Kafka for Kids


As a member of the Teddy Ruxpin generation, I’m no stranger to strange things to read to your kids — or should that be “strange things reading to your kids”? With that in mind I’m all for Brooklyn-based writer Matthue Roth’s new book My First Kafka, which is Kafka…but, you know, for kids.

Roth adapted three Kafka stories (“Excursion into the Mountains,” “The Metamorphosis,” and “Josefine the Singer, or The Mouse Folk”) for a younger audience. Because, well, maybe it’s best that he explain. Here’s a brief interview with the author:

Electric Literature: What’s it like translating literature into a kids’ book?
Matthue Roth: You aren’t implying that kids’ books can’t be literature, are you? OK, so — when I slammed more often, most of writing was crossing out and condensing. Part of the process for me was like what Jonathan Safran Foer did, or what I think he did, when he turned Street of Crocodiles into a short story, literally sitting down with a massive text, reading it until you have it memorized, trying to decide which parts stick with you the most, which parts are concrete and which parts aren’t, but would be best served by concrete illustrations, which parts can you effectively build a completely new story out of? You know you’ll never be completely faithful to the source text, and you try as hard as you can to be completely faithful to it.

EL: Why is Kafka good for kids?
Roth: Reading is good for kids! Stories are good for kids. And discomfort, scariness, thinking too much, is good for kids. Maurice Sendak said that Outside Over There (which is probably his best book, and the basis for the movie Labyrinth) was him working through his childhood fear of being abducted like Charles Lindbergh’s baby. When I was a kid, I was afraid of everyone. I loved Sherlock Holmes and The Goonies and stopped being so afraid because of the idea that heroes can be just as scary as villains.

EL: Why isn’t Kafka good for kids?
Roth: Really, Kafka isn’t good for anyone. His stories haunt you. Not in a Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark way, but in a real, way-too-human way of things that happen to us that we usually don’t want to spend too much time thinking about.

Also, it’s creepy and a bit obnoxious of any of us to read Kafka, considering he asked his closest friends to burn his work. But it’s not like, say, the first time I saw Kurt Cobain’s diary in a store and got the overwhelming chill of, I must never touch this. Am I making excuses? Maybe. But, even though it maybe shouldn’t be my choice, I’d much rather honor Kafka by getting into his work than never having had that chance.

Note: Get a free limited-edition mini book by Matthue Roth when you buy My First Kafka directly from the author. Get it here.

–Benjamin Samuel is the co-editor of Electric Literature. He is currently looking for someone to burn his angsty poetry before he dies. Find him on Twitter.

Illustration by Rohan Daniel Eason.

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