A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Years and years ago, possibly when I was 7 or 8, my aunt and uncle gave me a book for my birthday, The Children of Tonacatecutli by Kaj Himmelstrup. It’s a novelisation of a Danish TV series about children in a new housing estate who build a playground village of huts for themselves, out of unwanted and leftover building supplies.
The children on the estate have nowhere to play except a tiny (and yet to be built) playground tucked out of sight with only babyish swings. The building project begins as an idle game by Henrik because he has nothing else to do, and finds a plank to dig with. His older brother and sister join in when they come back from school, and soon all the children in the flats are working together, scavenging and constructing with borrowed tools and ingenuity. A nasty neighbour complains about their noise so much, the caretaker of the flats gets on their side, but he and Henrik’s parents can’t see any way of stopping the village being torn down in two weeks’ time to make way for the scheduled car park. The mayor doesn’t pay them any attention, and the town engineer wants the village destroyed because it isn’t in the plans and looks terrible. The children form themselves into a tribe to worship their god made out of an old branch, and call it Tonacatecutli. They get written about in the newspaper, but they can’t stop the demolition. Until Henrik decides to go and see the mayor …
The story was originally a Danish TV series for children, and apparently a Norwegian and English series as well, though I’ve never seen them. Himmelstrup told me (I tracked him down; isn’t the internet useful?) that a Danish editor asked him to write a book from the series, and this was published in English by The Bodley Head. The book has photos from the Danish series – vintage black and white 1967 city life scenes, which are fresh, clear and simple, and show a more innocent and straightforward way of life. I loved this book so much that I kept it, and once my children were born I retrieved it, and many others, from my parents’ house in case my children would like it. They weren’t in the slightest bit interested, only listening to me politely when I told them what a great story it was.
On rereading The Children of Tonacatecutli on the train last week, I was assured within ten minutes that it was still a great story. The train stopped and I had to get off. I nearly missed my stop, and was strongly inclined to sit in the waiting room just to finish the story. The language is undated and clear. The plot is perfectly constructed (that elephant trap may have been forgotten by the readers and characters, but not by the author). There are just enough named characters to make the story feel busy and active, and enough good, bad, and maybes in their personalities to make them seem real. Oluf the spoilt brat with long hair is really looking, ineptly, for a way to join in. Mrs Jensen the nasty neighbour needs to be stood up to, so she won’t become the estate bully. Parents have good days and bad days, and tolerance is really what we should all practice. The story is timeless, since we really don’t notice the nonexistence of the internet and mobile phones.
As a child I longed to be out on the waste ground hammering nails and painting scrap wood, and I wanted to be roasting sausages with the rest of the tribe. I was very interested in the trams (they didn’t exist in my city). I swelled with pride when Henrik’s mother tore down the stairs to stop the foreman hitting her son. I shared Henrik’s quiet pleasure in slipping past security staff and the awkward questions of adults by simply looking as if he was someone else’s responsibility. Above all, I wanted to see what the village looked like from the ground. How did the huts stand up if they were only made of planks balanced in rough ground and held together at the corners with a few nails? How did their roofs stay on? Why didn’t the fire engines arrive when they started their cooking fires? What did the other parents think? Who patched Henrik’s ripped trousers, and did the caretaker let them use his Indian headdresses?
It’s a novel about self-reliance and reusing waste, and it’s all about making friends by working together. It feels typical for 1960s children’s fiction in English, but was it typical for Danish fiction? The story wears very well, but although it went into a second edition in English under a different title – The Totem Children – it was never republished in Denmark. Himmelstrup, now in his late eighties and living north of Copehagen, has regrets about the success of the book’s message. ‘What I wanted to say with the TV series – give children a place of their own where they can build and play and develop their creative power – was never heard. We have lots of parking areas, but few playgrounds where it is possible to make other things than play ball.’
Kaj Himmelstrup, The Children of Tonacatecutli (London: The Bodley Head, 1969), available through second-hand book dealers online at a very reasonable price.
Kate podcasts about books she really, really likes at http://www.reallylikethisbook.com.
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