Category: Children's Books

Will Gmehling
Freibad. Ein ganzer Sommer unter dem Himmel
[The lido. A whole summer in the sunshine]

Children's Novel

A summer just like summers used to be

If we find God turning up as a tramp or a yeti appearing in Berlin, then we’re very probably in the literary cosmos of Will Gmehling. He has the special gift of being able to insert the fantastical so convincingly into the midst of everyday reality that it never occurs to us as readers that there is anything out-of-place.
But his new children’s novel ‘Freibad. Ein ganzer Sommer unter dem Himmel’ (The lido. A whole summer in the sunshine) is quite different, telling a story almost obsessive in its realism. The Bukovski children Alf, Katinka and Robbie save a toddler from drowning, become famous for a few days, and by way of a reward are given a free pass to the local open-air swimming pool. As their parents can’t afford to take them away on holiday, the three of them go there every afternoon from May to September - whether sun or storm, heat or rain. While their classmates fly off to Mallorca or Greece, they spend a very special summer at the lido!
It is special for a variety of reasons. For one thing: by the end of the summer Alf (10), Katinka (8) and Robbie (7) all succeed - thanks to their months of practice - in achieving their respective goals: Alf jumps from the 10-metre diving board, Katinka does her 1000-metre crawl, and little Robbie, who appears to be a touch autistic, learns proper swimming. But at the same time, all three notch up a stack of other experiences as well: Alf falls in love with the pool attendant’s beautiful daughter in her mostly dazzling-white outfits, and ends up being graciously tolerated; Katinka learns French and chats away to three young African boys; and Robbie speaks more and more often in complete sentences.
A summer holiday spent in a local swimming pool doesn’t exactly sound like the stuff of a thrilling tale. But within the very first sentences we already find ourselves thrust in medias res. With his all-observing eye, and in crisp, clear sentences, Alf, the 10-year-old narrator, introduces us to his somewhat chaotic but loving family. He depicts each individual member of the family - including himself - with just a few telling strokes of the pen, such that all stand plainly before us: there’s Alf, reserved and somewhat anxious; his feisty, smart, annoying sister; their strange but highly sensitive little brother; and finally their parents, who trust their children and quite deliberately allow them plenty of freedom.
Will Gmehling tells the story of a children’s summer holiday both free of any serious problems and conflicts, and seemingly set to last for ever. The emotional high points are a sibling spat, butterflies in the stomach, and getting banned from the pool. It is a summer of the sort that children nowadays rarely experience, since sport and music commitments, activity programmes and going away on holiday automatically rule out any straightforward daily routine with its inherent repetitiousness and bouts of boredom. In Gmehling’s story a summer ambience is very quickly conjured up: we can positively see, hear and feel the splashes and the spray in the children’s pool, the rings of reflected light on the surface of the water, the multifarious bustle, the heat, the exhaustion come evening time.
Linguistically, too, Will Gmehling opts for understatement throughout this elegant little children’s book, thus imparting a benignly relaxing air to a story that is unspectacular but also, by virtue of that very fact, distinctly touching. By addressing his readers in direct, straightforward terms, as though they were stretched out next to him on his poolside blanket, Alf brings them right into the heart of the action. And that certainly gets them into the right sort of mood!
‘Freibad’ is a summertime story for boys and girls that can be read anywhere - in Mallorca or Greece, at home or at the swimming pool. Without ever making a big deal of it, the book shows us what really matters: trust, fun, siblings’ love for one another. We immediately long to enjoy further adventures of the Bukovski children! As the closing sentences tell us: ‘ So much has happened - and will go on happening. Thank goodness.’ And thank goodness that there are children’s books like this - thoroughly unshowy books that tell of the happiness of a stay-at-home summer!
Sylvia Schwab

By Sylvia Schwab, 24.09.2019

​Sylvia Schwab is a radio journalist with a special interest in literature for children and teenagers. She serves on the jury for the monthly ‘Best 7’ list of books for young readers produced under the aegis of Deutschlandfunk and Focus, and works for Hessischer Rundfunk, Deutschlandfunk and Deutschlandradio-Kultur.

Translated by John Reddick