Book Review: Why We Took The Car, an international hit

Continuing our celebration on International Young Adult Lit Month, Eva Kwatek introduces a German novel that has taken the international world by storm…

By Eva Kwatek

Two teenage boys, one stolen car, and a mad plan to drive through eastern Germany in the school holidays – what could go wrong? A story of the journey of forming unconventional friendships and seizing life on the ultimate summer road trip, Wolfgang Herrndorf’s best-selling novel and winner of the German Children’s Literature Award, Why We Took The Car is the summer holiday read to plunge yourself into translated German YA literature.

In this popular German novel, we join 14-year-old Mike and his classmate Tschick as they embark on an epic (and very illegal) summer road trip across eastern Germany in a stolen Lada car. Mike is an outcast that never gets invited to parties and doesn’t really have any friends. Tschick is a Russian immigrant boy from a troubled background who often turns up to school drunk and is the foreign outsider in a German high school. However, when Tschick joins Mike’s class the two boys form an unlikely friendship.

The first few pages of the novel start off with Mike lying in a hospital bed, being questioned by the police and doctors as to exactly why they took the car and where they were going. To answer these questions, Mike back tracks to the start of the road trip, the beginning of the summer holidays, when neither of the two boys are invited to Tatjana Cosic’s birthday party, who is Mike’s love interest.

Tschick turns up at Mike’s house in an old beat-up Lada, that he stole, and invites Mike on a road trip. The main aims of the road trip: one, to see Tatjana and give her the drawing of Beyoncé that Mike worked so hard on for her birthday present; and two, to get to Wallachia to see Tschick’s grandfather.

In this YA fiction novel, Herrndorf juxtaposes characters from two different worlds, one boy from a middle-class German family and another from an underprivileged background who is constantly in trouble with the authorities, revealing a class comparison and light critique on the German education system through the eyes of a 14-year-old boy. By implementing a foreign character into the story Herrndorf also highlights the struggles of immigrant children through cultural and linguistic barriers, such as seen through the confusion of where the boys are headed to on this road trip. Mike accepts the invitation without actually knowing where Tschick wants to go, since according to Mike, Wallachia is a made-up place (the German language placeholder name for faraway places), but to Tschick it is a real place in Romania where his grandfather resides. The two boys have a heated argument about where they are going, as neither is aware of what this one word/reference means to one another.

The characters in this novel resemble those found in popular American YA fiction by authors like John Green, except in place of American pop culture and the long open roads of the US interstate highways, these teens are driving across the post-communist landscape of eastern Germany and experiencing youth culture the German, or even European, way. The themes found in this novel are those commonly found in YA novels, such as love and relationships, sexuality, feeling like an outcast, and family issues, but with an extra added level of the characters dealing with racism and trying to find oneself in a foreign country as a marginalised migrant child. These factors make this the perfect accessible foreign literature novel for teens to have exposure to German culture through modern day youth culture that they can relate to.

The novel was translated by American translator Tim Mohr and was published in 2014 by Scholastic in the USA, and later by Andersen Press in the UK. The original German language novel is titled Tschick and was published by Rowohlt Verlag in 2010. The novel was such a hit in Germany that within a year of its publication it was adapted for theatre productions and became the most popular theatre adaption for young people across Germany, and in 2016 the novel was adapted into a screenplay under the title Goodbye Berlin (Tschick in German) by multi-award-winning German director Fatih Akin.

Despite having only written four novels before sadly passing away in 2013, Wolfgang Herrndorf is celebrated as one of the best contemporary German YA authors, so his works are well worth exploring if you are studying German or just want to have an insight into German youth culture.

Eva Kwatek

Recently graduated from Cardiff University with Master’s degree (Distinction) in Translation Studies and a First Class (Hons) degree in BA German, Eva is emerging onto the translation scene as a freelance German and Polish into English translator. Eva is passionate about spreading awareness of foreign literature in translation and raising awareness of cultures and languages across the globe.