The Little Water Sprite by Otfried Preussler illustrated by Winnie Gebhardt-Gayler translated from the German by Anthea Bell The New York Review Children's Collection 136 pp
Around Halloween time, my four-year-old son Calvin reviewed Otfried Preussler’s The Little Witch with my wife and me (see here). Well, he’s back! And he’s quickly becoming an expert on the work of German children’s book author Otfried Preussler. While I don’t know if he’s quite old enough for Krabat and the Sorcerer’s Mill, the other Preussler book published by The New York Review Children’s Collection (it’s original title was Satan’s Mill, and, though it looks excellent, just might be a bit frightening), but we are all very excited for the forthcoming edition of The Robber Hotzenplotz, coming in May!
Before I let Calvin take over, I’d like to offer a few words of recommendation for The Little Water Sprite. Like The Little Witch, the book is composed of vignettes that build together to form a fantastical world. Unlike The Little Witch, there is no particular goal setting the narrative in motion. Rather, we are simply watching this child, who happens to be a water sprite, grow up and encounter the world around him. Like most children, the little water sprite finds the fantastic in the most mundane. Meanwhile, the things that might feel fantastic to outsiders, like us, to him feel quite normal.
It’s a lovely story, always fun to see what trouble the little water sprite causes that we land-folk have to deal with. But what I appreciated most was that the little water sprite had two loving parents who also enjoyed watching him learn about the mill pond and the world on dry land. Their wonder — and my wonder — is this child’s curiosity, which makes the world feel that much more beautiful and wondrous, even the quotidian details.
One of my favorite passages comes toward the end of the book. The little water sprite has done something good, and as a reward his father lets him stay up that night, go up on land, and listen to his father play the harp, something the father does often. The moon comes out, and the little water sprite is absolutely amazed and tries to catch it. He is doubly amazed when he sees it in the very water of the mill pond, jumping in to get it, “[b]efore his father could object to this plan (though perhaps he didn’t mean to)”:
He spread his hands out as he dived, to catch the moon sparkling there in the water.
But what had happened?
As his fingertips touched the shining water, the moon dissolved into circles of silver ripples.
“Caught her?” asked Father Water Sprite, when the boy came up again, puffing and blowing.
However, he didn’t wait for an answer. He saw that the boy was swimming in the liquid silver himself, and when he shook his head silver drops flew out of his hair.
What a beautiful picture of a parent amazed at this miraculous child.
So Calvin, we just finished reading The Little Water Sprite. Did you like that book?
Can you tell me what it was about?
Kids. And the little water sprite.
Where did the little water sprite live?
In the water.
Did you see his house?
Yeah. There were fish swimming around his house.
What kinds of things happen to a guy who lives under water? Is it the same as you or different?
Different. He can swim under water without plugging my nose or closing my eyes or wearing goggles. I wanna . . . I wanna be a water sprite.
What if a fisherman catches you?
Water sprites do not get caught!
Yeah, because they’re fast!
Do you remember why he’s so fast?
Because, um, you tell me why.
Did he have webbed fingers and feet?
Was he a good water sprite or was he a naughty water sprite?
He opened the gate, but he’s a good one. But his dad got mad and he said, “Did you open that gate?”
And what did the water sprite say?
Did he get in big trouble for that?
Does he ever meet any people?
He meets three kids.
Were they his friends?
Did they give him anything special?
Yeah. Matches. But they didn’t work under water because the water blows them up.
Do you remember when he saw the moon? Did he catch it?
No, he couldn’t. He thought the moon was under water, but he tries to touch the moon and hold it in his hand in the water, but he didn’t.
What kind of book is it? Happy, sad, mean, goofy?
Goofy. There’s a part where the man with the bread is trying to catch him, but he ran so fast that he even pulled him in the water!
What was your favorite part of the book?
Um, when he hit his nose on the ice.
Did he know there was ice up there?
What did he think it was?
Did you like the little water sprite’s dream after he met the scary fish?
It was a nightmare, huh. Have you every had a bad dream?
Yeah. Um, it’s one about a potato head that has a witch hat. And it grabs people and it puts them in a brown-silver bag and puts a string on and so they can’t get out a lot.
Did the potato head put you in the bag?
Where were you?
I was just in a dream.
Do you ever wake up scared at night?
Yeah. One time I was scared in my bed because ghosts could come, so I closed my eyes and got under my blanket totally.
Do you think other people should read this book?
A simple recommendation for this one!