Sunday, July 08, 2012

Kaytek the Wizard by Janusz Korczak

Kaytek the Wizard by Janusz Korczak
Copyright 1933/2012
Penlight Publications - Fantasy/Translation
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
272 pp, incl. Translator's Afterword and References
Wikipedia entry on Janusz Korczak (Wow, what an amazing man)

Kaytek the Wizard is a fantasy novel about a little boy (about age 10, as I recall) who desires to become a wizard but when he succeeds at becoming a wizard, he has trouble controlling his impulses and causes loads of trouble.

Kaytek is a precocious Polish boy. He taught himself to read and loves books but he's a little odd and doesn't fit in at school. Kaytek decides he wants to be a wizard and practices making things happen by saying, "I want, I demand . . . [whatever he wants]." He's a bit of a brat so he plays a lot of pranks and causes trouble. When he tries to do good, he finds that he's misunderstood (often blamed for trouble caused by others). Eventually, he is driven from his home in Warsaw. He cares deeply for his family so when he travels the world, he leaves behind a duplicate of himself so his parents won't be worried.

As he travels the world, Kaytek's ego is fed but his soul is not. He finds that what he loves more than anything is his home and family. He desires to do good but plans and follow-through have a rough time getting together. Will Kaytek ever learn how to control his impulses and restrain his powers?

What I liked about Kaytek the Wizard:

Kaytek the Wizard is very different from today's fantasy novels about wizards, in spite of that Harry-Potterish cover. He lacks the advantage of Harry Potter in that there is no school for wizards, nobody to tell him right from wrong and help him to learn self-control, although occasionally he'll get a mysterious invisible shove in one direction or the other, indicating that there are other wizards keeping an eye on him.

I enjoyed Kaytek the Wizard as much for learning about how children's literature has changed and reading a translation (both learning experiences) as for the story itself, although the book easily hooked me and kept me reading to find out what would happen and whether or not Kaytek would ever stop playing pranks and gain control over his powers.

What I disliked about Kaytek the Wizard:

One distressing oddity about the dialogue is that people are very rude throughout the book (including the hero). They don't just say, "Go away kid," if, for example, the obviously-impoverished Kaytek tries to eat in a fancy restaurant. They say, "Go away, you brat," or "Go away, you pig." There always seems to be an insult thrown in. There are a lot of blow-off responses akin to our current, "Whatever," as well. I don't know if that was common in Poland in 1933 or just a way of showing how difficult it was to be a poor child, as well as how temperamental Kaytek was. It's uncomfortable, in other words, but possibly with a purpose as the author ran an orphanage and the children likely experienced prejudice and rudeness.

Kaytek tends to like to get back at people who give him a hard time and doing so just adds to his trouble. At times, I did find him frustrating but again . . . I think the author was writing for his children and those few things that disturbed me probably were meant to be relatable to his audience.

A small warning:

Kaytek the Wizard is unfinished. It was apparently published in serial form. The author read it to his orphans (he ran an orphanage) and crossed out things they found too frightening but didn't make changes apart from removing the frightening parts because the book was already in pre-publication and he didn't have time or ability to fix those problems. So, there are big gaps where you have no idea what happened in Chapter 12 (I think it's 12) and then shortly after that, the the story just stops. I knew the book was incomplete so that part didn't bother me, but I didn't care for the unexpected gaps.

However, the book was originally published in 1933 and the original "scary" parts that were removed no longer exist in any form. It's my understanding that those portions that frightened the children had not yet been removed when Kaytek was published in serial form, but since they no longer exist there's no going back to find them.

The bottom line:

Recommended. A fascinating Polish fantasy that will appeal to many ages. Like reading a book and comparing it to the movie or reading a novel and comparing it to the script, it's fun to read Kaytek the Wizard to compare it to modern fantasy. Amazingly, in spite of its missing pieces, you'll see if you read about Kaytek the Wizard at Wikipedia that the book was immensely popular in its day and has been made into a movie several times. There's a lot that happens; some bits are funny, some horrifying. Kaytek the Wizard is definitely an adventurous story and, in the end, I closed the book satisfied.

About the author:

Janusz Korczak died with his orphans in Treblinka concentration camp. I think that was part of the reason I picked up the book and immediately began reading. I was curious about the author, who was well-known in his time, and how fantasy in 1930s Poland would read by comparison with today's fantasy. I advise reading it for historical context, but don't expect Harry Potter. Kaytek is adventurous but quite different. Footnotes and notes by the translator help the book to make sense and to give it added interest.

Cover thoughts:

I love the cover. It's a real grabber, very pretty and appears to fit the time and place. There's a castle in Warsaw (or was), there were trams and Kaytek does actually fly at some point in the book. The colors and the image of a flying Kaytek are definitely eye-catching!

Oops . . .

Anyone notice this post was up and then disappeared? I was trying to make some changes whilst eating a Haagen Dazs ice cream bar and Isabel attempted to help -- with the eating of the ice cream bar, that is. She ended up helping all the way across the keyboard and I had a slight fiasco to repair. Someday, I'll have to get a video of Izzy trying to get to my food. It's hilarious. She is one persistent little fur gal!

©2012 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery and Babble or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email for written permission to reproduce text or photos.


  1. Blogger in hard enough to deal with without having a kitty running across the key board! :)

    I like the idea behind this book and the authors back story is interesting. I do have a hard time with little kids in books that are very misbehaved. I guess kids that read it can relate but to an adult it's just annoying.

    1. Jenny,

      So true!

      Kaytek does behave badly and his behavior can be frustrating, but the interesting thing is that even when he tries to be good, he's misunderstood. Apparently kids can relate to that. Actually, when I think back . . . I got in trouble a lot for things my sister did because I was the naughtier child and everyone always assumed I was to blame, even when I wasn't. Makes sense. At least he *tries* to be good, now and then. :)

      The author's story is really interesting. What an incredibly compassionate man and so accomplished!

  2. I think I would also be thrown off by the rudeness and insults, but it does sound like this is an interesting read that merits attention. I should probably try to go procure a copy and see what I think. A wizard that plays pranks is a big hit with my current temperament! Very nice review today!

    1. The insults were really strange because they leave you wondering . . . were people in Poland so incredibly rude to each other in that time period or was the author trying to say something about how difficult it is to live in poverty? Hard to say, but still interesting. It's worth reading Kaytek for the peek into the past and how different fantasy was, 80 years ago.

      LOL Thanks. Been in a bad mood, Heather? :)

  3. Anonymous8:30 AM

    And this is Polish cover from 1985. I like it because of the school uniform (more accurate than this new edition)
    And about the insults - I think it was the hard time for kids in general and people from lower social classes would not be very thoughtful and respectful when talking to children, especially poor ones. I believe it was more general trend, not only in Poland.
    Thanks for the review! You may not know that Korczak wrote also a book called King Matt the First (Król Maciuś Pierwszy) about little boy who becomes a king and struggles with all the responsibility and power. Maciuś, the name from Polish edition is a diminutive used for small children or when talking with tenderness. So instead of Matt I would use Matty/Mattie. But anyway, I think you could like the book.
    Also, Korczak wrote another book, "Bankruptcy of Little Jack" which tells about little boy from USA (I think from New York) who establishes a school cooperative and fails (it's not a spoiler looking at the title). As far as I know it was not translated into English but it should as it was about the American boy and American reality was described in this book.


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