Kaytek the Wizard

Janusz Kor­czak; Anto­nia Lloyd-Jones, trans.; Avi Katz, illus.
  • Review
By – February 26, 2013

In the world of 1930s War­saw, an impul­sive third grad­er yearns for the adven­ture he hears in the folk­tales that his moth­er and grand­moth­er tell. Kaytek first stirs up action by mak­ing bets and then dis­cov­ers that he can cause real mis­chief just by will­ing things to hap­pen. In the begin­ning, he uses this pow­er to get out of trou­ble by mak­ing his teacher’s chalk dis­ap­pear or to ful­fill wish­es by find­ing coins and choco­late. As Kaytek’s con­trol becomes sur­er, his secret actions esca­late, but so do the con­se­quences and his remorse about caus­ing unan­tic­i­pat­ed chaos. Leap­ing onto the roof of a tram, will­ing a bridge to rise up ver­ti­cal­ly, imag­in­ing an island with a won­drous cas­tle and caus­ing it to appear in the mid­dle of the Vis­tu­la Riv­er, hav­ing police­men tot­ter around on women’s high heels — all end bad­ly. Offi­cials are now after Kaytek. Con­fused, he runs away, fights a giant African box­er in Paris, and is brought to Hol­ly­wood to star in a movie. Kaytek then van­ish­es to New York in sev­en-league boots. There, he plays vio­lin pas­sion­ate­ly, drawn by love for his par­ents and the mem­o­ry of his beloved grand­moth­er. Mag­i­cal episodes leap with the boy’s mind, but grow heav­ier as he trav­els back to War­saw. En route, he holds a dying detec­tive after a train has derailed. He is kept cap­tive by an invis­i­ble wiz­ard chief and then released in the form of a dog along with a girl he once kissed on a dare. Trans­formed back to human by the tears of his kind teacher, Kaytek awaits tri­al by the wiz­ard chief. The end­ing left open, Kaytek promis­es to use his pow­ers for good.

The twen­ty chap­ters of Kaytek’s sto­ry were child psy­chol­o­gist, pedi­a­tri­cian, and author, who cared for Jew­ish orphans in War­saw and told sto­ries to guide them and make their lives bet­ter. This trans­la­tion of the nov­el (orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in episodes) has been issued on the 100th anniver­sary of the found­ing of Korczak’s orphan­age and the 70th anniver­sary of his death with those chil­dren at the Tre­blin­ka con­cen­tra­tion camp. It is a curi­ous book, both play­ful and dark, writ­ten most­ly, and a lit­tle awk­ward­ly, in the present tense with an omni­scient nar­ra­tor. The trans­la­tor has added some foot­notes and an after­word to explain con­text for the set­ting and deci­sions relat­ing to trans­la­tion. Left in are a few uncom­fort­able ref­er­ences reflect­ing speech of that time where Africans are can­ni­bals and going to see a Jew unde­sir­able. Kaytek him­self is not Jew­ish. The whole lacks a dri­ving nar­ra­tive depth, oth­er than Korczak’s desire to val­i­date children’s enjoy­ment of pranks while learn­ing empa­thy for oth­ers. These ele­ments keep the nov­el of his­toric inter­est, rather than as one to rec­om­mend for young read­ers now.

Sharon Elswit, author of The Jew­ish Sto­ry Find­er and a school librar­i­an for forty years in NYC, now resides in San Fran­cis­co, where she shares tales aloud in a local JCC preschool and vol­un­teers with 826 Valen­cia to help stu­dents write their own sto­ries and poems.

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