Annie M.G. Schmidt
Puck and his Breakdown Lorry
Nice and naughty
There is probably one only children’s book in the world where a cockroach is cherished as a pet and that is Pluk van de Petteflet. Shy little Zaza, content with a piece of apple peel now and again, can be seen as a symbol for the contrariness in all Schmidt’s works. Everything has to be just that little bit different, freer, with more room to manoeuvre. In anything but dignified language, Schmidt creates a world in which children and animals – and the odd nice adult – struggle against hypocrisy and bourgeois respectability. Not too wild, not aggressive, but in a friendly, funny way. ‘Nice and naughty’, as she once called it herself in a poem.
Pluk van de Petteflet was published in 1971, since when the book has become an institution in the Netherlands. Many a bookshop has a wooden replica of the main character Puck’s red breakdown lorry on its doorstep. Those too big to try it out for size are disappointed.
So Puck is a little boy with a breakdown truck. He has no parents, but that is simply by the by. And he has no house, either. Luckily, a pigeon finds the answer for him: the little room in the tower of the highest block of flats in the town is unoccupied. Puck makes friends in and around the flats, the pigeon, the cockroach, a bookseller, the unorthodox Mr Stamper and his sons with their unruly mops of hair, a seagull with a wooden leg, the longest horse in the world. Together, they prevent the only piece of the park still anything like the woods from being paved over. Together they save the rare Curliqueue, a bird with curls instead of feathers, from a sticky end in the museum for stuffed birds. Pluk van de Petteflet is one of those scarce books that continue to surprise, delight and touch, never losing its sparkle.
By Judith Eiselin