Obituary: James Kruss
Friday 08 August 1997
Inheriting a post-war literary desert, within which the Nazi Party had discouraged creative writing for children in favour of a hoped-for return to true Germanic folk poetry, Kruss was a hugely important figure in the re-establishment of the freedom of imaginative story-telling. His first children's book, The Lighthouse on Lobster Island (1956), was based on his own experience of growing up in Heligoland. It was followed by My Great-Grandfather and I (1959), a continuation in the same genre.
Here at last were stories within which there was laughter and a general sense of fun. But Kruss was more than a gifted and prize-winning story- teller. What pre-war children's literature there was had so often become synonymous with solemn social propaganda. Kruss reacting against this; he deliberately stressed the quirky, individualistic, wilful nature of fiction in his own writing. His stories every now and again subvert themselves in passages where there is sustained play on language itself, or where one story unexpectedly leads to another, and then even to another.
Stories within stories and words within words might look like hard work for children, traditionally happier with a strong narrative line. But such was the wit and charm that Kruss brought to his literary conversation- pieces between children that young readers were soon won over. As he wrote himself, "It is utterly indifferent whether the story actually happened or not. In stories it is not a matter of whether they are true or not, but whether they are attractive." This combination of whimsy with a spirit of irreverent enquiry was something that had not been experienced in German children's literature since the work of Erich Kastner, a writer who was forced into silence from 1933 and with whom Kruss can well stand comparison.
Kruss also wrote many texts for picture books and was the compere on his own television programme. He had a talent for nonsense-writing, in verse or in fiction: Letter to Pauline (1968), for example, contains a make-up animal Birzel very much given to wayward turns of speech known as "birzeln". In The Great-Grandfather, the Heroes and I (1967), the old patriarch of the title declares, "I insist upon demonstrating unreason, but at the end I'll let reason triumph, because I want to be one step ahead of stupid reality."
Sentences like this, never quite as obvious in their meaning as they first appear, were an important part of the legacy left by James Kruss to his young readers. By alerting children to the mystery as well as to the fascination of words, he taught them to think about language for itself.
By providing them with entertaining and distinctively crafted stories he was also able to turn this particular exercise into something deeply enjoyable in its own right.
James Kruss, writer: born Heligoland, Germany 31 May 1926; died Tarifa Alta, Gran Canaria 2 August 1997.
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