The Little Water-Sprite and I first met when I was about 9 years old. I was visiting my family from my father’s side who are living in the Moselle region in close proximity to the three-country border between Germany, Luxembourg and France. My father’s mother was one of five children. She died at a young age when my father wasn’t much older than 18. The contact to his relatives remained close, though, despite the geographical distance. One of my father’s aunts, my great-aunt Martha was living together with her husband and her two children, a boy and a girl. My great-uncle Matthias gave me a little fright each time I saw him because he was a police officer and he reminded me vaguely of a scary mixture of the Robber Hotzenplotz and Sergeant Dimplemoser in The Robber Hotzenplotz, funnily enough also written by Otfried Preußler.
My cousins were older than me and their cast-off books were stored in the attic of my aunt’s and uncle’s house. Each time I was there for a visit, I was allowed to go upstairs and pick as many books as I wanted to read. You can imagine … children’s paradise for me!
One of these treasures was The Little Water-Sprite and there were also two more books by Otfried Preußler The Little Witch and The Little Ghost. The author’s notion of successful children’s literature obviously involved the concept of littleness in the title of his books. 😉
One day when the Water-sprite came home, his wife told him, „You must be very quiet today. We have a baby boy.“
„You don’t say!“ cried the Water-sprite joyfully.
(The Little Water-Sprite, 5)
The Little Water-Sprite (first published in 1956) tells the story of a young Water-sprite boy growing up in his family. Mother and Father Water-sprite are very proud of their son and they invite their entire family to celebrate his birth. The family arrives from all corners, twelve water-sprites with their wifes, a little elf-woman from under St. John’s Bridge and one well-sprite from the well behind the fire station. They enjoy an exuberant celebration of the happy event and the little Water-sprite is much admired.
The baby soon grows out of his cradle, a little too soon for his mother’s taste. From that point on, like all children, he curiously discovers his environment. He dearly loves swimming and roving through the mill-pond, first accompanied by his father, later he is allowed to explore his world by himself. Typically for a young and adventurous boy, he gets up to a lot of nonsense and puts his parents and his friend, the carp Cyprinus in distress now and then.
Remarkable for the period of its publication is the decidedly casual and relaxed view about child development in the book. The little boy is allowed to try out a lot of things by himself and is free to gather experience of his own. Only if he gets too wild or risks too much, he undergoes punishment like being grounded (worst case scenario for all kids I guess, at least it was for me). Thinking about it, this rather liberal notion of raising children back then isn’t so surprising after all. When I was a kid on the one hand my bringing up was probably much stricter than that of children today, but on the other hand in regard to personal freedom I was rather free to play outside after school (and homework!) with my friends for hours and hours and my parents did not always know where we were all of the time. This, I guess, is quite different today. When I talk to friends who are parents and they tell me about their kids‘ free time, their day often is thoroughly structured with a lot of tightly synchronised engagements. Plus, it doesn’t seem to be the normal thing anymore to meet your friends outside by kind of chance but instead you have predetermined appointments – even when the kids are still very young. So in a way the educational process today is much more supervised than it was in my childhood.
Beside the story of The Little Water-Sprite that brought back some precious memories of my childhood to me, the illustrations in the book are very sweet. At first appearance they might appear unspectacular being so spare with only a few strokes in black and white but it’s exactly this, that makes them so remarkable. Illustrator Winnie Gebhardt-Gayler sets the story in a beautiful scenic frame with only such few means. No wonder he was rewarded in 1957 with a special prize of the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis (German Youth Literature Prize) for his art.
If you like, you can check out the author’s homepage for more information on his books. An English version of it is available, too, if you click on the flag at the bottom of the page. Unfortunately I didn’t find a website of Winnie Gayler-Gebhardt where I hoped to get more glimpses of his wonderful illustrations but if you search for the artist’s name in a search engine you can find a selection of his drawings to give you an idea.
Der kleine Wassermann von Otfried Preußler (Thienemann, 1956)
The Little Water-Sprite by Otfried Preußler (Thienemann, 1956)