- Mirjam Pressler:Many, Many Peepholes
In describing our need for books, Mirjam Pressler has often been quoted as saying,
Without books, the world remains narrowed; the possibilities for what is imaginable and thus also do-able, are limited. We need many books, many, many different books. Many little peepholes in the wall that stands between us and the ofttimes inexplicable world. ... And naturally they should not be only the ones that everyone wants to look through. That would be an irresponsible reduction of our perspectives of the world.(Pressler in Gelberg, Werkstattbuch 71)
As an author and a translator, Pressler herself has created many such peepholes of highest literary quality that expand perspective and worldview. What’s more, with her kind of peepholes she stands up for the rights of the weak and disadvantaged, for religious tolerance, and against fascism, both in the past and the present. Pressler is a champion for intercultural understanding through literature. With her nomination for the shortlist of the Hans Christian Andersen Award, we have someone who excellently fulfills the IBBY mission of promoting intercultural understanding through children’s books.
A Roundabout Path to Literature
Pressler has described her path to literature as an accidental one. She was born in Darmstadt, Germany, in 1940, as the illegitimate child of a Jewish mother. The girl grew up in the care of non-Jewish foster parents who belonged to the lower social class, as well as in an orphanage, thus able to survive the Holocaust. Pressler grew up in intellectually narrow confines, often experiencing corporal punishment and a sense of ostracism and insecurity. Although reading was considered a waste of time, it became a secret sanctuary in her childhood. Later, Pressler studied painting and languages in Frankfurt am Main and Munich; she also spent one year living in a kibbutz in Israel. Upon returning to her native country, she married and had three daughters, whom, after her divorce, she raised alone. One of the variety of jobs she took was running her own jeans shop. When the landlord cancelled her shop’s rental contract, she decided, at the age of thirty-nine, to supplement her income from a part-time office job by writing her first young adult novel. Within the next two years, she had published five further novels. Pressler’s career as a translator began in 1983, in an equally unusual manner. On a whim after a party, she decided to translate a book from Dutch, even though she did not know the language. Hence, she could only complete the project with a dictionary and a grammar book.
Since then, she has written over fifty books for children and young adults—including picture books, early readers—as well as books for adults, and she has also translated more than two hundred other works. Her anti-authoritarian novels have become part of the modern classics of German children’s and young adult literature. Often the themes and plots of her books are connected in some way with her own biography, making the stories “taste of real-life experience,” as her publisher, Hans-Joachim Gelberg has put it (Budeus-Budde: Wenn Geschichten nach Erlebtem schmecken 5). In many other countries, it is also possible to look through her peepholes: Her debut novel, Bitterschokolade [Bitter Chocolate], for example, has been translated into eighteen other languages.
Mirjam Pressler is not only a tireless writer but [End Page 26] she also spends many days of the year on the road, giving author readings and meeting with her young readers. In her home city of Landshut, near Munich, she is the patron of the Landshut Youth Book Prize, which is awarded annually by the local young adult reading club.
Giving a Voice to the Weak
At the center of Mirjam Pressler’s books is the topic of childhood and adolescence. In her works, she does not describe a protective, idyllic picture-book world of growing up. Her books deal with the difficult side of living—with damaged childhoods, with children and young people who suffer and long only for a little happiness. Her protagonists include, for example, the overweight Eva in Bitterschokolade; the handicapped Thomas, who like his...