Der Umfall

The Toronto Public Library has contacted me again to review a book for its IBBY collection. This time I was assigned a graphic novel in German, Der Umfall by Mikael Ross. Unlike past occasions when I received their book deliveries, the present circumstances with COVID-19 preclude any shipment of books from Europe. Thus the book I received was in PDF format. For me, this was a novelty, since I had never read anything other than physical books with printed pages on paper. 

The focus of the IBBY collection is books for and about young people with disabilities. Der Umfall centres on a young teen named Noel Stock from Berlin who is faced with the sudden shock of discovering his mother collapsed in the bathroom. We are not told of any specific disability Noel might have, but in his interactions with his mother at the beginning of the book he knows it is his birthday but he is not aware of how old he is. He is an adolescent but his words and actions are more typical of a young child. He deals with store associates, bus drivers and train ticket inspectors and his level of understanding seems years behind his actual age. In his phone call with emergency personnel to report his mother, Noel cannot recall what street he lives on nor his house number, but the shock to his system of discovering his mother unconscious would disorient anyone.

He is a protagonist of a heavy body size who is consoled by a nurse who is similar. Later on in the book Noel’s weight is often the butt of jokes. He is called Pummelino (grapefruit), a derivation of pummelig, which means chubby. Throughout its 124 pages Der Umfall strives for inclusivity and diversity. A cast of characters passes through the book in fleeting moments or in supporting roles. While his mother is incapacitated–and we are never really sure if she lives or dies but upon subsequent rereads I believe the latter–Noel is taken to Neuerkerode, which refers to the real-life institute that during the Third Reich housed those with mental illnesses who were later put to death. Alice is a friend of Noel’s who is living with epilepsy. We meet an older lesbian couple and an all-women heavy metal band. A male wheelchair person living at Neuerkerode lends him a porno DVD, showing that people with disabilities are indeed sexual persons. Noel meets a man in his judo class who used to inflict self-harm through cutting. Judo saved him from this destructive behaviour. The Neuerkerode resident who befriends Noel is Valentin, an obsessive-compulsive preoccupied with time, dates and schedules. A recurring character is Irma, a wizened old woman who during the Third Reich used to live at Neuerkerode with her brother Erwin. Sadly, Erwin perished when he was taken away in a bus never to be heard from again.

The drawings do not abound with a variety of colours. Ross might choose one colour to dominate several pages of images with emphasis on ranges within the blue and yellow/orange spectrum. Ross inserted tiny comical speech bubbles for a little dog to convey panting and barking, which I found adorable and enhanced the action on the page. 

There is a play on words in the title. Look at the M in italics. The word Umfall can mean two things: an accident, similar to Unfall (which is the more common word for accident) and it can also mean the act of collapsing, from the verb umfallen. Noel’s mother suffered an Umfall due to a stroke. 

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