Focus on Literature in Germany

All the Best, Jim Button! The “fine little chap” turns 50

Illustration von Mathias Weber nach Motiven von F.J. Tripp aus Jim Knopf und Lukas der Lokomotivführer von Michael Ende erschienen im Thienemann Verlag; © Thienemann VerlagIllustration by Mathias Weber based on motifs by F.J. Tripp from `Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver` by Michael Ende, published by Thienemann Verlag; © Thienemann VerlagThe two of them have made Michael Ende famous and brought an island with two mountains into the nurseries of many lands. Jim Knopf and his pal Lukas the Engine Driver are celebrating their fiftieth birthday.

“An island with two mountains and the deep broad sea, with many tunnels and tracks and railway traffic“ – some will connect these lines not only with the children’s book Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver, but also with disco evening in the 1990s and the dangerously catchy reiteration “an island!”.

Originalcover von `Jim Knopf und Lukas, der Lokomotivführer`; © Thiememann VerlagThe “island song” was covered by the German dance floor combo Dolls United. Luke the Engine Driver conquered the charts.

In 2010 Luke and the little boy Jim Button turned fifty. In their anniversary year, they can look back with pride on the past five decades. Their adventures have sold over four million copies and are among the most popular children’s books in the German language. They have been translated into 33 languages, including Korean, Hebrew, Serbo-Croatian and Swiss German.

Success on strings

Jim Button at the `Augsburger Puppenkiste` (i.e. Augsburg Puppet Chest); © Augsburger Puppenkiste/Elmar HerrThe Augsburg Puppet Chest’s marionette versions of their story have contributed to their success. In 1961 Jim Button and his friends were already to be seen on strings and in black-and-white on television on ARD. In the late seventies they were re-filmed in colour. In 1999 began the first run of 52 episodes of a cartoon series about Jim Button.

Michael Ende; © Caio GarrubbaBack when Michael Ende was looking for a publisher for his Jim Button manuscript, he probably never even dreamed of such success. A dozen publishers had rejected the book before, on August 9, 1950, Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver was published by the Stuttgart firm Thienemann.

That same year Jim Button won the German Youth Book Prize. Two years later, in 1962, appeared the sequel, Jim Knopf and the Wild 13.

By post to Morrowland

Cover of `Jim Knopf findet's raus - Geschichten über Vulkane, Lokomotiven und Scheinriesen`, narrated by Beate Dölling based on motifs from `Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver` and `Jim Button and the Wild Thirteen 13`; © Thienemann VerlagAlso from the pen of Michael Ende, who was born in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1929 and died in 1995, are Momo (1972) and The Never-Ending Story (1979). Whereas little Momo arrives in the realm of the hour-lilies on the back of the tortoise Cassiopeia, Jim Button reaches the island of Morrowland by post. Mrs Whaat, owner of the convenience shop in Morrowland, discovers the little baby in a package. The islanders take Jim to their hearts.

But as Jim grows up, Morrowland becomes too small for everyone. King Alfred the Quarter-to-Twelfth, who rules his mini-republic over a golden telephone, decides that Emma, the locomotive that runs equally well on rails, water and air, must go, since of all the residents she takes up the most room. But if Emma must go, then Luke, the engine driver, insists on going with her. And Jim then joins them both, for he would never let his friend Luke go alone.

The finest little chap I’ve ever seen in my life

Jim Button at the `Augsburger Puppenkiste` (i.e. Augsburg Puppet Chest); © Augsburger Puppenkiste/Elmar HerrThe adventures of Jim, Luke and Emma in the Land of the Small Volcanoes, with the Chinese boy Ping Pong, whose head is the size of a ping pong ball, with the dragon Mrs Grindtooth and the illusionary giant Mr Tur Tur, are as dearly loved by children today as they were fifty years ago.

Jim Knopf in der Augsburger Puppenkiste; © Augsburger Puppenkiste/Elmar HerrThis is surely not merely because the adventures are exciting, but also because Michael Ende always takes seriously the young readers of his story. The “finest little chap I’ve ever known” (to quote Luke) never appears before the children wagging his finger.

And yet he still conveys, seemingly by the way, a story that goes far beyond the borders of Morrowland: the story of friendship, respect and tolerance. It is as valid today as it was in 1960, and is likely to remain so. Jim Button can look forward with confidence to his next fifty years.

Verena Hütter
is a free-lance writer and editor based in Munich.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
November 2010

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