Why a Classic German Children's Tale Is Ripe for Revisiting

A 45-year-old fantasy novel by the author of The Neverending Story is in many ways a fitting companion to A Wrinkle in Time.

Cover of 'Momo' by Marcel Dzama
Momo by Marcel Dzama (© Marcel Dzama / Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London/Hong Kong)

From an early age, many children learn that time is precious, before growing into adults who see it as a commodity to be managed at all costs. But literature for young readers often handles the concept with a greater sense of imagination and possibility. In Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved novel A Wrinkle in Time—whose long-awaited film adaptation hit theaters Friday—time can be bent (or tessered) to allow mortals to travel the universe at great speeds. In other childhood tales, time is a barrier to be broken, or a hidden door to another world. But what if the seconds, minutes, and hours of the day could be stolen away? And what if everyone was too busy to notice?

That’s the premise of the strange but beautiful children’s fantasy novel Momo, which was published 45 years ago. Americans might be more familiar with the tale’s German author, Michael Ende, via his book The Neverending Story, which was made into the cult 1984 film of the same name. Though it never attained name recognition in the United States, Momo is a classic in Ende’s home country and in much of Europe. And it is, in many ways, a fitting companion to L’Engle’s novel. For one, A Wrinkle in Time and Momo both feature memorably drawn young heroines who are pulled into fantastical, time-bending conflicts. But on a deeper level, the two novels are unapologetically humanist works that teach children to nurture the kind of quiet, crucial power that comes from being different, and from understanding what adults very often cannot.

Unlike The Neverending Story, The Lord of the Rings, His Dark Materials, and other fantasy novels popular with young readers, Momo offers no epic journey or triumphant homecoming. (Although it could make for an excellent episode of Black Mirror today.) Momo is supposedly an orphan when she arrives in a fictional, Italianate town. When asked about her origins, she simply says, “As far as I can remember, I’ve always been around.” But with her kindness and gift for listening, Momo quickly slips into the role of town peacekeeper. Adults talk through their problems with her, and children find their games of make-believe become more real when Momo is at the helm. “Lots of things take time,” Ende explains, “and time was Momo’s only form of wealth.”

Then, imperceptibly at first, the Men in Grey appear. With suits, briefcases, cigars, and ashen faces, they set about instructing the townspeople to be more efficient by eliminating pointless activities like socializing, creating, and daydreaming. The Men in Grey (sometimes translated as “The Grey Gentlemen”) promise to deposit the extra time in a bank for later use, but secretly they’re stealing it for themselves. As Momo’s friends and neighbors scramble to save time at all costs, their lives begin to lose meaning. Soon, the town is a mere mechanical simulacrum of its former self, and only Momo can save it—because only Momo seems to be immune to the Men in Grey’s time-stealing tricks.

On the surface, Momo’s plot may not look much like that of A Wrinkle in Time, which centers on a 13-year-old girl named Meg Murry who must rescue her father and, later, her brother from the forces of evil with the help of three immortal beings. Meg’s adventure takes her far away to a planet named Camazotz, whose population is forced into extreme conformity, while Momo wages her battle closer to home. Still, the two share much in style and spirit, even beyond their preoccupation with time. Both Ende and L’Engle have a gift for tackling weighty themes in a way that can speak to both children and their parents. Both novels, again, feature young girl protagonists, who confront what it means to be human and what kinds of adults they want to grow into.

If what Momo faces isn’t quite the evil that Meg does, it is certainly the banality of evil in human form. The Men in Grey dress and talk like businessmen, and interact with the townspeople in a purely transactional way. Although “time” is what they covet, it is the absence of happiness, self-contentment, and individuality that’s most keenly felt wherever they go. In this sense, the Men in Grey are much like Wrinkle’s Man with Red Eyes and IT, the brain on a pedestal that controls Camazotz; both entities similarly pretend to have humans’ best interests in mind, but instead perpetuate a horrifying “sameness” akin to brainwashing. This gloom surfaces in Momo as well: The Men in Grey seem just as unhappy as their victims, and might be more sympathetic if they weren’t so terrifying to young readers.

“As a kid I found [the Men in Grey] quite scary,” said Lucas Zwirner, who translated a 2013 McSweeney’s edition of Momo. “I remember seeing the original Ende drawings of [them] and they seemed very ominous … or, to use a German word, gruselig [gruesome].” Zwirner’s father had read him Momo in German when he was 9, and he found himself drawn to it again while studying comparative literature at Yale. “On a whim I sat down and translated the book,” Zwirner told me. “It was a labor of love. I just felt it was a book for our time.” Many childhood favorites lose their luster when filtered through the lens of adulthood, yet Momo can somehow seem creepier, more urgent, more unheimlich, to its readers the older they get—the less their lives resemble Momo’s, and the more they begin to resemble the zombielike adults Momo must rescue.

Though popular throughout Europe, Momo never caught on in the U.S. despite the release of two earlier English translations before the McSweeney’s edition. Certainly the market for children’s fantasy is vast, and not all works receive the audience they might deserve. But to lovers of Momo in the English-speaking world, rare though they are, its obscurity can seem baffling. Maria Nikolajeva, a professor of children’s literature at the University of Cambridge, thinks she has one explanation for it. She pointed out how Momo owes much to the German/Scandinavian tradition of the alien child, a term taken from the German author E.T.A. Hoffmann’s early 19th-century story of the same name.

Such a child “comes from nowhere, has no background or parents, and may or may not have supernatural skills,” Nikolajeva told me. “They change people in their surroundings, and then very often disappear without a trace.” Much of English-language youth literature tends to focus on a longing for family: Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, and The Wizard of Oz all feature children trying to go home, or at least children looking for one. Meanwhile, examples of the “alien child” don’t come around quite as often. Nikolajeva named The Little Prince and Pippi Longstocking, both beloved by English-speaking readers (I immediately thought of Eleven, the mysterious girl at the center of the Netflix show Stranger Things, whose backstory was later fleshed out in Season 2). But when such stories break through, they tend to be memorable—perhaps because they often defy a common American understanding about the importance of a hands-on approach to child-rearing.

The author Sara Zaske delves into some of the general differences in German and U.S. parenting culture in her new book, Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children. “[Germany’s] anti-authoritarian movement in 1968 challenged the old ways of doing things, including how children were raised,” Zaske wrote for The Wall Street Journal. “Some educators even set up kindergartens with no rules at all. That extreme has waned, but today many Germans still largely reject harsh discipline of children.” Momo, which was published in the early years of this ideological shift, may have spoken to the idea that children can develop and thrive without parental influence. And today, 45 years after it first came out, the novel is still being taught in German schools.

But Momo also captivates because of just how open it is to interpretation. Its eerie story can seem to comment on whatever new threat a given generation or culture might be facing. When I first read Momo in German about five years ago, I immediately recognized smartphones and social media as the real-life Men in Grey. After all, these devices promise to save time and bring people closer together, yet often end up doing the opposite. To Zwirner, too, it felt instantly obvious that “the book is about the way finance and technology begin to take time away from the things people enjoy.” Still others have analyzed Momo as a critique of consumerism and capitalism.

David Loy, a scholar of Buddhist philosophy, who included Momo in his 2004 book The Dharma of Dragons and Daemons: Buddhist Themes in Modern Fantasy, had yet another interpretation. “We’re constantly missing the true nature of time … because we are always utilizing the present moment as a way to get something in the future,” Loy told me. To him, the calm Momo—who sits quietly while others bicker over trivialities or rush through their work robotically—is the embodiment of a mature Buddhist practitioner. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Ende nurtured a life-long fascination with Japan, where Buddhism is a major religion (and where his books were bestsellers). Ende found early inspiration in Japanese fairytales and legends, as well as in Zen Buddhism, so it’s quite easy to pick out such religious resonances in his writing. (Meanwhile, A Wrinkle in Time, like much of L’Engle’s work, notably features many Christian themes.)

Loy also identified one of Momo’s greatest strengths: how it depicts time in tangible and perishable form. Toward the end of the book, Master Hora, Momo’s mentor (whom readers will recognize as Father Time), brings her to a domed hall where a pendulum swings over a lake, coaxing a unique flower out of the water each time it swings one way, then causing it to wilt, decay, and die as it swings back. This beautiful scene, Master Hora tells Momo, takes place “in the depths of your own heart.”

It is these flowers—specific to each person, their very lifeblood—that the Men in Grey are stealing, freeze-drying, and rolling into cigars to smoke. Master Hora describes the loss of the flowers as a kind of disease: “You feel more and more bad-tempered, more and more empty inside, more and more dissatisfied with yourself and the world in general.” Anyone paying attention to recent articles about what smartphones are doing to the human brain will recognize this feeling of despair. Anyone extolled for keeping busy at all costs in the gig economy will see it, too. In the end, those flowers—called the “hour-lilies”—are all people have of value, Momo suggests. And at the end of the story, the protagonist herself must defeat the Men in Grey using only one of these lilies, which represents a single hour of time that cannot be stolen.

The stakes are similarly high in A Wrinkle in Time, as Meg and her brother must ask themselves whether it’s better to live in a world like the one they encounter on the faraway planet of Camazotz—where everyone is the same but no one feels joy or pain—or to take their own world as they find it, imperfect as it is. In doing so, the children in both books undergo a rite of passage that will ring true for many grown-up readers, realizing that to welcome the pleasure of everyday life is to accept the pain that comes with it.

Perhaps that is both Ende’s and L’Engle’s greatest gift to their readers: an assurance that to grow from children to adults is to embrace the beautiful unpredictability of existence. As Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time brings the story of Meg Murry to a new generation of readers and moviegoers (as well as to an older set of nostalgic book lovers), fans of L’Engle’s novel might consider picking up Ende’s classic. Whether wrinkled, tessered, or born in the shape of a single precious flower, time will never look the same to them again.