Category: Children's Books

Martin Baltscheit
Wiebke Rauers (Illustrator)

Krähe und Bär
[The Crow and the Bear]

The dream of freedom

Martin Baltscheit has endeared himself to children as actor, cartoonist and author alike. He can do it all, from funny and cheerful right through to solemn and thoughtful, and he appeals to children not only in Germany but also - thanks to translations - throughout the entire world.

His new book is entitled Krähe und Bär (‘Crow and bear’). Both these creatures are essentially predators, but couldn’t be more unlike each other: one funny and small, the other big and affable; one feathered and cheeky, the other shaggy and cuddly. She, the crow, is inquisitive, witty, gossipy, and in search of a friend; he, the bear, wants nothing but peace and quiet. She lives in freedom, flying high in the sky, sometimes crashing to earth, always on the lookout for food; he lives in a zoo behind bars and walls, safe, well-fed and bored. They inhabit two different worlds.

Even so, they slowly become friends. And because each thinks the other’s life is marvellous, they decide to swap identities, thanks to a magic potion. The bear takes flight in search of freedom, the crow stays safe and sound behind bars. But it’s not long before both decide that their former lives were preferable. At the very last moment they manage to turn back into themselves again - while remaining the best of friends.

So far, so predictable. But while at first sight this tale of friendship seems blandly straightforward, it is actually much more nuanced than one might think. For one thing there is the mischievous quickfire repartee that shoots back and forth between the pair like a ping-pong ball - bursting with so much sharpness and vitality, so much cunning and charm, that six-year-olds will need to be fully on their toes to keep up. On top of all this, the squabbling pair certainly don’t mince their words, and insult each other with great relish. Wiebke Rauer’s powerful illustrations wittily depict the facial expressions and body language of the two adversaries, thereby adding an extra dimension of jollity.

On those occasions when Crow and Bear allow the narrator get a word in, he likes to adopt a tone at once twinkly-eyed and solemn; whether in explanatory or poetic mode, his words serve as a counterweight to their sparring. And it rapidly becomes clear that this book is about more than just friendship and childish squabbles, and offers a number of more profound propositions: that whilst calmness is helpful in all sorts of situations in life, it blocks out new experiences; that falling on your face, metaphorically speaking, is permitted and indeed necessary - but staying flat on your face is definitely not; and, last but not least, that good behaviour is only possible with a full stomach: ‘For hungry devils, good behaviour is a waste of precious time!’ With this we have landed pretty much in the territory not only of Brecht, but of international politics. The poverty-stricken little crow, the rich fat bear: they recur in one form or another throughout the entire world. At one point the bear himself even turns philosophical: ‘Without freedom there’s no such thing as peace.’

Krähe und Bär is a children’s book brimming with wit and charm. It tells the story of enemies becoming friends, an evolution no less thrilling in its animal setting than it would be in a human one - in a family, in a school, in the workplace, in conflicts between different countries or religions. Freedom means the freedom to think differently - that is the message to be read between the lines here, a message that applies in East and West, in North and South. It means that tolerance and an active interest in each other are the key prerequisites for a well functioning friendship and for a well functioning society.

This is indeed a slender book with mighty aspirations!
Sylvia Schwab

By Sylvia Schwab, 19.04.2018

​Sylvia Schwab is a radio journalist with a special interest in literature for children and teenagers. She serves on the jury for the monthly ‘Best 7’ list of books for young readers produced under the aegis of Deutschlandfunk and Focus, and works for Hessischer Rundfunk, Deutschlandfunk and Deutschlandradio-Kultur.

Translated by John Reddick