Thursday, December 27

King Matt the First – Janusz Korczak

His mother died a couple of years ago, and Matt is devastated to learn that his father is also going to die, in just a few days. Though Matt is still a boy, he’s the only son of a dying king and is therefore going to be Head of State, much to the consternation of the ministers. They think they can handle and run the kingdom themselves, but Matt wants to do things himself, make sure the children are represented, and have a friend.
This classic of children’s literature (which I had never heard of and stumbled across by complete accident) portrays the adventures of a child in over his head – Matt’s age provokes an invasion by three other kings, and Matt decides to see what the fighting’s about by running away from the palace and serving in the army; he builds candy factories and zoos, at the expense of defence; he makes friends with cannibals in Africa but upsets the neighbouring kings; and his decision to let children run everything while adults go back to school results in horrendous upheaval.
The novel was first published in the author’s homeland, Poland, in the 1930’s, and the paediatrician and teacher was a great defender of children – at the cost of his own life he escorted his own children’s army, the residents of an orphanage in Warsaw, to a Treblinka-bound train in 1942, saying “You do not leave a sick child in the night, and you do not leave children in a time like this.”
The book is a perplexing combination of fantasy and grim reality – no child reading this would think war is glamorous, and Matt is isolated, betrayed, and exhausted even when he rules. The pressures of leadership, and the difficulty of seeing consequences are well portrayed, but I was unsure what age this was aimed at, or even what its point was, and the abrupt and unsatisfactory ending left me more annoyed than anything. - Alex.

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