#WorldKidLit Wednesday: Emil and Karl

Written in 1940 on the eve of World War II, Emil and Karl is a gripping read. Set in 1938 Vienna, it tells the story of best friends Emil and Karl, both of whom have lost fathers. They quickly lose their mothers as well.

Emil is Jewish; Karl is not.  One is treated cruelly due to his heritage; the other due to his parents’ socialism. Soon homeless and without parents, the two friends must rely on each other for support—as well as the kindness of adults both known and previously unknown—as they witness and experience the brutality typical of that fraught time.

In the starkest terms, the book outlines the choices that anyone living in post-Anschluss Austria was forced to make on a regular basis: whether to participate in hatred and perpetuate evil and indignities upon others, to look away with indifference and thus be a safe but passive enabler, or to stand up to injustice at great personal risk.  The story ends with the friends separated, Emil on a train to the relative safety of London and Karl waiting two more hours for his Kindertransport ride to arrive.

The original novel (for readers 9+) has been sandwiched by the translator’s brief introduction and afterword, both of which give today’s young readers valuable historical perspective.  And despite its slightly dated style, Emil and Karl is hard to put down, filled, as it is, with a chilling, palpable miasma of mindless violence, fear, and horror.

Most haunting, of course, is our 20/20 hindsight of what came next.

Emil and Karl
Written by Yankev Glatshteyn
Translated from the Yiddish by Jeffrey Shandler
2006, Roaring Book Press/ 2008 Square Fish
ISBN:  9780312373870

Reviews: Publishers Weekly (Starred); Kirkus; NYTimes

You can buy a copy* or find it in a library.

*Book purchases made via our affiliate link may earn GLLI a small commission at no cost to you.

Award-winning opera singer Nanette McGuinness is the translator of 80 books and graphic novels for children and adults from French, Italian, German and Spanish into English, including the well-known Geronimo Stilton Graphic Novels. Two of her translationsLuisa: Now and Then and California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before the Mamas & the Papas were chosen for YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens; Luisa: Now and Then was also a 2019 Stonewall Honor Book. Her recent translations include Makhno: Ukrainian Freedom Fighter (the publisher is donating part of the proceeds to the Ukrainian war relief effort); Rosa Parks; Magical History Tour: Vikings; Magical History Tour: The PlagueBibi & Miyu#2, LGBTQ YA manga Alter Ego, and the critically acclaimed A House Without Windows.

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