Some of the most well-known English children’s stories were originally German, particularly the ones collected by the Brothers Grimm. They didn’t write them, but toured the area between Kassel and Bremen listening to the stories the local people told, and published them in several books. You can even follow in their footsteps on the Fairy Tale Road, Märchenstraße, a tourist route in Western Germany.
However, the Brothers Grimm are not the only ones who published books of bedtime stories in German. There are also the infamously disturbing stories in Heinrich Hoffmann’s Der Struwwelpeter (Shockheaded Peter), though those are best kept to the daytime! Read on for a list of German bedtime stories to practice your language skills.
1. Hans im Glück, Lucky Hans
2. Von der Prinzessin unter der Erde, The Princess Hidden Under the Earth
3. Schneewittchen, Snow White
4. Die Geschichte vom Daumenlutscher, The Story of the Thumb-Sucker
5. Frau Holle, Mother Holle
6. Die gar traurige Geschichte mit dem Feuerzeug, The Very Sad Story with the Matches
7. Vom dem Fischer und seiner Frau, The Fisherman and his Wife
8. Der Krautesel, The Donkey Cabbages
1. Hans im Glück – Lucky Hans
This tale collected by the Grimm Brothers follows young Hans as he leaves his employer to go home and visit his mother after seven years away. His employer pays him with a large lump of gold, and Hans trades it for a horse, and then the horse for a cow, and so on, until he ends up with a whetstone and a field stone. He is thrilled with each trade, feeling as if great luck has blessed him. When he stops for a drink he drops the stones into the well, but is again very pleased as he was tired of carrying these heavy stones. Hans’ unbridled optimism is refreshing.
2. Von der Prinzessin unter der Erde – The Princess Hidden Under the Earth
In this traditional story, a king decides to set a nearly impossible task for any suitors who wish to marry his daughter. After building a castle underground, he locks his daughter inside, and insists any successful suitor must find her if he wants to marry her. A clever young man convinces a shepherd to sew him into a fleece so the king will bring him to his daughter to play with. Once this improbable plan succeeds, he learns the tricks the king uses to keep the hopeful young men from winning his daughter’s hand in marriage. The princess helps as well, and together they succeed and live happily ever after.
3. Schneewittchen – Snow White
The famous English fairy tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs comes from one of the Grimm Brothers’ collections, and in the original German story is called Schneewittchen. In the original, the evil stepmother tries to suffocate Snow White with a new ribbon for her stays, kill her with a poison comb, and finally by giving her the poisoned apple. The Bavarian town of Lohr in the Spessart forest claims the Snow White tale originated there, and their local castle certainly looks the part.
4. Die Geschichte vom Daumenlutscher – The Story of the Thumb-Sucker
Less well-known in English, Heinrich Hoffmann’s Der Struwwelpeter (Shockheaded Peter) is a famous German children’s book of ten stories about the consequences of misbehaving published in 1845. One of the most memorable ones is Die Geschichte vom Daumenlutscher, The Story of the Thumb-Sucker. Poor little Konrad keeps sucking his thumb and his mother wants him to stop. When she goes out to do some errands she tells him not to suck his thumb or a tailor will come and snip them off. Of course as she leaves, he sticks his thumb in his mouth, and sure enough a tailor comes through the door and cuts off his thumbs.
5. Frau Holle – Mother Holle
Frau Holle is a classic morality tale of two sisters and their widowed mother, collected by the Brothers Grimm. One sister was lazy, and the other was responsible, and of course the lazy one was her mother’s favorite. The hard-working sister was only the widow’s step-daughter, so she was treated like a servant. One day the hard-working sister jumped into a well on her stepmother’s orders, and found herself in another land. She met Mother Holle, and did all the tasks set by her. The step-daughter was rewarded with a shower of gold when she returned home, so the widow sent her lazy daughter. She did not do the work and came home covered in pitch that never came off for the rest of her life.
6. Die gar traurige Geschichte mit dem Feuerzeug – The Very Sad Story with the Matches
Another story from Hoffmann’s Der Struwwelpeter, this one is short but terrifying. In rhyming verse, The Very Sad Story with the Matches tells the tale of Paulinchen, who lit her mother’s matches when her parents were out and danced around the room with the flame. Her cats Minz and Maunz try to tell her she’s not allowed to play with matches but she ignores them. The flame sets fire to her hair, apron and dress, and she burns up, leaving only her shoes behind for her parents to find.
7. Vom dem Fischer und seiner Frau, – The Fisherman and his Wife
Vom dem Fischer und seiner Frau, (The Fisherman and his Wife), is a story that appears in many languages with slightly different characters, but the lesson about greed and dissatisfaction remains the same. In this German version, a fisherman and his wife live in a hovel by the sea. One day he catches a giant flounder, but it speaks to him and says he is an enchanted prince and should let him go. The fisherman does so, but when he tells his wife about it, she scolds him for not asking for something in return. Every few days she asks her husband to return to the ocean and ask the flounder for a more and more exalted status and impressive homes, but when she finally asks to become God, the flounder puts her back in the hovel she started in.
8. Der Krautesel – The Donkey Cabbages
In this story, a huntsman is rewarded by an old crone with a bird’s heart that gives him gold every morning and a wishing-cloak that will take him wherever he wishes. He has the bad luck to run into an evil witch and her beautiful daughter that live in a castle, and trick him to get the cloak and the bird’s heart. The huntsman encounters a garden full of cabbages, and finds that some turn you into a donkey and some return you to human form. He goes to the castle, and turns the evil witch and her daughter into donkeys, and gives them to a miller, instructing them to beat the donkey that is an evil witch and barely feed it, until it is dead. He eventually turns the young witch back into a woman, and marries her.
Looking for more German children’s books for beginners?
Reading children’s books in German is a great way to get some language practice in, as well as learn more about German culture. Try concentrating on one aspect of the language, like learning all the articles (der, die, das) in the story, or picking out all the words you don’t know and writing them out. Much like English fairy tales, German children’s stories can involve a lot of archaic words and phrases. But you never know when you might need to talk about cabbages that turn you into a donkey!
Erin McGann is a Canadian freelance writer focusing on travel, living abroad, parenting, history, and culture. After nearly a decade living in the UK, Erin settled in Heidelberg, Germany with her husband and son. Dragging her family to every castle and open-air museum is a favorite activity, along with sewing, cooking, and weaving. You can check out her travel blog, and follow her obsession with half-timbered houses on her Instagram account.