Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Erich Kästner’s autobiography about his early childhood years before the outbreak of World War I was first published in England in 1959 with the title When I Was a Little Boy; the title was shortened to When I Was a Boy for its American publication in 1961. Although the book ostensibly concerns only the first fifteen years of Kästner’s life, in content it extends beyond those years in two ways. First, before he mentions his own birth in 1899 at the end of chapter 4, Kästner slowly works his way through history, beginning with the sixteenth century. With his mother’s birth in 1871, Kästner begins to provide detailed personal information from chapter 2 onward. Second, he interrupts his chronological account with various asides about later events, always excusing them as being “beside the point.” Yet they never really are, as Kästner himself acknowledges when he writes that childhood experiences reveal their true meaning only much later.

The most striking characteristic of Kästner’s autobiography is the authentic mixture of sincerity and humor that is the trademark of the children’s books for which he is so well known in Germany. On the one hand, Kästner cheerfully begins with the motto “No book without a foreword,” directly addressing his readers as he does throughout the book. For example, he cuts short a description of his native Dresden and promises that he will “ask the artist to please make a special set of...

(The entire section is 435 words.)