All Around Bustletown: Winter, Spring, Summer & Fall by Rotraut Susanne Berner
All Around Bustletown
by Rotraut Susanne Berner
Review Copies from Prestel
In December of 2019, I read a review of Berner's Winter, the first in Berner's quartet of oversized board books to be reissued. The reviewer called them "ideal candidates for splurge-worthy books," and I couldn't agree more. With a trim size of 10 x 13 inches and a gentle palette there is a lot to love. Michael Erard's 2018 opinion piece in the New York Times, "What Adults Can Learn from Dutch Children's Books," shed some light on Berner's books. Erard's brief, fascinating examination of a genre of kid's books I have long loved (one that started with Richard Scarry and his cross-sections of life that seemed so European to me as a child) ponders the Dutch "zoekboek" (search book) and German "wimmelbuch" (teeming book) both of which give readers a cross-section-dollhouse view of the world across each two page spread. What Berner brings to her mesmerizing quartet of seasonal books, besides stellar senses of design and humor, is community. While her books are wordless, narratives emerge, especially after repeated readings. Sharp eyes will notice recurring characters on every page, with stories evolving over the course of page turns. The back cover of each book also introduces a handful of characters, their names and their quirks.
I definitely recommend purchasing all four seasons of Bustletown, as the stories of the characters introduced in Winter unfold over the course of the four books. Also, each book follows the same path, starting with a house in the country, moving on to the outskirts of a village (with a cityscape seen in the distance) then on to a train depot, a city block where the corner lot is under construction in winter, a street of shops, inside the department store, ending at the park. On the cover of each book, in the lower left corner, is a character with a brown bob haircut. They are always wearing green and, for winter through fall, they have on a red scarf with white polkadots on it. In spring they are holding a red ball with white polkadots, and it is this ball that takes a journey across the pages of the book. I haven't been able to find this character inside the pages of Bustletown, but maybe keener eyes than mine can find them!
The books (Winter was first published in 2003) are not as diverse as they would have been had Berner created them today. There are characters of color here and there, and you do have to look for them. There are characters in headscarfs, characters in wheelchairs and characters who are homeless as well as a woman breastfeeding. Bustletown is also bustling with flora and fauna. Bonnie the cat has a journey of her own across the seasons, as does a fox who, at one point and in a nod to Aesop, can be seen looking up at a crow holding a slice of cheese in its beak. A trio of nuns appears at one point, and they develop an affinity for a penguin - I could go on and on!
Books like Bustletown - wimmelbooks and zoekboeks - are rare in America and I wonder why? I have reviewed a handful in the past decade and most of them are by European author/illustrators. The fact that there are so few (quality) books like this makes them even more special!