Book Review: King Matt the First, by Janusz Korczak

My 6 yr old son is still just on the cusp of learning to read. I think it’s a combination of him being the fourth child (hence, less focused energy on schoolwork on Mommy’s part!) and the fact that he doesn’t sit still long enough to get engaged in a book. He does, however, still like to go to the library. His reaction to the environment gives me hope. He flitters between all sections in the youth department, touching the book spines, flipping through pages. Periodically, he will load my arms up with random books he’d like to take home and live with for a while.

On one of our last trips to the library, my son handed me this book, King Matt the First, by Janusz Korczak. I saw immediately what had drawn his attention: the vibrant colors of the cover art, and the young boy – not much older than my son – sitting on a regal throne, crown on head, adults sneering from the background. At 300+ pages, I figured it was safe to put the book back on the shelf and send my son in another direction. But first, I glanced at the back cover. Yann Martel, author of The Life of Pi (one of my favorite books), wrote, “Janusz Korczak is an important writer…”. Maurice Sendak called the book “a small masterpiece.” The short bio explained that the Polish Janusz Korczak was an educator and pediatrician, and a tireless advocate for progressive orphanages in his home country. I was intrigued by all this information, so I decided to keep the book for myself.

I will admit this now: there is probably A LOT more going on in this book than I understand (or, I’m embarrased to say, I care to uncover). Korczak has embedded into this children’s novel a running commentary on politics, kingdoms, civilizations, and the fair treatment of children. It reminds me of how Gulliver’s Travels, even with all the adventures and little people and what-have-you, never really was a children’s book to begin with. But I’m not the English major anymore, and I write blog reviews, not term papers, so you’re gonna get the shallow treatment of this novel.

Matt is a young boy left orphaned by his parents, the King and Queen. Despite the concerns and protests of his counselors, he assumes the throne. He does his best to learn policy and diplomacy, all the time longing to be a normal boy playing in the kingdom’s courtyards. When his country goes to war against neighboring lands, Matt runs off to fight in the military. He wants a firsthand account of what life is like for the soldiers. He becomes an unlikely hero and earns the admiration of his people. He then journeys into the strange and “barbaric” African lands to make peace with those people and win resources and allies. He spends a great deal of time puzzling over foreign policy with his neighboring countries, as well. He establishes a children’s parliament, wanting to give the youth in his kingdom more freedom and a voice in their own lives. He is ultimately betrayed by those close to him, and the book does not end well for him (although it does set things up for the sequel, King Matt on the Desert Island).

Perhaps because it is a translation (done by Richard Lourie), the writing in this book is very bare and straight-forward. None of stylized stuff we see in so much of today’s writing for young adults. The flow of the story is very 1 – 2 – 3, as if your hand is being held through each step of Matt’s amazing life. There are some very “un-PC” references in the book to the Africans and Asians, but that might be taken with a grain of salt, considering when and where the book was written (but still, it made me cringe a little). Altogether, I found the book alright, but not particularly endearing, and nothing I would identify for myself as a classic. I do agree that it’s likely an important piece in terms of who wrote it, and it’s certainly a shame that something which enjoyed the level of success shared by Barrie’s Peter Pan has been largely forgotten by today’s audience.

In the end, the book may be worth reading, but is altogether eclipsed by the amazing life of the author himself. From the Jewish Virtual Library website: “The Germans occupied Poland in September 1939, and the Warsaw ghetto was established in November 1940. The orphanage [where Korczak stayed] was moved inside the ghetto. Korczak received many offers to be smuggled out of the ghetto, but he refused because he did not want to abandon the children. On August 5, 1942, Korczak joined nearly 200 children and orphanage staff members were rounded up for deportation to Treblinka, where they were all put to death.”

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