Category: Children's Books

Rafik Schami
Kathrin Schärer (Illustrator)

'Hast du Angst?', fragte die Maus
['Are you scared?' asked the mouse]



​Fear is something we can talk about. Doing so may give a measure of consolation to someone who has just faced a threat of some kind and been frightened almost to death, and then, wrapped in their mother’s arms, feels a deep sense of protectedness. But what if a child has never previously experienced the sensation of fear? Wordy descriptions of this emotional state would not be very much help.

A small child’s first encounter with fear: that is the topic of this children’s book by Rafik Schami, with illustrations by Kathrin Schärer. The story plays out in the world of animals. Very young readers of picture books find it both easier and more pleasurable to deal with threatening situations if they are depicted in both word and image in the form of a fable. And that is precisely what the author and illustrator do in this story about the little mouse-girl Mina, whose mother returns to their nest one day, her eyes wide with terror: ‘“Oh dear, the cat!” she panted, “The cat was chasing me and gave me such a fright!”’
Mina hasn’t the faintest idea what it means to be ‘given a fright’, so – being a curious little mouse – she sets off to find out. On her journey up hill and down dale she encounters the strangest animals – a lion, a hippo, a skunk, a hedgehog, a cricket – and gets all sorts of answers to her question whether any of them have ever ‘had a frite’, but not a single one that gets her anywhere. Even the 115-year-old tortoise does nothing but reel off a catalogue of the two hundred and eighty different phobias he is aware of, thereby sending Mina to sleep.

No sooner has she woken up than it happens, completely out of the blue: there is the hiss of a voice behind her, and Mina feels her paws go cold. [Hm... Für den Übersetzer ist so was immer etwas problematisch: Seuß schreibt “... passiert es mitten im Schlaf” und “Mina wacht auf und spürt Kälte in ihren Pfoten” – aber das stimmt einfach nicht! Die Maus wacht zunächst auf und macht sich auf den Weg – erst dann wird sie von der Schlange überrascht und erschreckt...] She is beset by the unexpected, to which an attitude of aimiable curiosity and unconcern is not a suitable response. For the first time in her young life Mina experiences a threat to her very existence as she finds herself eye to eye with a mighty snake. Her heart starts pounding fit to burst. Mina has now discovered what a fright is, and only just escapes the jaws of the greedy reptile. Fleeing back to the family nest she cuddles up with her mother and her brothers and sisters. Safety. Solace. Relief. And an important life experience.

But what would this story about fear amount to without the illustrations of Kathrin Schärer? It would retain its ingenuity – but it would lack the visual immediacy that young children so badly need. Kathrin Schärer is a master of the art of drawing animals and of depicting human emotions in the guise of animals. ‘You quickly encounter limitations when you try to convey emotions through human faces’ she explains. ‘A human face distorted by rage can easily seem repellent, but angry animals by contrast tend to remain appealing.’ And sure enough, even cat lovers will feel sympathy for the poor beleaguered mice – though they might offer the small rodents one piece of advice: to be even quicker and more cunning than the cat.

Be they big or small. threatening or not so threatening, Kathrin Schärer’s animals move through the landscape of the book with a powerfully expressive repertoire of looks, gestures and demeanours. Nature is ever present as the delicately depicted background to events, but it never trumps the sense of evolving drama that is reflected in the faces of the various animals. And thus, in complete harmony with the words, the illustrations do their bit in telling this brief tale of a creature’s very first experience of fear – readily understandable, full of empathy, and at the same time clear and concise. 
Siggi Seuß

By Siggi Seuß, 22.04.2014

​Siggi Seuß, freelance journalist, radio script writer and translator, has been writing reviews of books for children and young people for many years.

Translated by John Reddick