October 2004

Gordon McAlpin


King Matt the First by Janusz Korczak

Grownups should not read my novel, because some of the chapters are not very nice. They'll misunderstand them and make fun of them. But if they really want to read my book, they should give it a try. After all, you can't tell grownups not to do something—they won't listen to you, and you can't make them obey. - Janusz Korczak

Janusz Korczak was a physician, children's writer and educator in Poland and a staunch defender of children's rights in the early part of the last century. His most popular children's novel, King Matt the First, was initially published in 1923 and soon became as well-known in Poland as J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan. It unjustly fell into anonymity after the war and, eventually, out of print. Last published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1988, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill has graciously crafted an attractive new edition that, one hopes, will reintroduce this wonderful fable to the world.

When young Prince Matt's father dies, he suddenly becomes ruler of a small European country. His tiny, landlocked country's three neighbors take advantage of the situation and declare war, and Matt sneaks out of the palace with his friend Felek to join the army on the front lines. Once there, he becomes quickly acquainted with the harsh realities of modern war. "Oh, what a foolhardy child I was," he thinks. "All I thought about was leaving the capital on a white horse while the people threw flowers at me. But I wasn't thinking how many people would be killed."

Thanks to a valiant mission across enemy lines and his War Minister's strategies, Matt's army deflects the invaders in the end returns to the capital a hero. But his country is in serious trouble. Since Matt has too generously neglected to demand reparations from his conquered foes, he soon turns to them for loans to help in the reconstruction of his battered kingdom. Visiting each of the three king's capitals, he becomes friendly with a sad king who had only reluctantly participated in the invasion and falls in love with the sad king's zoo.

Matt returns to his own capital and demands from his ministers a series of reforms for the children of his country: to build summer camps for all the children, to supply all the schools with seesaws and merry-go-rounds, and to construct a zoo in the capital with cages for all sorts of exotic creatures. But the money lent by his neighbors has already been spoken for, so he takes out a second loan from the sad king in order to establish his zoo. Matt meets with traders from various countries with animals for sale, but one envoy from the land of the cannibals, whose king has all the animals Matt's zoo requires, makes him an especially exciting offer. This African king has no need for money, as he has mountains of gold already; he simply wants Matt to visit his country.

Against his ministers' wishes, Matt goes to Africa and becomes great friends with King Bum Drum and his daughter Klu Klu. King Bum Drum sends Matt home with all the riches he can carry, and they make arrangements to have the animals for his zoo sent in three months' time. Back at home, Matt concocts another wave of reforms more grand in scope than any before it, chiefly the establishment of a children's parliament and a children's newspaper. But while Matt is preoccupied with affairs of state, a spy is planting the seeds of Matt's undoing....

Not all of Matt's reforms are as successful as he had hoped, however. The summer camps turned out to be a poorly managed mess which many of the children didn't enjoy at all, and a children's parliament he establishes ends up as little more than a forum for the delegates to make trivial, even impossible demands such as the abolition of girls and little children.

This pattern repeats itself throughout the book: King Matt has ever more sweeping, yet naive ideas about how to reform his government, but the practicalities soon settle in and force Matt to alter his approach. Despite this, King Matt is never condescending, unlike so many children's books today by adults who think of children as small idiots. Quite the opposite, Korczak understands children remarkably well, writing in a poetic tone reminiscent of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's timeless The Little Prince, which it predates by 20 years.

While the portrayal of many of the Africans in the book is unsettling by today's PC standards, it is certainly no more troubling than that of the Indians in Peter Pan. And as Esmé Raji Codell recounts in her introduction,

When I first read this book to children who were predominantly African-American, I waited for them to explode with righteous indignation. I withered at the prospect of explaining to thirty-some expectant faces that the author probably included things such as African cannibals eating salted flesh because he was sitting in a room full of two hundred kids and wanted to say something that made them go 'Eeeeeewwww.'

But I didn't have to explain it, because the children didn't identify with it, and created their own chorus of 'Eeeeeewwww' just as kids might have half a century ago.

To be fair, Klu Klu, the African princess who becomes King Matt's closest and most faithful friend, stands as one of the book's strongest, most intelligent and capable characters, and even affords her opportunities to comment on "stupid European etiquette" and describe the Europeans as "barbaric" in how they wear clothes on their feet and dress their boys and girls differently. In fact, much of the book's most biting commentary about European culture comes from Klu Klu's mouth. As Korczak himself answered to a girl who asked him why Klu Klu was black, not white, "Children are black in Klu Klu's part of the world, just as the children I saw in China were yellow. But it doesn't make any difference what color you are. Klu Klu was much smarter than a lot of the white children in Matt's kingdom -- and she remained faithful to him when he was attacked by others."

The fact that King Matt ends up deposed is irrelevant, however strange that may seem. He and his friends stick together to the last. While he made many mistakes in his brief reign, he learned from each of them, and he ends the book as a wiser king than he was before, albeit a king without a kingdom. Despite its unusually pessimistic, downbeat ending, King Matt the First certainly leaves you wondering that all-important question: what happens next? But unfortunately, its sequel, King Matt on the Desert Island, is still out of print. With any luck -- not to mention sales -- Alogonquin Books of Chapel Hill will remedy that problem soon.

King Matt the First by Janusz Korczak
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
ISBN 1565124421
352 pages