And it's a good one.*
‘My First Kafka’ offers a new sort of fairy tale
Our infatuation with fairy tales is at an all-time high, from young adult novels like “Cinder” by Marissa Meyer to darker fare from Hollywood, such as the upcoming Angelina Jolie vehicle “Maleficent.” Of course, there’s a long history of grim (and Grimm) tales that have fascinated children, who are as delighted by the spooky and scary as they are by Cinderella’s mice. It’s just we’ve spent a long time Disney-fying them for modern audiences.
Matthue Roth’s new book “My First Kafka: Runaways, Rodents, and Giant Bugs” fits perfectly into this genre of satisfyingly strange tales for children. Yes, they’re illustrated Kafka stories, which makes it sound like it’s the sort of wink-wink-nod-nod tchotchke you might pick up for a gift for new parents. When you talk to Roth, however, you realize “My First Kafka” is no joke.
The 34-year-old stumbled upon the idea after reading Kafka to his two daughters. “It happened because it happened,” he says over tea in DUMBO, Brooklyn. “I was sitting around reading Kafka, my kids wanted a story, we’d already read all their books, and I was like, okay, here we go! Here’s a story...
Instead of unknown crimes and piles of never-ending paperwork – the more mundane, adult terrors of Kafka’s world – we’re given the sad tales of confused, lost creatures. Yet the grotesquerie of a man who is inexplicably transformed into a bug is exactly the sort of thing that would thrill a young audience.
Runaway children who meet up with monsters. A giant talking bug. A secret world of mouse-people. The stories of Franz Kafka are wondrous and nightmarish, miraculous and scary. In My First Kafka, storyteller Matthue Roth and artist Rohan Daniel Eason adapt three Kafka stories into startling, creepy, fun stories for all ages. With My First Kafka, the master storyteller takes his rightful place alongside Maurice Sendak, Edward Gorey, and Lemony Snicket as a literary giant for all ages.
With stunning black-and-white illustrations by London-based fine artist Rohan Daniel Eason, this gem falls — rises, rather — somewhere between Edward Gorey, Maurice Sendak, and the Graphic Canon series.
As for the choice to adapt Kafka’s characteristically dark sensibility for children, Roth clearly subscribes to the Sendakian belief that grown-ups project their own fears onto kids, who welcome rather than dread the dark. Indeed, it’s hard not to see Sendak’s fatherly echo in Eason’s beautifully haunting black-and-white drawings.
Did you feel OK when you woke up this morning? Spare a thought for Gregor Samsa, that most unlucky of literary heroes. "When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed … "
Thus Franz Kafka opens one of the most resonant stories of 20th-century literature, about an ordinary man who wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into an bug of indeterminate kind – an insect, a beetle, a cockroach – the original German "ungeheueren Ungeziefer" leaves his exact species ambiguous...Here's the Google Doodle from this year, celebrating Kafka's birthday, showing how much appeal a man transformed into a "bug" can have (the image is static, but facts about Kafka appear below):
There is also a great little picture book called Beetle Boy by Lawrence David (and illustrated by Delphine Durand) that reminds me very much of this. When I finally found it in our bookshelves, I found that it was, indeed, inspired by Kafka's Metamorphosis, the intent being to rewrite the story for much younger readers. I'm pleased to say this one is a favorite in our house, so this "Kafka for Kids" should fit in well.
* I nearly posted on the Google doodle on Kafka's birthday, thinking that Metamorphosis has a certain fairy tale quality, albeit with a difference.