Der Struvelpeter (or in English the shock-headed Peter) is sold as a children’s book and made up of ten “funny stories with whimsical pictures”.
It was written by Heinrich Hoffmann in 1845.
It is one of the scariest books I owned as a child. I remember vividly some of the nightmares it gave me. For the message of the book is clear: If you don’t behave you will be ridiculed, maimed, or killed.
In the first story, the character after which the book was named is described. It’s a boy with a long, wild mane of hair and fingernails that would have given the late Howard Hughes a bout of envy. This in itself is not so tragic. But once you get to the thumb sucker who gets his thumbs cut off and the soup Kaspar who just fades away and dies, you find that those stories were written to scare children into submission.
There is also a very questionable story wherein three boys taunt a black man. Their punishment is to be made even blacker than the man they taunted.
All these stories still didn’t torture my nights, even though the thumb sucker story came close. The one story that scared me into panic was the story of Pauline.
It is the only story with a girl as a protagonist and that girl dies the most violent death of all. She literally burns to death. There is a picture of her being a human torch in the agonies of burning to death. That scared the sugar honey ice tea out of me when I was little.
Now personally, I don’t think that scaring children is a good parenting strategy. I do not have Struvelpeter in any variation in my house. I did not subject my children to this kind of ‘fun and whimsy’.
I do think this book was nothing out of the ordinary during the time it was first published. If you look at most original fairy tales, they are filled with murder, maiming and acts of unspeakable horror.
However, I do think the lives of the children and adults at that time were also very different from the lives people lead now. And therefore, as much as this book has a deserved place in history, it is out of date and, at least in my opinion, not suitable for kids, no matter how they behave.