In December of 2016, the writer Christine Weissenborn together with her sister-in-law, the illustrator Sarah Neuendorf, published the delightful children’s book ‚Greta’s sister‘. It is about friendship, freedom and a sense of adventure as well as courage, wanderlust, reunion and the colourful happiness that is family. Exclusively for THE DORF THE MAG the two of them have placed Greta, the whale and Anuk, the island girl in Düsseldorf and tell the story of why Greta is swimming in the Rhine. And what carnival has to do with the South Sea.
How did you come up with idea to write a children’s book? This has really happened by chance. We wanted to work together for ages, since we both have the greatest admiration for each other’s work. That’s why we started our joint blog Gretasfreunde.de last summer. Because we felt like trying something entirely new with this platform, we started to tell the story about Greta’s sister in digital bits. The feedback to it was so good that it became quickly apparent: this is turning into a book.
In addition, a serial story only has its limits as a blog. Since the number of readers should ideally increase proportionally with each chapter, each new visitor to the blog would have to scroll back dozens of units at some point, in order to get the full picture. Nobody does that of course.
What is the main message you would like to get across with your story? We want to show children that nothing is more amazing than to discover the world. That we will grow big and strong if we dare to pack up and go to experience adventures, to deal with unplanned situations, to deal with a different environment and foreign things, to accept homesickness. Especially with the current political shift in many countries that brings us borders and isolation, we want to show the youngest ones that the world is too big and wonderful to break it in fenced pieces.
It was also important to us to tell a story away from the ideal of a nuclear family. Anuk’s mother leaves the family in order to find herself. Very selfish. But also really modern for a children’s book character. Usually it’s the fathers who take off. Or the mothers die. In our version, Anuk finds her mother in the end- but she has a new boyfriend. Father Fast Fish has to deal with it. Broken family. We describe that there still can be a happy ending for all and with everybody, as long as there is one overarching main aim in the patchwork set up: a happy child.
What did you particularly enjoy while making the book? The complete emersion into a world of phantasy. To see how characters progress even if their development was originally planned absolutely differently. The huge enthusiasm of our families and friends for the project. Their never ending patience to discuss each draft and character. The willingness by all children we know to listen to the story again and again.
Düsseldorf: Cure for Homesickness
Why Greta, the whale, swims in the river Rhine. And what carnival has to do with the South Sea.
One morning, the ocean seemed particularly huge to Anuk, the island girl. The water stretched to the horizon and merged with the sky. Once in a while, a flying fish jumped out of the waves and mouthed a hello to her. On top of her tipi sat Uwe, the seagull, and stretched his wings towards the rising sun. Greta, the whale, had a little snooze among the waves. Anuk was used to getting up early. When she was still living in her wigwam at the end of the world, her father Fast Fish made sure the first rays of the sun would tickle her nose. As soon as the sun was peeping through the clouds, he would open her tent at the beach in order to let the sunlight in. With that he gave her a coconut with banana milk and clapped his hands. „Get up, Anuk. The day is young. We are, too. Early morning exercise!“
Then father and daughter would do gymnastics in the sand. They did somersaults, let their arms and legs swing through the air and played ‚Catch the feather‘ until one of them would fall into the sand. On most days they finished their exercise with a big tickling fight. Anuk missed the joy of these mornings. Particularly today. What was Fast Fish doing at this moment? Would he do the exercises in the sun without her? Would monkey king, her best friend, join him? Or chief Roaring Rooster who always kept an eye on his subjects living healthily and well. Anuk sighed. She loved to travel the world with Greta. However, on some days her heart would ache and she felt very home sick. Most of the time Greta managed to cheer her up quickly by singing shanties in Whalish. Uwe, the seagull and roving reporter and by now part of the permanent crew on board, would croak the beat to the song. Sometimes other whales joined in the chorus. At times, it seemed as if the entire ocean would try to comfort her with an underwater concert.
But today the sorrow made her almost feel sick to the tummy, so just a song was not enough. This sadness pinched and pulled at Anuk’s happiness like a grumpy, old pirate. Then, as if she was awakened by girl’s sadness, Greta suddenly started swaying from one side to another, rolling with her fins, her head punching the water and shaking off her sleepiness. “ Anuk, good morning little sister“, she mumbled. Since the two of them, with the help of the monkey king, had beaten off the evil Bob Cash and freed Greta’s godfather Jonas from the throws of the crook, they were like sisters to one another. They figured a family could not be big enough. Especially when travelling. As Anuk noticed particularly on this gloomy morning. She was happy not to be all alone on the big, wide sea but to be bobbing around on Greta’s back, sipping coconut milk. She trusted that her travel companion would quickly chase away the longing for home with a bunch of adventurous ideas. There simply was no better remedy for homesickness. And as always, Greta did not let Anuk down.
„Anuk, I dreamed of a city by a water wide enough to swim across. There are beaches like in the South Sea as well as delicious doughnuts, round like a football and filled with the sweetest jam. And the best thing is: once a year, all the people of the town come together for a big party. They dress up and jump over tables and benches. Just like home when the people of your tribe perform their famous rain dance. What do you think, should we take a detour and look for this place? After all, travelling is all about adventure and spontaneity. “
Anuk listened as intently as Uwe, the seagull. The spirit of adventure was tickling her already. Uwe, the seagull, scratched his head with the tip of his wing and thought hard. „I think I know what this town is called,“ he said after a while. „Greta, you dreamed of Düsseldorf. This is a place right on the Rhine, a huge river going right through town. It is also a good friend of the ocean. This fabled city has snow-white and silver round houses. There are also many bridges and a tower rising to the sky. But above all, there is the carnival. This is a celebration that is supposed to make the whole world happy. I once wrote an article about the many animals at this carnival. Lions, ladybirds, frogs, bees, whales, birds. They are all friends for a few days. Friends with each other and with the humans. They kiss and hug. They dance and celebrate. It must be a great spectacle. It is very far to get there though. But I think the trip is worth it.“
Anuk could not agree more. The idea was completely crazy. But a bit of fun every now and then definitely did not hurt. And the most beautiful things were always discovered when drifting off course. The island girl had learnt this much on her travels. Just how would they get to this city of fun? Who would be able to point the way for them? „We need monkey king and his flying ship,“ Anuk cried. „He knows all corners of the earth from his trips around the world as a young monkey. “ Said and done. The three friends were buzzing with a sense of excitement. So once again, Anuk called her friend, the monkey king, and his crew for help. She did this by singing a song in Whalish that was passed on underwater in lightning speed by her whale friends.
The monkey king also understood the whale language. In addition, since the rescue of whale godfather Jonas, he had a flying ship sewn from tipi canvas that, when filled with volcanic air, was faster than any airplane. Anuk hoped that her friend would have time to help her and would be as keen on an adventure as she was.
The day passed without further events. The sun had hardly settled behind the horizon when Greta and Anuk and Uwe, the seagull, went to bed. Excited. Full of anticipation. Would the monkey king come? He did. At the crack of dawn, Anuk heard the familiar buzzing in front of her tent. Then a splash. She peeped out of her tipi. A straw hammock was rocking in the water. In it was a heap of sleeping monkeys. The tipi sail attached to the basket was slack in the water. Nobody would have expected it to carry passengers faster than the wind across the sea. The monkey king stood broad-legged like a captain in front of his snoring crew, and as soon as he saw Anuk sleepily emerging from her tipi, he shouted: „Where are we going, island girl? I’m ready for a new adventure! “ Anuk told the monkey king of her plan, the homesickness and the desire to go to this new place on the big river.
„I know Düsseldorf,“ cried the monkey king, after the island girl had finished. „I’ve been there and something crazy happened. You’ll love the story. Get in. I’ll tell you on the way. „Anuk and Uwe, the seagull, got comfortable in the straw basket. The monkeys had woken up as well. The monkey king wrapped a thick rope around Greta’s flanks to pull her up. When everybody had found a seat, the monkey king also got in. He whistled and the wind blew into the balloon straightaway. The volcanic air began to pulsate between the tipi sails. The strange vehicle rose to heaven. It got faster and faster. Soon the sea shone beneath them only as a distant blue surface, and the travelling friends were roaring through the air.
The monkey king had brought fresh pancakes as well as mango jam made by the island chief himself along with the most heartfelt greetings and kisses. Anuk’s father took the opportunity to pass on some advice for the long journey: „Come back home soon,“ was the first. „Remember the early morning exercises,“ was another. „Drink enough hot coconut milk when the nights at sea are frosty,“ was a third. The monkey king forgot the other instructions. After the formalities were exchanged and their stomachs filled, he told his story.
It was about the white whale, Moby Dick, a four meter long Beluga whale that got lost in the Rhine some years ago. It was actually destined to go to an English oceanarium. But on the journey there he went overboard and ended up in Duisburg, a small town next to Düsseldorf. The skippers who sighted him first and told the police about it, were initially declared to be drunk. Yet evidence was mounting. It soon became clear that a whale was indeed swimming in the Rhine. Newspapers all over the world reported about the visitor from far away. Belugas usually live off the coasts of Alaska, Canada and Russia. The spectacle thrilled young and old alike. Unfortunately, Moby Dick also attracted rogues like Bob Cash who wanted to cash in on the fame of the ocean giant.
For example, the zoo director of the Duisburg Zoo tried to catch Moby Dick by any means possible. To no avail. The whale tricked and deceived him with real skill. He always went diving when the villain approached. The zoo director shot his tranquilizer darts into air in vain. Attempts to catch him with tennis nets were also unsuccessful. „At last, Moby Dick was officially spotted to be on his way back to the North Sea,“ the monkey king continued. Since the Rhine was still very dirty at the time, he looked more grey than white by now. Fortunately, he found his way out after about four weeks. There was even a carnival song composed in honor of the famous visitor. The monkey king took a deep breath and began to sing:
„What does the white whale want in the Rhine / He heard in the Rhine is wine instead of water / What does the white whale want? / We know for sure: / The white whale would like to be / blue for once.“
When he finished, the monkeys applauded. But the monkey king asked them to be quiet again. „What hardly anyone knows,“ he continued, „is that Moby Dick did not go back to the cold of the Bering Sea but has settled in the North Sea instead. He liked the climate there better. Fewer sniffels. More sunshine. Warmer dives. No octopuses. I have therefore taken the liberty of sending a message to the white whale inviting him to visit the city of Düsseldorf with us. The Rhine is now so clean that it is suitable for swimming again. And Greta could use a little company by her own species. How do you like that, Greta? „He shouted at the whale dangling underneath the flying ship. Greta shook her flippers wildly as a sign of her approval.
And so it was that the travellers from the South Sea were awaited by a whale welcome committee when they landed. When Greta and Anuk and the monkeys finally landed on the Rhine at sunset, Moby Dick was already splashing in the water. No sooner had the white whale learned of the planned Düsseldorf adventure, he took off to be part of the circus which surely be would caused by his friends‘ arrival. After all, Moby Dick had already some experience with the excitement a whale visit could cause. He also knew a lot about Greta’s and Anuk’s adventures, thanks to seagull Uwe’s articles in various national underwater newspapers like Seaweed News and Wave Express.
He really wanted to meet the two of them. The news of the exotic visitors spread among the people of the town like wild fire. There was another whale sighting in the Rhine. This time, however, it was a Beluga whale AND a Humpback whale. With a tipi on their back and a lot of monkeys in tow. The Rheinische Postille questioned on their homepage whether the whole world had gone mad, „Now we are really letting loose, Cologne go home,“ wrote the Westphalian Nutcracker. The local blog ‚City, Country, Village‘ came closest to the actual truth by simply stating: „Yipeeeh, carnival in the summer.“
Since the population of Düsseldorf never misses an opportunity to party and celebrate life, soon a large number of people had gathered on all the beaches along the Rhine. They made campfires under the starry sky. Music was playing. They danced bare feet in the sand. Wooden tables were laden with treats. There were, of course, the jam-filled doughnuts that Greta had dreamed of. The people from Düsseldorf munched Mutzen, local pastries typically eaten at carnival. The big bakeries of the city had quickly put lots into their ovens and offered them for free this evening. There were delicious lemonades and Altbier, a dark local beer. Anuk tried the black drink by mistake and spat it right in the Rhine again. Not all the new flavors on her travels were to her liking.
But above all, the Düsseldorfers were as cheerful as the island people at home. Anuk’s heart jumped for joy at the sight of the many laughing and happy faces. „Now go on land, island girl,“ Greta gurgled. „Join the hustle and bustle. Let’s celebrate life tonight. “ Anuk did not hesitate. The monkeys did not wait long either. As if they had planned the shore leave for ages, they suddenly grabbed a paddle and rowed to the shore in the straw basket that minutes ago had just flown through the air. Greta and Moby Dick, meanwhile, sent jets of water into the night sky and danced a moonlight waltz in the water. Anuk had never seen such a celebration. She sang and danced, drank and ate with all the strangers who, for one night, were now her friends. The next morning, as the sun was lurking over the edge of the cloud, one Düsseldorfer after another sank into the sand and went to the land of dreams. Greta waved to Anuk and the monkeys from the water. It was time to go back on board.
The monkeys could barely keep their eyes open. The paddles slipped out of their hands all the time. Anuk also hardly noticed how the monkey king got the flying ship ready for the onward journey. Again the wind blew. Again the volcanic air was whirring. The friends watched sleepily how Greta and Moby Dick were spouting some final jets of water, shaped as a heart, into the air (as it is common during carnival, they had come a little closer after dancing a night away together). And by the time the flying ship took off and flew over the white, silvery shimmering, round houses, just past the top of the magnificent tower, Anuk and the monkeys were already fast asleep.
The next day there was a great confusion in Düsseldorf. What happened last night. What had brought on the carnival in summer. Did it all really happen and was it not just a prank by their frenemies from Cologne? Anuk felt the same. When she woke up, the midday sun was already high in the sky. She lay in her tipi on Greta’s back. The whale was swimming toward the horizon. Uwe, the seagull, sat on the top of the tent and cleaned his feathers which were still glittering a bit with confetti. There were no monkeys nor the air ship in sight.
„Was it all just a dream,“ Anuk asked her travel friends, while drinking a cup of coconut milk . „You know, island girl,“ said Greta, “ sometimes on your travels, things can happen that are so incredible that afterwards you cannot say whether they really happened or not. But there is nothing more precious than the lifelong memory of them. You could not weigh it in gold. You’ve become richer tonight, rich in memories, Anuk. And less homesick. You will surely never forget the carnival in Düsseldorf. „Greta is totally right,“ Anuk thought, her toes still twitching in the rhythm of the carnival songs. And she was already looking forward to the next adventure.
was published in December 2016
ISBN: 978-3-00-055086-7, retail price 29,00 €
Idea & Text: Christine Weißenborn
Ideas & Illustrations: Sarah Neuendorf
Christine Weissenborn was born in 1980 in Berlin, studied Languages, Economic and Cultural Studies in Passau and lives with her family in Düsseldorf. She works as a writer, editor and columnist for Handelsblatt, Wirtschaftwoche, Die Zeit and ZDF among others. Longer stays in Paris, NYC and Chile have caused a chronic wanderlust. That’s why she and her family toured several months in a camper van through New Zealand, Australia and once all across the US. Together with her sister-in-law, she writes about the joy of discovering the world on the blog Gretasfreunde.com.
Sarah Neuendorf was born in1989 in Berlin where she lives and works as a freelanced illustrator. She studied Graphic Design and is a connoisseur of cacti. She is searching all over the planet for them but preferably in the Wild West. Furthermore she is fascinated by the wonders of the underwater world, in particular by the environment of whales. In her thesis at the Lette Verein Berlin, she illustrated the scientific novel ‚The Swarm‘ by Frank Schätzing. Her label ‚Gretas Schwester‘ (Greta’s sister) and Greta and Anuk, the main characters of this book, were a result of this work.
Text: Christine Weissenborn
Illustration: Sarah Neuendorf
Translation: Angela Holtkamp