Discriminatory language in children’s books: Jim Knopf now without racism

Discriminatory language in children’s books: Jim Knopf now without racism


The Stuttgart-based Thienemann publishing house is removing racist terms from its popular children’s book series. Is there a risk of a new censorship debate? Rather not.

Jim Knopf no longer smokes in the new edition of the classic children’s book Photo: Bernd Weißbrod/dpa

From now on you can use “Jim Knopf” again without hesitation. The classic children’s book about the black boy Jim Knopf and his friend, the white train driver Lukas, will in future be free of racist terms. The Stuttgart-based Thienemann-Verlag, which owns the rights to the book series, has revised the new editions in coordination with the heirs of the author Michael Ende. This brings a long debate to an end. Michael Ende, who died in 1995, was one of the most successful German children’s and young adult authors. He wrote classics such as “The Neverending Story” (1979), “Momo” (1973) and “Jim Knopf and Lukas the Engine Driver”, which have been translated, published and filmed many times around the world.

More than ten years ago, the same publisher edited the children’s book “The Little Witch” by Ottfried Preußler, triggering a storm of indignation. When the taz was the first media to report on it in 2013, it got a “children’s book debate” rolling. The former head of literature TimeUlrich Greiner, invoked Article 5 of the Basic Law and saw freedom of expression at risk, and his weekly newspaper printed the N-word in large print on its front page.

The TV literary critic Denis Scheck even painted his face black to protest against alleged “censorship”. That was embarrassing but enlightening.

The publisher probably no longer has to fear such reactions today. “There are positive and critical reactions,” said publisher spokeswoman Svea Unbehaun on Friday in a Solomonic way. Over time, some of the waves have calmed down and the German feature section has become more sensitive to racist language. Discriminatory terms have also long since disappeared from the new editions of “Pippi Longstocking” and other books by Astrid Lindgren.

An integral part of German pop culture

Specifically, we are now talking about the two books “Jim Knopf and Lukas the Engine Driver” and “Jim Knopf and the Wilde 13”. Both come from the 1960s and established Michael Ende’s fame as a children’s book author. The stories were adapted by the “Augsburger Puppenkiste” and filmed for public television – initially in black and white, later in color.

Jim Knopf has long been an integral part of German pop culture. The two children’s books have been made into films several times, including as a multi-part animated series, and were most recently released in cinemas as a film with real actors. The first Jim Knopf film celebrated its premiere in 2018 – one of the most expensive German productions of all time at almost 25 million euros. The actors Christoph Maria Herbst appear as “Mr. Sleeve”, Milan Peschel as “Mr. Tur Tur” and Uwe Ochsenknecht as “King Alfons the Quarter to Twelfth”. The sequel “Jim Kopf and the Wilde 13” followed in 2020, again with Solomon Gordon as Jim Knopf.

The Hamburg band Tocotronic set a musical monument to the influential creator of these characters in 1995 with the ambiguous song “Michael Ende, you have destroyed my life”. Around the same time, “An Island with Two Mountains” stormed the charts in a questionable techno version. At FC Augsburg, the song is played as the goal anthem every time the club scores a goal in their home stadium. Michael Ende’s legacy continues unabated.

More than one place revised

However, from today’s perspective, some passages from the two Jim Knopf books could be perceived as racist, the Stuttgart-based Thienemann Verlag announced in a press release to justify its move. Other passages in the books have been changed to “reduce stereotypical descriptions”. For example, the N-word has been deleted from the new editions. In addition, instead of an “Indian boy” we are now talking about a “boy” and instead of an “Eskimo child” we are talking about an “Inuit child”.

Jim Knopf’s skin color is no longer discussed, and Jim Knopf and Lukas are also depicted differently. The depiction of Jim Knopf is less stereotypical than in the original: Instead of thick pink lips and a lack of transition between black skin and hair, the new covers show him with slightly lighter skin and lined lips, and the tobacco pipe has disappeared from the minor’s mouth. Only locomotive driver Lukas continues to smoke.

The publisher is releasing the color illustrated editions published in 2015 in a new version from this Saturday. In addition to this new edition, the original editions with the original black and white illustrations will remain available unchanged, emphasizes the publisher’s spokeswoman. However, these should be supplemented in the future with a descriptive afterword.

Michael Ende and the Nazi era

In his Jim Knopf series, Michael Ende tells of the friendship between the white train driver Lukas and the black foundling Jim Knopf. According to the publisher, Michael Ende deliberately only put the discriminatory N-word in the mouth of the character of Mr. Sleeve, “to point out the lack of cosmopolitanism of this typical subject.” But even this distant use could be seen as discriminatory today, according to the publisher.

This also applies to the mental connection between black and dirty skin. The author used this as a “stylistic device” to emphasize the personal connection between Jim Knopf and the train driver Lukas, writes the publisher. His publisher emphasizes that Michael Ende had no racist and discriminatory intent: the author painted his stories as “a counter-image to the National Socialist ideology that he himself was confronted with in his youth.”

Michael Ende, born in 1929, consciously experienced the Nazi era as a child in Munich. His father Edgar Ende (1901 – 1965) was a surrealist painter whose works were classified as “degenerate art” by the Nazi Reich Chamber of Culture. Shortly before the end of the war, 15-year-old Michael Ende joined a group that sought the surrender of the Germans. He shaped post-war Germany with his books.

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This news article has been translated from the original language to English by WorldsNewsNow.com.

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