Category: Children's Books

Silke Scheuermann
Emma James und die Zukunft der Schmetterlinge
[Emma James and the future of butterflies]

Review

‘And how did you get your funny name?’ That’s the question Emma James, the young heroine of Silke Scheuermann’s children’s story, The Future of the Butterflies, has so often been asked in her twelve years. Yet the explanation is actually quite simple; her parents liked both the boy’s name as well as the girl’s name they had chosen before she was born, so they simply gave their child both names.

But that’s not the only thing that’s special about Emma James. She’s also gifted with an exceptional talent – she can ‘dream’ the future. ‘When it was about to happen again, she would get a headache that lasted a while, and then Emma James would know something she hadn’t known before. She saw it run like a little film in front of her eyes.’ Admittedly it doesn’t happen particularly often, and these visions aren’t altogether precise, but it can be very helpful to pack a plaster into your schoolbag, when you know your best friend is going to fall and cut her knee. The fact that her friend doesn’t really want to believe in these predictions and regularly ignores every warning is another matter, and makes Emma James wonder, not for the first time, whether it’s possible to have any influence on the future.

And it’s this that is the major theme of the book. In her debut children’s book Silke Scheuermann has embedded it in an amusing and sensitively told story and in so doing has enriched what it is that makes a good children’s book – a variety of adventures, a few mysteries to solve, and not least true friendship as well as the suffering friendship can cause. The way Emma James explores how changeable the future is and ultimately discovers an answer that can even save a life, is highly readable.

But then there’s also Paul. A year older than Emma James, he’s her best friend and a ‘businessman’ what’s more. He’s left day school as he’s waiting for a place at a boarding school, so besides doing a roaring trade in hand-made crocheted handbags and organising flea-markets, he’s also developing his latest project, a dog-walking service. One of Emma James’s ‘future’ dreams leads to a career in the theatre for one of these dogs. But unlike in her vision, Schmitti the poodle, who prefers to spend the day sleeping instead of barking on cue, turns out to be a dud. Whereas at first the director just keeps the dog on for lack of any alternative, shortly before the opening night he allows himself to be persuaded by the children to re-write the play, exploiting Schmitti’s one and only talent – sleeping, and in so doing turns it into a huge success.

As Paul and Emma are absorbed by the many stage rehearsals and the various attempts somehow to make Schmitti ‘fit’, Emma James again has one of her future dreams, which presents her with a further problem. Rainer Maria, her younger brother, has suffered from severe asthma ever since birth, and now he is to have a lung operation which should cure him. But the images in Emma James’s vision suggest something bad regarding the outcome of the operation.

However, her parents don’t want to talk about her brother’s illness or about the operation, and are evasive in answering Emma James’s questions. When she finally confides in Paul, he comes up with a very practical suggestion, to seek the advice of a ‘professional’ fortune-teller. They find a new friend in Karin Korall, although she can also only think in terms of foreseeing the future. She cannot see the future clearly, but with the wisdom of her experience she gives Emma James an important bit of advice, namely that ‘the future begins today’.

More or less left to their own devices, the friends travel to the city to spend the night in a hotel next door to the hospital. For James it is just an exciting adventure, whereas for Emma James it means trying to be in the right place at the right time in order to effect a vital change in the future and to become a heroine. She ultimately succeeds spectacularly in doing so – albeit in a quite unexpected way.

In Emma James Silke Scheuermann has created a children’s book character that is both appealing and energetic, who frequently sees through the world of adults far more clearly than they imagine. She is furious when her mother declares that after the operation she will be able to play with her brother again. ‘She had to be joking. Play with Rainer Mariaagain. As if she had ever really played with him. He was either in bed or in hospital. When he wasn’t ill for once, the parents would be dancing around him all the time.

The light, relaxed style lends the book an easygoing feel, even though apart from all the amusing adventures it is actually conveying a sad topic. For Emma James’ story is also the story of a child that always has to take a back seat. Describing how Emma James has the feeling she’s always in the way, the author shows a remarkable empathy and reveals an acute understanding of children’s desires and conflicts. For example when Emma James is playing Scrabble alone with her parents, she suddenly experiences an intense longing to be a three-person family, with no brother. When this prompts pangs of guilt shortly afterwards, she comforts herself with the notion she can make up for this thought by taking her brother along to a theatre rehearsal and comes to the conclusion that after all you cannot always control your thoughts.

Children will find it easy to link into the narrative and identify with Emma James, and are bound to do so, since far from playing the heavy-handed pedagogue Silke Scheuermann whole-heartedly enters the world of children’s experiences. By this means the author succeeds in making solutions emerge from the characters themselves and set them in action. For example when Emma James decides to try and operate as a ‘researcher into the future’. Alone at home, after she has listened in on a phone call for her mother and hidden a piece of her father’s writing she then ponders over the unpleasant results of her actions.

Looking into the empty refrigerator the thought finally strikes her that often it’s not so hard to change things for the better. So she dashes off to the supermarket and in the evening when the shnitzels are sizzling away in the frying pan, she is the richer for an important experience. ‘Tests have clearly proved that it is possible to change the future. You just have to reflect a bit and interpret signs correctly. But it’s not always just a bit of shopping that can do the trick.
Vorname Name

By Eva Jaeschke, 01.01.2010

Translated by Alisa Jaffa