Jutta Richter really does live in a castle and it is indeed surrounded by a moat with plenty of squawking ducks and geese. She actually leases the gatehouse which is quite large and has a charm all its own. We were fortunate enough to spend the night (August 27, 2008) with her and enjoyed a fabulous view out the window from our very large bedroom/sitting room. Since the gatehouse was recently renovated about eight years ago, Jutta has a modern kitchen and two up-to-date bathrooms plus all the other amenities—large library, office area and storage space as well as a little outdoor patio garden. We picked up some fascinating trivia—we saw that some of the windows in the castle were bricked over and it turns out that in the past taxes were levied based on the number of windows in a home or castle, so windows were bricked over to save money. Our day and evening were punctuated by the clock tower which is quite visible in the courtyard and the clock chimes every fifteen minutes and of course on the hour.
Jutta said that she was drawn to this place from the first time that she saw it, but it needed work before she could move in. The renovations were done, and she has been in the castle since 1978. Like many of her guests, we spent time in the spacious kitchen, enjoying delicious wines, cheese and fruit not to mention an excellent dinner. (Would you believe lamb from Trader Joes in this rather remote part of Germany.) After a stroll around the grounds, we noticed that there were numerous fruit trees. Jutta reflected on her upcoming event (December 6, 2008 in Munich) pertaining to Der Anfang von allem--The Beginning of Everything, Adam’s story from his point of view. He is an old man sitting on Abel’s grave along with a cat. He remembers how he met Eve -- that she was pregnant and wanted an apple which was forbidden and of course they were thrown out of paradise. In Jutta’s mind it must have been like this area where she now lives. The landlord comes once in awhile back to his castle and his hobby was creating new varieties of apples. The estate is quite large about 10 kilometers by 4 or 5 kilometers. The Earl has been pretty smart about generating revenue because there is a large golf club on his land and he also rents land to an orchard trying to develop a new cherry hybrid (I guess they gave up on apples).
As to Jutta’s background and her fluency in English—it all stated in 1971 as an exchange student with a family in Detroit. It was a large working class family, the father was a policeman and there were seven children. During her time there, she was not allowed to read, listen to or speak German. Her desire to leave a small town and venture out into the big wide world took her to the US. But she started a diary as a way for her to save her culture/identity. The diary was submitted to several publishers and from each one she received a personal note and they all encouraged her. Popcorn and Stars and Stripes: Diary of a Student became a best selling book in Germany, but has never been translated into English (seems like it would be a natural for some enterprising publisher). Jutta indicated that it went into two paperback printings and then eventually out of print. She now has the rights back.
After graduation from high school, Jutta worked in a hospital with those who had respiratory problems. She wanted to stay and become an inhalation therapist, but it was not to be. Jutta did attend university and studied Catholic theology and journalism. It is interesting that her current home is on the path of a pilgrimage--one can often see pilgrims with backpacks and dressed in hikers’ attire. Many of these travelers also carry a long staff with a shell attached to the handle. These people are holy pilgrims making the centuries-old pilgrimage known as "el Camino de Santiago" (the way of St. James) which ends in Spain.
As to her own family, Jutta has a daughter in her late twenties who is studying art and a granddaughter who was two at the time of our visit. She had just lost her godfather and was attending his funeral the day we left. They were close and so it was certainly a significant loss for Jutta. During her spare time she enjoys crime stories, the psychological type, and if it doesn’t grab her right away, she has no compunction about stopping and finding another book. She likes to cook, paint, sew, and play the piano. Her art and that of her daughter are quite visible around the house. They are well set against the white walls and the huge dark beams of the ceilings and beautiful wooden floorboards that are more than a foot wide (you can imagine what the trees were like in the area when the castle was built). Jutta loves animals and as a child imitated animals and their sounds and that may be where the seeds of her book The Cat had its germination. I asked her why she chose a white cat and she remarked that it is the only cat that you can see at night and that white also represents wisdom and purity. Also she remarked that the Cat in this story is practical and realistic and has no empathy. The ability to have empathy is what makes us human and sets us apart from the animals. This book won a German Youth Literature Award / Hermann Hesse Prize / is a Batchelder Honor Book, and was named a Notable Children's Books, for 2008; by ALSC (a division of the American Library Association).
Like many writers, some of Jutta’s stories are based on what she read early in life such as Pearl S. Buck and her book the Dragon Fish, as well as her life experiences. Summer of the Pike is one of the latter. In this book, her neighbor next door is the one who is dying and Jutta is the mother of the girl who is struggling with the issues. Jutta was the one who told the boys about their mother’s illness and eventually of her death. The Cat is another book with religious overtones and was influenced by the area in Germany where she lived as a youth. It is unusual these days for a writer to remain with just one publisher, but Jutta has been with Hanser for the past ten years. She feels that Hanser is the perfect publisher for her borderline type of work—not really adult and not really young adult. Also she does not have an agent. Jutta is able to earn a living from her books and she supplements it with paid readings and school visits. She also has a place in Italy where she heads where there are no readings in Germany.
Her career has included some pretty heady events including a luncheon with Laura Bush, Mrs. Blair (Cherie Booth), Ludmilla Putin and Doris Schroeder-Koepf wife of former Chancellor Schroeder. She has had opportunities to visit Russia and enjoy the company of some of the most important women in the world. The Golden Room in the Kremlin, which is not open to the public, was the site of one dinner and Jutta marveled at the beauty and workmanship of the décor. Jutta came away quite impressed with Russia.
What is coming up in Jutta’s professional life? She has a book of poetry for young adults that is due to be published in August of 2009. There is a possible Christmas story about a young black girl who wants to play Mary and her wish comes true, and a picture book whose English title would be Give Me a Kiss, Little Miss among other ideas that she has in her deep well of talent.For more information visit Jutta Richter's own web site.
Contributor: Marilyn Courtot
The Summer of the Pike
Illustrated by Quint Buchholz
Translated by Anna Brailovsky
Two families who have been close friends since their children were babies live on the grounds of a German castle where the mothers work. The children--Anna, Daniel, and Lucas--are bused to school in a nearby town. Because they belong neither to the farms nor to the town, the three spend most of their time together roaming the grounds or fishing for redeye in the castle moat, though they are forbidden to try to catch the large pike at the bottom of the murky water. But this summer will not be the usual idyll. Daniel and Lucas’s mother is gravely ill, and Anna’s mother tries to help care for her and keep an eye on the boys. The children are unsettled, not knowing exactly what is wrong and hoping desperately that Gisela will get better. One morning when Daniel and Anna are on the bus to the high school, he tells her that his mother’s hair is falling out. When she confronts her own mother after school, she is told that Gisela has cancer and that it must be kept from the boys. As the days go on and Daniel becomes more and more distressed, he announces that he no longer believes that there are miracles or guardian angels that can help his mother. Instead, he is determined that if he can catch and kill the pike, Gisela will get well. Anna, too, is tormented by Gisela’s deteriorating condition. When a popular farm girl invites her to go for ice cream after school one day, she is eager to escape the sadness that pervades the two families. But the girl only wants to gossip about a perceived relationship between Daniel’s father and Anna’s mother. The novel quietly examines the fear and grief of children whose life is changing radically and who can find no rational way to cope with their fears. 2006, Milkweed Editions, $6.95. Ages 11 to 14. Reviewer: Judy DaPolito (Children's Literature).
The Cat, or, How I lost Eternity
Illustrated by Rotraut Susanne Berner
Translated by Anna Brailovsky
This year Christine is always late for school. But when she swears it is the fault of the white cat, no one believes her. The cat lives in the sunlight on a wall next to the gate that Christine passes through on her way to school. And Christine always stops to pet and to talk with the old cat who has her own subversive ideas about life. One morning Christine's frustrated teacher has had enough and sends Christine to the principal's office. “Can you explain to me why you are always late?” he demands. Christine tells the truth; it is the cat. The principal does not believe her; her punishment for lying is to write “There are no talking cats and in the future I will come to class on time.” The cat warns her. “Once you've written it two hundred times, you'll believe it.” But Christine has a solution. This is a simply written tale that is deceptively complex; it is a thought-provoking fable that will leave readers asking questions and discovering that they, like Christine, may not find any easy answers. Illustrated with austere black-and-white drawings that divide the book into ten short chapters, this book is an excellent choice for middle school and high school libraries. 2007 (orig. 2006), Milkweed Editions, $14.00. Ages 12 up. Reviewer: Anita Barnes Lowen (Children's Literature).
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