Stories Without Words: Rotraut Susanne Berner’s Wimmel Books

Rotraut Susanne Berner; © Rotraut Susanne BernerRotraut Susanne Berner; © Rotraut Susanne BernerRotraut Susanne Berner is one of the best-known German illustrators and book designers. Her unique “Wimmel” books enchant children of various ages – and throughout the world.

“Oh, no, not again”, adults sometimes think when their children come to them with always the same books that they want to look at again and again. Not so with Rotraut Susanne Berner’s “Wimmel” books. Both big and small can’t get enough of her pictures. For Berner’s Wimmel world is full of questions, full of parallel storylines – and full of nonsense.

Room for one’s own ideas

A Wimmel book by Rotraut Susanne Berner; © Gerstenberg Verlag/Rotraut Susanne BernerEach of Berner’s Wimmel books shows seven running scenes in a city. Innumerable human characters, animals and objects can be followed from double-page to double-page: they tell their own stories wordlessly. For example, there is Susanne, who is always losing her hats; a ticket machine that simply refuses to work properly; and an escaped parrot enjoying his freedom. By now there are five volumes – one for each season, and one for the evening.

Each volume repeatedly invites the viewer to seek his way through the story world – through stories that are also spun out in other books. “There’s a lot that you know and understand, a lot you can find out, and a lot you can’t at all” – so Berner’s describes her “thinking game books”. Quite as in real life: “The world is complex; you can’t decipher everything”. And so there remains a good deal of room for one’s own ideas. Perhaps that is the secret of the Wimmel books’ success.

Weightless storytelling

Season’s series by Rotraut Susanne Berner; © Gerstenberg Verlag/Rotraut Susanne BernerRotraut Susanne Berner was born in 1948 in Stuttgart and studied graphic design. Since 1977 she has worked as a freelance book artist. Today she is one of the most successful illustrators in Germany. Berner has illustrated over eighty books for children and young people, some of which she has herself also written – and designed approximately 800 book covers. In 2006 she was awarded the German Youth Literature Prize for her complete works. “Her ideas keep the world in motion”, wrote the jury in their statement, “because her drawings miraculously do without gravity”.

Berner’s Wimmel books have now reached a total worldwide circulation of nearly 500,000 copies. They have appeared in fifteen countries. That one of these is the United States is a small sensation. German publishers only very seldom succeed in selling copyrights in the Anglo-American book market.

For Berner, however, the first interest in publishing her books in America was more a vexation than an honour. “With pre-emptive obedience, I was supposed to alter possibly objectionable pictures”, she relates. The American publisher wanted the bones of contention – a barely visible penis on a sculpture, a female nude, and a few cigarettes and pipes – to be airbrushed away. “I couldn’t accept that a publisher chickens out and amicably tries to persuade me to censor myself”. The books were published by another American publisher.


Rotraut Susanne Berner at a book signing; © Rainer GrieseBerner does not avoid confrontations. For example, she has fought for just pay for illustrators. Her colleague Wolf Erlbruch therefore once called her “a Florence Nightingale for questions of ancillary rights and fees”.

In addition, she is indefatigable in her efforts to foster a competent criticism of illustrated books. “It irks me that everything that has to do with pictures is lumped together with childhood”, she said in an interview with the Frankfurter Rundschau in March 2008. “The picture is a symbol for the little savage, the child that can’t yet read. And so that it surmounts this state as soon as possible, the reading of pictures is not only not cultivated but also even driven out of children. It is drummed into their heads that the text is the be-all and end-all. Interestingly, almost no critic slams into illustrated books – because such books are simply not taken seriously. They are simply not regarded as important.”

For Berner, in any case, children are better picture readers than are adults. “My theory is that many adults, and particularly educationalists, secretly harbour huge prejudices against the world of pictures. The fact that the picture precedes reading and that children can read an illustrated book on their own arouses a deep mistrust.”

Forever spinning stories

A Wimmel book by Ali Migutsch; © Ravensburger VerlagIn comparison with the exuberant Wimmel books of the Munich graphic artist Ali Mitgutsch, who is regarded as the inventor of the genre, Berner’s large format views of fictional Wimmlingen give the impression of being downright tidy and neat.

Her picture novels become exuberant only in the imagination of the viewer – and when it is a question of interpreting the nonsense. Why is the nun carrying a penguin round with her? Why does the man in the museum picture have a pot on his head? And how does the raven know for whom the love letter fluttering about in the wind is intended?

The creator of Wimmlingen says that, for her, “nothing is worse than always doing the same thing”. Thanks to her books, however, her small and big fans can do that for hours on end – again and again.

Dagmar Giersberg
works as a freelance journalist, based in Bonn.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
August 2009

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