many kids chose not to take music because ‘it’s no use’.

    And so it is with reading. Kids are often encouraged to read only because ‘Being able to read will help you in getting a good job that will make you rich’ and not because ‘Being able to read will enrich your life beyond your wildest imaginings’. It’s sad.

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