In 1960, Michael Ende’s Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver was first published in German by publishers Thienemann in Stuttgart. It was the start for a distinguished career as an author for children’s books. Jim Button was subsequently translated into 32 languages.
Michael Ende is probably best known for his Never Ending Story of movie fame. But he started out with another children’s book Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver. The start was a bumpy one with more than a dozen publishers sending his manuscript back as refused. They must have been eating their hearts out after the book received the German Youth Literature Price in 1961.
After receiving the price, Ende was swamped with requests for further books by the selfsame publishers. He sent them back copies of their own refused letters as an answer, ‘with some Schadenfreude’ as he admitted in an interview. Ende called his creation ‘an unscrupulous amalgam of fairy tale, adventure story, and sci-fi elements’; whatever it was, it struck the right cords with his readers.
Jim Button’s (German Knopf translates to button) story starts with his arrival as a baby in a small post parcel delivered by ship to the small island of Morrowland. Morrowland is governed by its king Alfred the Quarter-to-Twelfth; the island is inhabited by Mr Sleeve, Mrs Whaat, and Luke the Engine Driver. It is just large enough to hold the palace, Sleeve’s house, Whaat’s general store, and a railway with station.
With Jim growing up, the king gets worried about where Jim would live when becoming an adult; he informs Luke that there will be no space for his railway anymore and that his engine Emma has to go. Overheard by Jim, Luke tells Emma his sorrows and his decision to leave the island with her. Jim joins him, and together they convert Emma into a ship and set sail into the unknown.
They eventually arrive in China’s capital Ping and learn of the abduction of the daughter of the emperor Princess Li Si. She had been kidnapped by pirates called the Wild 13 and was held captive by a dragon called Mrs Grindtooth. Mrs Grindtooth enjoys torturing the children brought to her by the pirates in an institution called school where they are forced to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic.
They set out to free the princess. On the way to find the dragon’s Sorrowland they make new friends such as Mr Tur Tur and Nepomuk. Mr Tur Tur is an illusionary giant who shrinks smaller size the closer you get to him. Nepomuk is a half-dragon descended from a dragon and a hippopotamus.
After reaching Dragon City in Sorrowland, they free the princess together with many other children. They take the dragon captive and return to China by means of the Yellow River which has its spring in Sorrowland. They are received in Ping as heroes and are greeted by two startling news. First, Mrs Grindtooth would be turned into a golden dragon of wisdom, and second a letter from King Alfred to the Emperor asking them back to Morrowland. With the help of Mrs Grindtooth and the Emperor, they snare a floating island and tow it back to Morrowland to solve the problem of overcrowding.
The book and its sequel were converted into a television series by Augsburger Puppenkiste as a marionette play. The series was a roaring success and the music and songs produced for the series have become part of everyday life with German speakers. They have been revived as dance tunes, techno and trance versions and may be encountered in any music spot in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Later spin-offs were a German-French cartoon series loosely based on the characters and the story and a Japanese anime that retained but the names.