'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Wednesday 22 April 2020

Special Feature: A Dutch Picture Book Experience

Before the world locked down due to the pandemic, I found myself in The Netherlands last month because of a sudden medical emergency of a close family member. And though I wasn’t there for pleasure, as soon as things looked up a little, I found my way to a couple of bookshops. 

First, a small bookshop in a hospital and later my old neighbourhood bookshop in the North of Amsterdam.

Most Dutch bookshops have a range of books translated from English to Dutch. This year The Storm Whale by Benji Davies was popular and, as usual, there were some translated copies of The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Rupsje Nooitgenoeg) by Eric Carle.

Books written by Dutch-speaking authors and illustrators are plenty and published by various well-respected Dutch and Belgium publishing houses.

Having lived in Australia for most of my adult life, and mostly reading picture books published here, in the UK or the USA, I set out to speculate on what makes Dutch picture books typically Dutch.

I have reviewed some of these picture books below. As far as I can tell, none of them have been translated into English. So, if any publishers are looking for translations, contact me!

For what its worth, here are my thoughts based on a small sample of Dutch picture books:

They are often emotive without being sentimental

They are more matter of fact and less didactic

Real-life truths are acknowledged without making them prettier than they are

Though I grew up with the minimalist illustration styles of Dick Bruna’s Nijntje (Miffy) and Fiep Westendorp’s illustrations of Jip en Janneke, the illustrations in today’s Dutch picture books are varied and original with most appearing to be made using traditional art techniques and minimal digital effects.

The book creators and publishers trust children to tell fact from fiction and reality from fantasy.

Children in these books are not always well behaved. Child characters are modelled on realistic child behaviour.

Characters have faults and don’t always have redeeming features.

De boer en de dierenarts (The Farmer and the Vet)

In this sweet, feel-good story, the farm animals have noticed the farmer acting kind of confused lately. He tries to milk the chickens and looks for eggs in the pigsty. When he ploughs his tractor into a hay bale, the animals realise the farmer is a little sick … lovesick, he can only think of one person all day, and that is the vet. The animals work together to give the farmer a little push in the right direction.

Children will love how the cow has painted itself green, and the sheep are barking, that is until they reach the vet, then everything is back to normal, and the Farmer has no idea what is going on.

Each time, as the dumbfounded farmer is about to leave the vet wants to know: Is there something else you’d like to ask me? and each time the farmer is too shy to answer.

Finally, the animals, through some clever scheming,  get the vet to come to the farm. Here, the pair find the courage to express their feelings. The final spread shows the two men cuddled up, enjoying a picnic surrounded by the approving animals.

This love story is a fun read for young children. That the romance just happens to be between two men is not central to the story.

The illustrator and author first worked together on the picture book, Het lammetje dat een varken is (The lamb who was a pig). In one of the illustrations a concerned farmer and his lamb meet the vet. After illustrating this page, illustrator Milja, first saw the spark between the farmer and the vet. She mentioned it to the author and that is how this story came to be.

The text is sparse and well-written. The illustrations painted in acrylics are sweet and gorgeous.

Vosje (Little Fox)

Marije Tolman is one of my favourite Dutch illustrators. You might have seen her wordless picture book, The Tree House.

Vosje, was awarded the Zilveren Penseel (for the illustrator) and Zilveren Griffel (for the author) in 2019, the runners-up at the Dutch equivalent of the Children’s Book Council Australia awards.

Vosje translates to Little Fox. Add ‘je’ or ‘tje’ to a Dutch word, and it becomes smaller (and often cuter), so ‘little Fox’ is ‘Foxje’, just as ‘little book’ would be ‘bookje’ and a ‘small monster’ is a ’monstertje’ and so on.

Vosje lives in the dunes along the Dutch seashore surrounded by birds, deer and other wildlife. He is a curious little one, so much so that his father warns him that too curious results in dead curious. One day, while chasing two purple butterflies, Vosje leaps off a tall dune and crashes, knocking himself out. He falls into a dream state.

Much of the book takes place in this dream where he remembers his earliest days, surrounded by his mother and siblings in their den, and his first forays into the wild. As Vosje crunches down on a mouse, the most beautiful sound there is, they crunch between your teeth, his clever sister explains: ‘When you chew on a mouse, it has been dead curious.’

Vosje meets a deer, and explores the garbage in someone’s backyard. Here he meets a little boy who helps him when curious Vosje’s head gets stuck in a jar.

While Vosje is dreaming, in another part of the dune landscape, a deer and birds beckon this same little boy, who follows them to the place where Vosje lays wounded.

Vosje can see himself from above, wondering what will happen to that little fox down below. As the little boy takes Vosje back to his den, Vosje decides that the little fox below should open his eyes.

This is a quiet story with a lot to say. From friendship, curiosity, growing up, and being in that strange place of a fever dream to exploring and respecting nature.

The contrast of the bright, almost fluorescent orange of the little fox is beautifully contrasted with the muted green photographs of the dunes, sea and forest.

My 8-year-old loves books and foxes and even though he can’t read the Dutch words himself, after hearing the story and seeing the illustrations, he hugged it, and it is now taking pride of place on the ‘special’ shelf in his bookcase. 

Raar (Strange)

The illustrations in Raar feature painterly and humorous animals surrounded by white space and a few lines to represent a mirror.

A variety of animals explore a mirror as it lies flat on the ground, trying to make sense of the strange object. When a sloth stands the mirror up and moves it in the spine of the book, the left and right pages reflect each other.

Now, even more animals take turns to view and interact with their mirror images which they believe is another animal. It is a little elephant that figures out that it is themselves they see reflected. This leads to the animals trying out various poses resulting in hilarious distortions as they press themselves against the mirror/ spine from all angles.

But then the overexcited hippo breaks the mirror into a thousand pieces. And the animals? Well, suffice it to say, things never get back to normal!

Suzie Ruzie en het schaartje (Suzie Squabble and the scissors)

This book is part of a series of books about Suzie Squabble. These character-driven stories feature a little character that is even more troublesome than Pig the Pug.

In this story, the scissors (‘schaar-tje’direct translation ‘little scissors’) speak to Suzie from within a set of drawers. Het Schaartje is hungry and wants to be released. But is it not hungry for cake, it is hungry for ‘some cutting’, and it likes the delicious taste of girl’s hair the best, and that is only the start!

The hungry scissors cut a cactus, a chair, a lamp (ouch, cutting through electrical wire … in a book for toddlers!) and even the pants of the angry neighbour’s jeans, revealing a tattooed bunny on his bottom, ‘that was gross’ says the scissors. On it goes, until … Schaartje cuts Suzie’s finger.

The illustrations are hilarious and complement this fun story.

One of the other stories in the series is titled: Suzie Squabble and the stinky finger. I’m kind of scared to find out what happens in that story.

Let me know if you have any experience with Dutch language books and what your thoughts are.

Title: De boer en de dierenarts (The Farmer and the Vet)
Author: Pim Lammers
Illustrator: Milja Praagman
Publisher: De Eenhoorn
Publication Date:  7 February 2018
Format: Hardback
ISBN: 9789462912885
For ages: 4+ 
Type: Picture Book
Title: Vosje (Little Fox)
Author: Edward van de Vendel
Illustrator: Marije Tolman
Publisher: Querido
Publication Date: 19 September 2019
Format: Hardback
ISBN: 9789021414348
For ages: 3 - 12 
Type: Picture Book

Title: Raar (Strange)
Author/ Illustrator: Mark Janssen
Publisher: Lemniscaat
Publication Date: 1 January 2020
Format: Hardback
ISBN: 9789047712046
For ages: 6+
Type: Picture Book

Title: Suzie Ruzie en het schaartje (Suzie Squabble and the scissors)
Author: Jaap Robben
Illustrator: Benjamin Leroy
Publisher: Gottmer
Publication Date:  1 February 2016
Format: Boardbook
ISBN: 9789025761646
For ages: 4+ 
Type: Picture Book