Review of Kaytek the Wizard by Janusz Korczak

by Nancy Horner of Bookfoolery and Babble

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!

The original review was posted here.


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