Fellowship Children’s and Youth Literature

A Picture Book Life

1 February 2019

From 21-23 January the Dutch Foundation for Literature hosted a group of publishers and editors of children’s literature from five different Anglophone countries to come and meet their Dutch colleagues and familiarise themselves with Dutch children’s literature. Anna McFarlane (Allen & Unwin, Australia) was one of them, and wrote a blogpost about her three-day picture book life in Amsterdam.

I’m standing on a narrow bridge in Prinseneiland, Amsterdam and it’s starting to snow. I’m one of ten English language children’s book publishers who have just been welcomed into the warm creative hub of Rubinstein Publishers. We left their offices a moment before but before we get back into the black vans waiting to take us to the next stop on our busy itinerary, we are collectively marvelling at the weather and photographing the snow which is dusting the picturesque landscape that surrounds us. It’s day two of the Dutch Foundation for Literature’s Amsterdam Fellowship for Children’s and Youth Literature Publishers, and we are all buzzing from the coffee, cinnamon biscuits and excitement from the stimulating conversations. But as the snow starts to fall, the Australian summer light years away, I feel that I’ve stepped into a children’s picture book. A cross-looking cyclist, small dog perched in her bike basket, rings her bell to get us to clear the bridge. The moment’s passed. We return to the cars that wait for us and head to our next appointment: ‘speed dating’ at WPG Children’s Media company.

But as the snow starts to fall, the Australian summer light years away, I feel that I’ve stepped into a children’s picture book.

Agnes Vogt (head of of the International Department and children’s book specialist) and her colleagues Eva Prakken and Lucette Châtelain have programmed an intense three-day schedule for us publishers who come from Canada, US, England, New Zealand and Australia to learn about this rich publishing culture. The program starts at the Foundation. On the mezzanine level above our heads, bookshelves stretch from wall to wall, while below we hear from Agnes and the international literary event coordinator, Bas Pauw, about their program to promote Dutch literature to English language audiences. Then Mirjam Noorduijn — a children’s book critic and co-author of The Book of Children’s Books — talks us through the history and development of Dutch children’s literature. So, with names like Tonke Dragt, Fiep Westendorp and Peter van Gestel ringing in our ears, as well as the names of numerous contemporary writers and illustrators many of whom we will meet in the next three days, we head to our next stop: lunch with a small number of authors and illustrators and then a visit to Europe’s second oldest children’s bookstore, De Kinderboekwinkel, founded in 1975.

Before the first day has ended, we will have met author and bookseller, Aby Hartog, author Gideon Samson (Zeb), award-winning non-fiction writer Jan Paul Schutten (Het raadsel van alles wat leeft/The Mystery of Life) and illustrator Floor Rieder (Het raadsel van alles wat leeft/The Mystery of Life and an edition of Alice in Wonderland). We will have also been introduced to the bookseller/publisher/library funded organisation, Stichting CPNB, and learnt about the good work they do in inspiring children to read; we will have learnt that The Netherlands has over 100 publishing houses and 1300 bookstores; we will visit the Amsterdam Translators' House and meet many translators including Laura Watkinson, David Colmer, Nancy Forest-Flier, and Michele Hutchison, the talented individuals who are the vital part of the puzzle in bringing Dutch language books into English speaking children’s homes; and eaten fresh stroopwafels still warm from the bakery thanks to CPNB’s Esther Scholten. It’s intense and exciting, and ends, as all days should (and will for the next three days), with a delicious meal and great company including the translators and our hosts, Agnes, Eva and Tiziano Perez, the Managing Director of the Foundation.

In the Amsterdam Translators' House

The next morning starts with our trip to Rubinstein Publishing. Snow is predicted and, when we step out of the black vans, the air is crisp, the sky an ominous grey, but the atmosphere at the publishing house is warm and welcoming. Inside this converted warehouse, impossibly high ceilings are supported by thick wooden beams that date from the 17th century, and the books are dotted around the room in friendly displays. We wander around stroking covers, marvelling over the sumptuous foil on the Little Golden Books, and Yvonne Jagtenberg’s book about French filmmaker Jacques Tati, Mijn wonderlijke oom/My Wonderful Uncle. I am happy to see the Australian Allen & Unwin edition of Karina Schaapman’s exquisite Mouse Mansion: Sam and Julia on display.

Anna MacFarlane peering through the Mouse Mansion

From Prinseneiland to WPG on Wibautstraat — a children’s media company that houses publishers Ploegsma, Leopold and Condor, and where Rights Director, Dania van Dishoeck feeds us her delicious home-made apple pie. We are ‘speed dating’; meeting authors and illustrators Linda Dielemans, Rick de Haas, Annemarie van Haeringen, Ate de Jong, Ted van Lieshout and Erna Sassen, and their publishers. The books vary from historical fiction to poems to humour. The quality is undeniable. My colleagues and I are taking notes and making quiet comments to each other and to the publishers over lunch.

Diversity in publishing is the theme for the next session. We are visiting the OBA, Amsterdam’s largest library and hearing about their initiative, The House of all Languages, and meeting Chafina Bendahman, the founder of Rose Stories, a Dutch publishing house that focuses on stories from other cultures. There are over 150 languages spoken in Amsterdam and only four foreign languages stocked on the library’s shelves (English, German, French and Spanish). The library has funding to increase its engagement with the diverse population in The Netherlands as well as increase their foreign language collection. (Later we will be shown the impressive shelves that have been constructed to house the new collection.) Chafina talks about the challenges in bringing work by Moroccan authors to the public and sparks a conversation about representation and reflection in children’s books.

Afterwards, we head towards the children’s section in the library and the large Perspex box that houses Karina Shaapman’s towering Mouse Mansion that is on permanent display in the OBA. Over the last two days, we’ve been commenting in the high production values of Dutch books and now we’re all enamoured by the interior design of this building, from the circular book shelves complete with viewing platform, to the fun-sized seating and couches that are dotted around the room, to the illuminated books that hang from the ceiling.

OBA Library

The sky and canal are a steely grey, but the higgledy-piggledy outline of bikes, dark against the whiteness of the snow, looks beautiful. We are heading to Singel Publishers, home of children’s publisher, Querido. Rights Director, Luciënne van der Leije, is hosting our dinner in the heart of Querido’s office and introducing us to authors Simon van der Geest, Marjolijn Hof, Bart Moeyaert, Tjibbe Veldkamp and Edward van de Vendel, as well as author-illustrator Leo Timmers, the creator of the current Dutch picture book of the year (Een huis voor Harry/A Home for Harry). Once again, my colleagues and I are struck by the breadth of literature this publishing house offers from literary fiction to fantasy to humour, and picture books, middle grade novels and young adult fiction. As well as the quality of the presentations from the authors and illustrators who tell us about their work. I know I’m not the only one taking note of the books that have piqued my interest.

A House for Harry

We are back inside the Foundation on Day Three for a ‘speed dating’ session with publishers, rights people and agents. We are at the pointy end of the trip now as the intensity has increased. We will be having one-on-one meetings with eleven publishers, hopping from desk to desk, hearing about multiple titles and requesting material. It’s an intense session but fruitful. After a quick lunch in the Foundation, we head to the famous Rijksmuseum as it’s time to meet illustrators.

It’s impossible not to be impressed by the grand Rijksmuseum, which is about to open an exhibition of over 300 Rembrandt paintings and drawings, and which must be the biggest collection of Rembrandt work in the world. We are directed into a large artist’s studio. It’s a beautiful space — not only because of the artists’ work which is on display but because the room is obviously a working area with easels, large stainless steel basins against the wall, a rack of paint-splattered aprons, a cabinet filled with brightly coloured pigment, even a skull. It’s a lively, interesting space and an appropriate location for critic Annemarie Terhell’s presentation on Dutch illustration. We leave this room thinking about those famous Dutch illustrators like Dick Bruna, Thé Tjong-Khing, Fiep Westendorp as well as the talented contemporary illustrators we’ve just met including Ludwig Volbeda, Marije Tolman, Enzo Pérès-Labourdette and Sylvia Weve.

Pigment box in the Rijksmuseum

We’re still thinking and talking about the work we’ve seen today when we head to the Singelgracht with the illustrators. A canal tour is the perfect way to end our time with these talented people and as we board the warm wooden boat, conversations bubble up.

The boat glides through the water and our tour begins, but soon the atmosphere is so lively, the captain abandons all hope of being heard. Back on land, we say goodbye to our new friends and head to local restaurant, Choux, for our farewell dinner where we are joined by author Ted van Lieshout as well as publishers, Thille Dop and Marieke Spaans. Around the table, conversations range from discussions about books and artists to issues of gender and diversity, as well as to our families and lives. We’ve got to know each other well over the last few days and I’m filled with warmth for the wonderful people in the room. There is an air of finality too amongst the delegates as most of us are going home in the morning. For me, it’s also the end of my picture book life. No more snow, no more cobblestones, canals and bicycles, and no more Dutch authors and books being added to my list of ‘must-reads’. But like all good picture books, this story has been layered with meaning and emotion, and I know long after I’ve returned to the wilting humidity and heat of the Sydney summer, and the crushing weight of my inbox, it will also be unforgettable.


Anna McFarlane

is publisher at Allen & Unwin Publishers, Australia since 2010. Anna’s career at Allen & Unwin began with fantasy series The Ship Kings, The Coming of the Whirlpool, by Andrew McGahan; and The Little Refugee, a picture book of Anh Do’s bestselling memoir, The Happiest Refugee, illustrated by Bruce Whatley. Since then, she has published more than a hundred books including international bestseller Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews.

See all weblogs by Anna McFarlane