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King Matt the First
A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this book, written in Poland in the 1920s, is very much a product of its time. Some passages may, by today's standards, be considered by some to be racist. African kings and tribes are depicted, in some ways, as uncivilized and primitive, but the African king is portrayed as morally superior to the white kings. Also, the African king's daughter strikes some pretty convincing blows for feminism.
What's the story?
KING MATT is a fable set in the 1920's. Matt is a young boy who becomes the king of a European country when his parents, the king and queen, die. Matt is, most importantly, a child, with all the idealism and ignorance, good intentions and lack of understanding, simplicity and guilelessness which that entails. Though at first he is content, if not very happy, to take lessons from his tutor and do as the government Ministers advise, he soon begins, as any child might, to think that he can do better, especially for the children of his country.
When three foreign countries invade, Matt is thrilled, romantically imagining himself on a white horse leading his soldiers into battle. When he realizes that the Ministers don't even plan to tell him that a war has begun, much less let him lead it, he sneaks off to the front. There, unrecognized, he begins his real education, as he sees what war is really like. But it is only the beginning, for in ending the war, taking control of his government, and instituting a series of reforms, the inadequacy of his knowledge and understanding of the world, of economics, politics, geography, and consequences is made manifest.
Yet despite all of this, he means well, tries hard, learns quickly, and has some successes. Some of his ideas, like giving every kid in the country candy, are silly and childish, but others, like building camps in the countryside where poor children can spend the summer, are more enlightened and practical. His reforms become increasingly grandiose, with destructive consequences which he does not anticipate, and he is increasingly betrayed by the guile and deviousness of the adults who plot his downfall. But though all of his efforts and trials, his sense of responsibility and his simple nobility shine in contrast to the machinations and selfishness of some, though not all, of the adults with whom he has to deal.
Is it any good?
Though obviously impossible, the story is surprisingly realistic, and it deals with the problems and pitfalls of governing a country in a way that is an eye-opener for children. Kids recognize Matt's attempted reforms as the very same ones they would try, and the consequences are as surprising to them as they are to Matt.
This should be read with an adult; there is much in it that cries out for discussion, much that will make the reader angry and frustrated, much that will exercise their notions of fairness, responsibility, laws, rights, and human behavior. It is an exciting story, educational in a way that few books manage to be, and exceptionally thought-provoking. It is recommended not only to parents looking for good books for their kids, but to teachers who want the ideal literature tie-in for any course dealing with law, government, and institutions. It is an important work whose past neglect in America deserves to be remedied.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about morals and leadership. How does Matt's youth help him in his duties as king? How does it make things more difficult? Why are the adults so threatened by him? What are some of his better ideas? What important lessons does he learn? What do you think he'd be like if he continued to rule until he was an elderly man?