Big Ideas for Little Kids

Remember The Neverending Story? There was the pudgy, bumbling Bastian Balthazar Bux and the brave, blue-haired Atreyu. There was Falkor, the luckdragon, and AURYN, the mystical, powerful amulet. There was the vivid Desert of Colors and the dazzling, ice-white Ivory Tower, where the Childlike Empress lived.

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You might remember all this, and maybe even more. Maybe, like me, your copy of The Neverending Story was one of your prized possessions, a book placed prominently on your shelf and frequently taken down to be flipped through. But here’s a question, especially for those of you who cherished the novel like me: Do you remember who wrote the thing?

If you’d asked me a few months ago, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. I couldn’t have given you a first name or a last. I couldn’t have told you whether it was a man or woman who’d written the book, or if he/she was American or English or Dutch or Indonesian. Apparently it wasn’t important to me as a kid.

Well, the author (a man of German descent) was Michael Ende – a fact I only found out when a friend gave me another one of his books to read – and it turns out he was probably one of the most ambitious and brilliant children’s authors of the past century.

Ende young.

Ende young.

Ende less-young.

Ende less-young.

And it’s not just me saying this. Ende was enormously famous, popular, and successful during his lifetime, and still has a comparatively small but extremely vocal group of followers: teachers who read and assign his books to their classes, scholars who devote entire essays to his work, and translators who produce fresh versions of novels in the hopes that a new generation of readers can better access and enjoy them.

When I was younger, The Neverending Story had such a strong grip on me that I can’t believe I didn’t seek out any of Ende’s other books. It’s possible they just weren’t available – Ende wrote in German, and while translations of a handful of his other books existed, they weren’t exactly bestsellers. But now, thanks to a generous, book-loaning buddy and the wonders of the Internet, they are considerably easier to get a hold of.

And once I did, I became a bit obsessed with Ende. I read and reread his books, compared translations, and assured everyone (as my friend had assured me) that I knew of some books that might just blow their minds.

I wanted to figure out what it was about Ende’s work that, well, worked. Why did I love The Neverending Story as much as I did when I was a kid? What about it seemed so moving, exciting, and meaningful to me? How did Ende make it that way? And what was it about this so-called “children’s author” that had adults of all kinds passionately claiming that he was an author still vital for people of all ages to continue to read?

Below are some thoughts of mine after finally emerging from this recent, consuming obsession, and a hypothesis about Ende’s particular genius.

. . .

Rereading The Neverending Story was kind of like reading one of my old journals – like I wasn’t simply reimagining the elaborate, fantastic world Ende describes, but remembering the place as I would my very own experiences. It’s a subtle distinction – and one that I might not be articulating all that well – but while reading, this difference can be in-your-face and, at moments, breathtaking. It goes beyond nostalgia. Rereading a book that possessed you so fiercely as a child is perhaps as close as one can get to going back and, if not being, then at least interacting with that child.

I have no doubt that one of the reasons I was so taken with The Neverending Story as a kid was the novel’s size. It was easily twice as long as any of the other books I was carting around with me back then. But the book was big in other, more important ways, too. It was big in terms of the concepts and ideas that Ende tackled. Because if Ende’s story required, say, a dip into a philosophic discussion of the Self, he didn’t shy away from it. He plunged forward, full tilt (a sure sign of Ende’s respect for and confidence in his reader, however old they may be).

Nowhere is this truer than in Ende’s novel Momo (the one my friend gave me, and then insisted I put my life on hold in order to read). The book’s full title in German is Momo oder Die seltsame Geschichte von den Zeit-Dieben und von dem Kind, das den Menschen die gestohlene Zeit zurückbrachte, which, according to Wikipedia, translates to Momo, or the strange story of the time-thieves and the child who brought the stolen time back to the people – and that, indeed, is the plot of the novel in a nutshell. But this lengthy title-turned-plot-summary doesn’t do justice to all of the incredible things Ende does along the way.

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By thinking up such a thing as a Timesavings Bank – where people can deposit or “save” time, let it accrue interest, and later take it out to “enjoy” – and by turning one’s allotted life span into a physical thing – hour-lilies, which are gorgeous, snowflake-unique flowers that blossom in the depths of one’s heart – Ende turns the concept of Time into a thing which both children and adults can easily wrap their heads around.

The Men in Grey – the eerie, identical-looking representatives of the Timesavings Bank – are the creatures who persuade people to begin depositing their time. They create a timesaving mania among the population of the city in which Momo lives. Of course, the paradox is this: the more time people “save,” the less they actually have. Because as someone becomes obsessed with efficiency, they also grow fearful of and disgusted by indolence. They get in a routine of doing more and doing it faster and better and then, later on, find that they can’t properly enjoy the time they’ve “saved.” Behind this sort of “timesaving” lurks a force almost as powerful and inevitable as gravity – once you start “saving” time, you can’t stand the thought of “wasting” it.

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It’s a trick of language, a difference in definition. And the Men in Grey, fully aware of the psychological power of words, use this to their advantage. They define what sort of behavior is “timesaving” (they actually quantify it, using seconds, minutes, hours, days, and years) and what sort is “timewasting.” By doing so, they essentially dictate how one should live their life. They decide what life should be, and what it should be about. Here it is from a Man in Grey himself:

“All that matters in life,” the grey man went on, “is to climb the ladder of success, amount to something, own things. When a person climbs higher than the rest, amounts to more, owns more things, everything else comes automatically: friendship, love, respect, et cetera…”

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Following such logic, anything that isn’t explicitly and directly work-related becomes meaningless, useless, and even harmful. The perspective peddled by the Men in Grey is one, paradoxically, devoid of any shades of gray. There is no room for nuance, for subtlety or complexity. There is only “work” and “play,” and the former is “good” while the latter is “evil.”

Admiring a sunset: waste of time.

Savoring a meal: waste of time.

Taking a nap: waste of time.

Painting a picture: waste of time.

Writing a poem: waste of time.

Playing a sport: waste of time.

Daydreaming: waste of time.

Hanging around outside playing make-believe, exercising your imagination with your friends: waste of time.

And while we’re on the topic of friends? Talking with them, sharing thoughts and feelings, anxieties, joys, dreams: all wastes of time.

In fact, friends themselves: total waste of time.

But here’s the thing about time – the way we experience it is directly related to the extent to which we enjoy it. Ende has a wonderful take on this strange but undeniable fact:

“Life holds one great but quite commonplace mystery. Though shared by each of us and known to all, it seldom rates a second thought. That mystery, which most of us take for granted and never think twice about, is time.

“Calendars and clocks exist to measure time, but that signifies little because we all know that an hour can seem as eternity or pass in a flash, according to how we spend it.

“Time is life itself, and life resides in the human heart.”

And here’s Ende again, describing what happens when these facts are ignored for the sake of “efficiency:”

“People never seemed to notice that, by saving time, they were losing something else. No one cared to admit that life was becoming ever poorer, bleaker and more monotonous.”

What’s maybe most amazing about Ende’s novel is that it was written in 1973. Yes, more than 40 years ago – decades before yoga and mindfulness became so popular and widespread, before the various “slow” movements popped up in every corner of our culture. As critics Linda Goodhew and David Loy observe about the book, “Since then, the temporal nightmare it depicts has become our reality.”

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I’d venture to guess that every one of us knows someone who’s drunk the Men in Grey’s Kool-Aid. In fact, you probably know a lot of them. And maybe you’ve even had a few sips of the stuff yourself.

Ende foresaw the spread of this so-called “commodification of time,” and he knew just how disastrous it could be for both individual lives and civilization at large. Even more astoundingly, he knew that it was children alone who could combat and defeat (or at least keep at bay) this sort of inimical “timesaving.” Children, who are better equipped than anyone to eke the most enjoyment out of an hour and are most sensitive to the agonies of a single unenjoyable minute.

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But as mentioned earlier, these are monumental, complicated ideas and issues, ones which wise, well-educated adults have wrestled with for centuries. The central question Ende tackles is one of the largest and greatest of all human philosophy: What is the good life – for the one (the individual) and the many (the society)? So, how is it that Ende poses and addresses this question in a way that is accessible for readers of all ages?

To put it simply: good storytelling.

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He uses clever, vivid metaphors (the Timesavings Bank, the Men in Grey, hour-lilies, etc.), precise language, and a gripping plot to ensure our imaginative and empathetic involvement in his story. And just as importantly, considering his books were marketed toward kids, Ende respects his readers. He doesn’t say, Oh, most kids couldn’t possibly understand the concept of Time – I better write something else. No, because the truth of the matter is that most people can’t wrap their heads around the concept of Time, not when it’s discussed in the way that your average philosopher discusses it. Ende puts in the work and figures out how to talk about such massive, heavy concepts such as Time in basic, everyday language.

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In that way, he’s a lot like Roald Dahl, whose books I adored as a kid (and still adore today). Both authors can, in a matter of a hundred finely-chosen words or so, distill the most complex of concepts so that a reader of any age can grasp them. They know that it’s just not true that kids can’t understand “grown-up” ideas and facts. The problem is that most grown-ups just don’t understand how to present them in the right way. It comes down to language.

Here’s Dahl, for example, tidily explaining institutional hypocrisy and showing how a “mere” boy can begin to question authority, religious and otherwise:

“Do you wonder then that this man’s behaviour used to puzzle me tremendously? He was an ordinary clergyman at that time as well as being Headmaster, and I would sit in the dim light of the school chapel and listen to him preaching about the Lamb of God and about Mercy and Forgiveness and all the rest of it and my young mind would become totally confused. I knew very well that only the night before this preacher had shown neither Forgiveness nor Mercy in flogging some small boy who had broken the rules.

“So what was it all about? I used to ask myself.

“Did they preach one thing and practise another, these men of God?

“And if someone had told me at the time that this flogging clergyman was one day to become the Archbishop of Canterbury, I would never have believed it.

“It was all this, I think, that made me begin to have doubts about religion and even about God. If this person, I kept telling myself, was one of God’s chosen salesmen on earth, then there must be something very wrong about the whole business.”

There are loads of such passages in Dahl’s books. The one above was just the first that sprung to mind. And I can remember, when coming across such passages as a kid, wondering why my teacher had ever decided to assign it to us. Because implicit in every one of Dahl’s stories or novels is the idea that adults can be incredibly mean and astoundingly dumb, and because of this really have no right exercising any sort of authority (moral or otherwise) over children. If Dahl’s books do anything, they teach you that you ought to always be looking slightly askance at the world.

A live-action Momo.

A live-action Momo.

A cartoon Momo.

A cartoon Momo.

In Momo, Ende does something similar. He makes sure the Men in Grey recognize how critical a period childhood is. They target the kids of the city precisely because they pose such an enormous (ultimately, in the book, fatal) threat to the success of their malicious plans.

Ende didn’t just understand that children were capable of grappling with concepts as complicated as Time, but also knew that it was essential they be encouraged and helped to do so. To keep quiet around children or simply refuse to introduce them to “big” concepts on the grounds that they can’t understand is short-sighted, pernicious, and just plain lazy. More often than not, it is, in fact, the adults who can’t understand something – how to properly and effectively speak (and write) to kids.

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I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it as a child, but all of this was at the core of my younger self’s love for The Neverending Story. Ende’s tone is never condescending. It’s warm and inclusive, an ideal vehicle for delivering intellectually heavy concepts to young, hungry, still-forming minds. He provides the vocabulary, images, and metaphors kids need in order to develop into thoughtful, empathetic, self-possessed adults.

Here, for comparison, are some not-so-thoughtful, empathetic, or self-possessed adults.

Here, for comparison, are some not-so-thoughtful, empathetic, or self-possessed adults.

In his other books, like The Neverending Story and The Night of Wishes, Ende tackles various other “big” concepts. He scatters riddles and puns and philosophical musings throughout his books, but does so in a way that doesn’t frustrate readers (especially young ones). Instead, they encourage readers to pick things apart, to wrestle with complexity and their confusion, to engage. In this way, he teaches young readers not only how to read books critically, but how to approach the world itself with a critical eye. And even if you don’t care much for stories about journeys and adventures written in lucid, often-poetic prose, this is a reason to read him, and to encourage the young people in your lives to read him, too.

The pictures throughout this post show various editions, translations, and versions of Momo, as well as some artwork inspired by the novel. The one below, with the drawings by Marcel Dzama, is a brand-new translation by Lucas Zwirner, published by McSweeney’s McMullens last year.

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