I would have loved Emil and the Detectives when I was a kid of, say, seven or eight. (I liked it a lot now, too, but that’s probably the perfect age.) It was written in 1929 by Erich Kästner, and it has a clean, lively, neck-or-nothing style that takes everything unnecessary for granted but points out the kid’s-eye details: bad dreams, new suits, the unquestioning loyalty children give to other children.
Emil and the Detectives is the story of Emil Tischbein, who lives alone in Neustadt with his mother. He makes a trip alone on the train to visit his grandmother in Berlin, and on the way, “the man in the stiff hat” robs him of his hundred and forty marks — not a great sum to you, perhaps, but a fortune to Emil and his hardworking mother. Emil, who has enough spirit for fifty boys, gets off the train in a marvelously living Berlin, full of taxis, newspapermen, frying sausages, cafés, trams, florists, and banks, and follows the thief. He picks up the “detectives” along the way — a huge group of Berliner boys, all of whom get in on the act with enormous gusto — and they sort out the mystery with dash, grace, and a hugely satisfying ending.
The best parts of this book are the scenes of Berlin. This book of Kästner’s was the only one of his to escape censorship in Nazi Germany, and while I can’t fathom the logic of book-burners, it may have been because he portrayed Berlin so vibrantly. I also loved Emil’s girl-cousin, the brave and gallant Pony Hütchen, who brings coffee and rolls to the detectives on her bike. The book is full of adventure, and it’s something a kid would want to read over and over again. The book is wonderfully and humorously illustrated by Walter Trier, and translated (in the older version I read) by May Massee.
Note: I understand that there is a new translation out, in which some of the humorous German names are translated into English — Emil Tischbein into Emil Tabletoe, for instance, or Herr Grundeis into Mr. Groundsnow — and in which some of the kids’ phrases are updated to “Berlin parents are so cool!” and “You dork!” and things like that. Not sure what I think of that…