- Rotraut Susanne Berner:Telling Stories with a Drawing Pencil. Hans Christian Andersen Award Winner 2016
For over forty years Rotraut Susanne Berner has been active as an illustrator and book designer, publishing over eighty books and designing nearly eight hundred book covers. With her pictures, she has enriched and expanded on the ideas of a wide range of different authors—such as Vita Andersen, Italo Calvino, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Luigi Malerba, Gudrun Mebs, Bart Moeyaert, Fritz Mühlenweg, Jürg Schubiger, or Toon Tellegen—but also illustrated books with her own texts. Ranging from cardboard picture books to comic fairy tales, song books, anthologies of poetry, and even some well-known classics, the breadth of style and form to be found in Berner’s works is enormous and her precise craftsmanship highly impressive.
Born in Stuttgart in 1948, Rotraut Susanne Berner grew up in a book-loving household with a publisher as father. There was only one taboo: comics, which in those days were considered smut and trash. Remembering her childhood, she says,
I was richly endowed in my childhood and draw upon it even today. I grew up in the country and the natural surroundings gave me many opportunities to be on my own and to be free. Today’s children often have a harder time. Though they have more material comforts, their life is often so densely scheduled that there is little opportunity to develop freely on their own.(Scholz)
After graduating from an academic high-school, Berner began work as an assistant at the University of Stuttgart in the departments for photography and architecture before moving to Munich to study journalism and theater history. However, [End Page 10] she ultimately changed track and graduated from a polytechnic university with a degree in graphic design. After gathering some experience in the advertising departments of a variety of publishing houses until 1977, Berner then became a free-lance graphic artist and illustrator, dedicating herself entirely to book promotion. And what better way to advertise a book than through its cover? In the course of producing tailor-made “jackets” for several hundred books, Berner set new standards for the quality of book design. And, of course, she read each and every book that she worked on in order to do it justice. Depending on the type and character of a work, she often experimented with quite different techniques, from pastel chalk all the way to collage. For this particular dedication, her work was honored with the prestigious Celestino Piatti Prize for Book Design already at the beginning of her career. More and more assignments followed. In the beginning, she illustrated everything that came her way, from books on gardening to cookbooks, but quite soon it became clear that her focus would be on children’s and young adult books. And she began to develop what the publisher Hans-Joachim Gelberg has called her very own Berner Style.
The Creator of Wimmlingen
In her cardboard wimmelbooks devoted to the four seasons and to the night, Rotraut Susanne Berner has created her own picture-book universe, a tutorial in picture reading. With the village of Wimmlingen (Scurryville in English-language editions), she has taken the idea of the wimmelbook, which was first developed in the 1960s by Ali Mitgutsch, a step further by adding new dimensions. Each double-sided spread offers endless details, people, and animals just waiting to be discovered. The great attraction is in the interrelationships between the images and the books, which thus become a serialized tale through the repetition of people and places. Berner is a close observer of detail and has maintained a special eye for the child’s realm of experience and the many facets of people’s intertwined lives. With a cheerful twinkle in her eye, she lets these scenes glow in happy tones. In the meantime, Wimmlingen has jumped right out of the picture book and into calendars, cookbooks, and stories of individual characters and—at the request of booksellers—even materialized in various merchandising articles.
Due to the ease with which the quaint world at Wimmlingen presents itself, it might not be evident just how precisely and attentively its creator...