Book Review: King Matt the First by Janusz Korczak

King Matt the First

This is the first review of fiction that I haven’t been paid or otherwise obligated to write, but I’m posting it because this is the best book we’ve read to our eight-year-old to date.

‘King Matt is a fable that offers a fierce, truthful picture of children struggling to make sense of grown-up nonsense . . . This small masterpiece is a rare tribute to the psychological depth and marvelous workings of a child’s heart and mind’
So said Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are. It’s also a favourite of Brian Selznick, who wrote The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the book behind Martin Scorcese’s Hugo.

It’s about a child prince who accedes to the throne upon the sudden death of his father. With no trusted friends or mentors to begin with, King Matt must learn his life lessons the hard way; through trial and error.

This premise allows Korczak to go beyond well-worn themes such as the nature of friendship (spoiler alert: it’s about mutual respect, love and trust, kids!) and introduce more challenging concepts such as the value and absurdities of tradition, the morality of war, and competing notions of justice. Most of the issues highlighted by Matt’s escapades fall under a very broad heading of politics, touching on the chicanery and hypocrisy inherent in both domestic government and international diplomacy. A series of adventures interspersed with triumph and failure teach Matt the limits of generosity, the need to delegate, the value of first hand experience and the dangers of propaganda. There are even rudimentary comparisons between monarchy (both absolute and constitutional) and democracy.

Prejudice around gender, age, class and race is never far from the surface, and has caused a little unrest in some corners of the Internet. While the general portrayal of Africans in the book can be compared to that of Native Americans by J. M. Barrie in Peter Pan, I believe this is sufficiently offset by Klu Klu, the African Princess who is by far the wisest, most skilled and resourceful character in the book.

The novel’s leitmotif is the clash between Matt’s naiveté versus the cynicism of the world he is thrown into, and his ensuing search for a balance between idealism and realism. He learns that he cannot solve all the world’s problems by himself, no matter how hard he works or how efficiently he schedules his day. His ever more sweeping reforms often have unintended consequences, and practicalities frequently force Matt to change tactics, often on the advice of other kings that he has befriended.

It’s hard to say what age this book is appropriate for. All children are different, but I decided that it would be a good book to read aloud to my eight-year-old. Parental advisories aside (vodka, cigarettes, death by hanging and other things you won’t find in Diary of a Wimpy Kid), there’s so much in it that’s ripe for discussion. Some nights we spent far longer talking about what had just happened in the book than actually reading from it. I might suggest that he reads it again by himself in a year or two.

What makes this book stand out is Korczak’s ability to contrive situations that kids find both funny and thought-provoking, such as when King Matt decrees that every child should receive free chocolate daily, or when his children’s parliament demands the abolition of the smallest children. Though obviously impossible, the story is surprisingly realistic and never condescends to its readership (or audience) by trying to serve up ready-made answers. It’s also a pleasure to read as a parent; Korczak’s description of our world through the eyes of a child serves as a constant reminder to think about what it is to be a good child or adult.

Highly recommended.

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