Image of children sitting on the floor in a classroom, raising their arms.

Review: Neunundzwanzig verueckte Geschichten (Twenty-nine crazy stories)

Gareth B. Matthews

Review of Neunundzwanzig verueckte Geschichten [Twenty-nine crazy stories] by Ursula Woelfel (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1985).  Originally published in Thinking: The Journal of Philosophy for Children 6(4): 1.

Once upon a time there was a woman who wanted to be the best housewife in the world. She cleaned her house every day and even scrubbed the sidewalk outside and polished the “no parking” sign. The trouble was that this superhousewife got the house in such good shape every day that she finished her housework by early afternoon; and then there was nothing for her to do.

She got an idea. She collected all the dust from her house, the dirt from the street, and the sand from the doormats; she put it all in a cookie tin. In the after­ noon and evening, she spread throughout the house the dirt she had collected earlier, so that there was always plenty of cleaning work for her to do. This made her happy.

“The Story of the Superhousewife” is one of “Twentynine Crazy Stories” in Ursula Woelfel’s engaging collection. Like about a third of the stories in the book, this one caricatures adult neurosis. On a theoretical level such stories invite us readers, and especially the children among us, to reflect on the phenomenon of what we might call (to stretch David Pears’s phrase somewhat) ” motivated irrationality.” Usually human action can be understood as a more or less reasonable effort to achieve stated goals; but often not. If the action seems purposeful but is not at all suited to achieve the assumed or stated purpose, we may take it to serve a hidden purpose, perhaps even a purpose hidden from the agent herself. The idea of secondary, and even unconscious, motivation is an attempt to make sense of behavior that, though not mechanical or random, eludes understanding in terms of explicit or stated goals.

Can a child grasp the idea that an adult may be motivated in hidden ways, even in ways hidden from the adult herself? Of course. But it helps to have a few “crazy stories” like these, both to suggest the hidden motivational mechanism and also to defuse, with humor, the anxiety that the idea of neurotic behavior might otherwise provoke.

Other stories in this collection aim at self-improvement in child readers. Con­sider the one about the ”waiting ma­ chine,” something that looks like a tobacco tin but, if put in one’s pocket, helps one get through a boring class at school, or wait for a bus, or a birthday. That story invites reflection on the virtue of patience; it does so in a way that actually encourages the cultivation of patience.

Some stories in the collection dramatizes an asteismus (the deliberate misreading of a set phrase-usually the literal reading of a figure of speech). Thus ”The Story of the Father Who Climbed the Wall,” takes literally the suggestion that a son’s misbehavior might “drive his father up the wall.” Again, humor lends perspective. (Frightened by a spider, the father falls down from the ceiling.) The reader is invited, not only to reflect on the phenomenon of figurative language and how it functions, but also to think about the very real phenomenon of over-reaction and how to deal with it.

The last tale in the collection, “The Story of Prantocox,” (‘prantocox’ is a made-up word), is perhaps the most philosophical. It concerns a chimera, Prantocox, that thinks itself up, but then, when assured by an official, “You’re impossible!” obediently disappears, on the grounds that what is im­possible doesn’t exist. (The thoughtful reader will note another asteismus here.) The story of Prantocox raises questions central to philosophy, among them, questions about possibility and existence. But it also makes fun, gentle fun, of the pretensions of officialdom.

Within the appearance of the Alice stories in England in the latter part of the Nineteenth Century and the Oz stories in this country in the early part of the present century, philosophical whimsy became well established within children’s literature written in English. The German experience has been rather different. When one thinks of German children’s literature, one tends to think of the fairy tales of the Grimm Brothers, or the sadistic didacticism of Struwwel­peter, or perhaps the exemplary romanticism of Heidi. To a philosopher, indeed to anyone who cares about the development of reflective autonomy in children, it is heartening to find philosophical whimsy so well exemplified in a best­ selling German author.

Mischievous stories about craziness are a wonderful way to cultivate the distance required for thoughtful moral agency and the confidence and independence of mind necessary for critical thinking. Here is a book full of fun­ good, intellectually provocative fun.