Kafka for kids

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First aired on As It Happens (1/7/13)

Franz Kafka wrote dark, terrifying stories. One is about an artist whose art is starvation. He starves himself to death. Another puts a bank worker on trial for an unknown crime in a court whose proceedings are incomprehensible. He gets stabbed in the heart. The most famous Kafka story is probably The Metamorphosis. It's about Gregor, a salesman who wakes up a cockroach -- at least that's usually how it gets translated. Insect Gregor gradually loses connection with everything that human Gregor knew and loved. His wants to die, and he does. This is the story that Matthue Roth has reworked into the centrepiece of his new book for children. It's called My First Kafka: Runaways, Rodents and Giant Bugs.

Roth originally became interested by the idea of reading Kafka to children after his kids asked him to. Roth has two young daughters, aged 3 and 5, who "have a habit of asking me what I'm reading and then asking me to read it to them," he told As It Happens guest host Jim Brown in a recent interview. And that's exactly what happened when Roth was trying to read The Metamorphosis by Kafka. "I sat down to read, and on the cover of the book was a family with a bunch of bugs crawling all over them. They were like, 'What's that? We want to read that!' And we got into reading it."

Instead of being turned off by the complex and depressing material, Roth's daughters fell in love with the story of a man who turned into a bug. "They were horrified and they were fascinated because they were horrified," he said. "They were like, 'That's so awful! Now let's play bugs!' And then they took turns turning into giant bugs."

Roth believes his children weren't traumatized by the book because kids are more in tune and accepting of their emotions than adults are. "Kids are a lot more accustomed to being scared and being horrified and extremes in general than adults are," he said. "My kids were riveted because emotions to them aren't things they are afraid of. When a kid is happy, they are 100 per cent happy. When they are sad or scared, it's an all-encompassing sadness or scaredness."

Roth also points out that The Metamorphosis has a happy ending. Well, sort of. Gregor wants to die and, eventually, gets what he wants. And his family goes on a picnic in the park, which, Roth admitted, has a "huge undercurrent of disturbing" but is also oddly comforting because "everyone has achieved some sort of some weirdly happy ending."

Besides, we've been telling kids stories with disturbing content for years. In Hansel and Gretel, two kids almost get eaten by a witch. In Little Red Riding Hood, a little girl almost gets eaten by a wolf. Is a man waking up to discover he's turned into a bug really that bad?






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