Annemie Leysen

A Quilt of Many Colours

30 March 2000

The children’s book landscape of the Low Countries is particularly rich in variety. It resembles a patchwork quilt of tiny meadows and broad pastures, of busy sprawling cities and peaceful sleepy villages, of hilly regions and vast plains, of weed-covered ditches and turbulent streams. Upon closer examination the literary geographer will also notice a demographic distinction: a single language region with two dialects, two cultures, two historical backgrounds.

Until recently, duality also permeated Dutch and Flemish literature for children and young people. Different registers, spheres of interest, sensitivities and traditions led to clear differences in what was written for children in the North and the South. The Flemish spirit of Till Eulenspiegel seemed incompatible with Dutch Calvinism. The Flemish emancipation from the Francophones had little in common with the Dutch rebellion against the ingrained rigidity of a strict philosophy of life. For a long time the emancipated and subversive heroes of the 1970s found in the books of Holland’s Annie M.G. Schmidt or Guus Kuijer and in the poetry of Willem Wilmink or Karel Eijkman looked down pityingly on the virtuous moral crusaders who populated children’s books in the South.

Partly through a conscious policy of rapprochement, orchestrated by both governments, and through the blurred national borders, the gap seems to have been gradually closing since the 1980s. No longer do people peep enviously or disapprovingly across the border. Authors from both regions get together. This two-way traffic has encouraged the development of mutual appreciation. Flemish and Dutch children’s reading now tends to straddle the border.

Great diversity

Back to the quilt. Particularly noticeable in the latest children’s books on offer is the great diversity in genres. Poetry for children and teenagers is being busily written and appreciated. Auto biographies and novellas have finally made their entrance. Novels for adolescents hunt for new readers. Historical novels and traditional adventure stories remain well represented. The realistic “problem book” is back with new stories. Picture books come in all sizes and colours. A clear sign of this trend was the awarding of the 1995 Golden Pencil (one of the most important awards for children’s literature) to Dutch poet Ted van Lieshout for his outstanding collection Begin een torentje van niets (Begin a Silly Little Tower). With his poetry Van Lieshout aims to bridge the gap between children’s literature and books for adults. This is clear from the mature style and provocative choice of topics. Poets such as Daniel Billiet, Gil van der Heyden, Ed Franck, Fetze Pijlman, Leendert Witvliet, Wiel Kusters, Johanna Kruit, Hans Hagen and André Sollie are also contributing to this cause. The rebellious tone and the strict metres of Dutch poets of the 1970s have made way for the new generation’s hushed emotions, expressed in free, sometimes hermetic verse. Younger poetry lovers are being spoiled with playful and recognisable verses and rhymes by Ienne Biemans, Nannie Kuiper, Theo Olthuis, Riet Wille and Geert de Kockere. It’s fortunate for the young listeners and readers of Flanders and the Netherlands that they are being spoiled: budding literacy is being stimulated. Illustrators from the Low Countries are continuing great pictorial traditions: Lieve Baeten, Max Velthuys and many others are internationally renowned illustrated book makers.

Didactic aims

In the meantime the duel in the arena of children’s fiction continues unabated. More than ever the wearying bickering over what defines a good narrative book is at the top of the list: delightfully suspenseful adventures or literary and aesthetic narratives; a vehicle for a didactic message or a masterpiece of language and composition.

In the Low Countries, as elsewhere, the entire discussion produces a rather partitioned landscape. Suspenseful stories about be witched masters, abducted dogs, wandering ghosts, mysterious hotels and mischievous children or animal clubs are always popular. But here too the cybernetic revolution is gaining a foothold. The good old monsters have now often become computer horrors. The bad guys are polluters or drug dealers. Authors like Carry Slee, Marc de Bel, Jacques Vriens, Paul van Loon and Karel Verleyen remain good choices for accessible, children-friendly adventures for a larger public.

Others have didactic and moral aims to fulfil in their children’s books: historical information and moral issues are presented with a novel’s sugar coating and eagerly swallowed. The form or the style in which this takes place is of secondary importance. Nevertheless, the literary children’s book seems to have been gaining ground in the past few years. Many authors are becoming more concerned with producing youth literature in which literary form is important, paying marked attention to the language structure, composition, the maintenance of tension and characterisation.

Guus Kuijer paved the way with humorous and professionally written stories. Dutch author Rindert Kromhout combines all the ingredients mentioned above in his latest stories. A setting in southern Tuscany is but one of the charms of Vreemde vogels (Strange Birds, 1995), a commedia dell’arte thriller about a touring animal theatre company. Kromhout’s ingenious composition brings the diverse storylines together in both time and space. Besides being exciting and funny, Vreemde vogels is also brilliantly written and composed.

Cheerful and gentle anarchy

Joke van Leeuwen’s work also contains all the ingredients necessary for a successful children’s book. Cheerful and gentle anarchy is the main theme. In a perfect combination of illustrations and text and with disarming humour and amazing skill with language, she creates intriguing characters who observe the world. In 1978 her first book appeared, De Appelmoesstraat is anders (Applesauce Street Is Different), an extremely nonconformist - for the time - book illustrated in black-and-white about a newcomer who wants to end the uniformity of her new street. Humour and a cabaret-like gaiety have always been important elements of her work; abuse and distress are not ignored, but are implicitly present without being emphasised. In her second book, Een huis met zeven kamers (A House with Seven Rooms, 1979), a girl explores the house of her jolly uncle. A funny story is associated with each room. Between the stories there are songs, rhymes, puzzles and handwritten letters to read. The book is also richly illustrated with curious pen-and-ink drawings which playfully supplement the text. With each book the author has developed her enormous talent with language: puns, telling names for people and things, and inimitable dialogues form her trademark.

In almost every book by Joke van Leeuwen, the heroes carry out a search, follow a quest. The characters are always on their way somewhere, towards a safe haven for themselves. The children she sketches are, despite their childlike naivety, surprisingly emancipated and stubborn; the adults generally appear less heroic.

Illustration by Joke van Leeuwen Illustration by Joke van Leeuwen

In Deesje (1985) a rather unworldly girl is sent by her father to live with her ‘half-aunt’ in the city. Naturally, it becomes a spark ling journey full of entanglements and peculiar meetings. The same theme can be found in Het verhaal van Bobbel die rijk wilde worden en in een bakfiets wilde wonen (The Story of Bobble Who Wanted to be Rich, 1987). Here, too, the unconventional heroine has difficulty fitting into regulated society. De wereld is krom maar mijn tanden staan recht (The World Is Crooked But My Teeth Are Straight, 1995) is a type of comic book or cartoon story about ‘the lighter and darker sides of the beginning of a woman’s life’. The beginning of that life is unfolded in a perfect combination of text and illustration with dazzling but often cutting humour. A book which will ring a bell with every adolescent girl.

Iep! (1996) appears initially to be just a funny story, but is actually much more. It is a moving book about lack and loss, about the desire for freedom and emancipation, about loneliness and alienation. The small female bird Viegeltje gives a new slant on reality to everyone she meets - the world as seen and experienced from the air. The dominant tone is one of lightness: witty puns, subtle and mild observations of la comedie humaine of the adult world, boundless imagination and disarming illustrations. Iep! is a combination of all that is best about Joke van Leeuwen’s writing. The book repeat edly won prizes in 1997. Through the versatility of her talents, she succeeds in captivating and appealing to readers of all ages. For Flanders and the Netherlands, Joke van Leeuwen is a worthy successor to the grand old lady Annie M.G. Schmidt.

Kuyper and Dreesen

Sjoerd Kuyper won the Golden Pencil this year for Robin and God (1996). The book is a disarming account of discussions between little Robin and his grandfather about the existence of God. Kuyper created the character of Robin back in 1990. The stories featuring him show everyday things from a child’s life in a poetic, moving and heart-warming manner.

Jaak Dreesen addresses a broader audience. In both his stories for young children and his novels for adolescents he experiments with literary form: his poetic descriptions, suggestive style and way of interweaving different narrative motives creates a suitable frame work for his often sensitive themes. Marieke, Marieke (1997) is a poetic, rhyming story in twenty stanzas in which the narrator desperately waits for the return of the dead Marieke. The repetitive structure makes the longing all the more desperate.

Memories of childhood

Rita Törnqvist excels in autobiography. She first became known for her outstanding translations of Astrid Lindgren’s work. In 1976 she began writing her own books for young readers. Wie is hier eigenlijk de baas? (Who’s Actually In Charge Here?, 1977) is the result of correspondence between the author and her 11-year-old daughter Marit Törnqvist, now a successful illustrator. It was followed by a cheerful trilogy about the fantasy-filled children Heleen and Waldemar. In Ze snappen er niets van (They Just Don’t Get It, 1978), Wat je zegt ben je zelf (It Takes One to Know One, 1977) and Kinderen en gekken (Children and Fools, 1978) light-hearted rebellion and childlike logic are confronted with the actions and thoughts of adult educators. In 1993 Hoe moet dat nu met die papillotten (What About the Curl Papers?) appeared, the first part of an autobiographical cycle in which the author recounts memories of the Second World War. Rita Törnqvist has an exceptional capability to recreate the mental and emotional world of the child she once was. Everything seems authentic and plausible. The poetic undertone, the childlike amazement and the touching humour with which she accomplishes this have won her a distinguished place in the world of Dutch children’s books.

Rita Törnqvist Rita Törnqvist (photo Van Goor)

Memories of childhood provide a favourite source for Henri van Daele as well. Village life in the time before the advent of video shops, discos and solariums plays an important role in his youth books. In Pitjemoer (1980), Pitjefaan (1983) and Mitjemoer (1984) he brings to life the Flemish countryside of forty years ago through the eyes of his grandparents, while Ti (1996) tells the story of a typical village beggar. Henri van Daele is a brilliant narrator and observer. In short, pithy sentences he describes recognisable situations and recounts Flemish-sounding dialogues. Van Daele is also revered as a teller of classic stories from world literature.

Vulnerable youngsters

Els Pelgrom is one of the most important Dutch authors for children. Her books display great imagination, convincing empathy and talent for observation, coupled with stylistic care. In addition to stories based on true facts, Els Pelgrom also writes animal stories, and she often combines fiction with reality. Thus, De kinderen van het achtste woud (The Children from the Eighth Wood, 1977; translated into English as The Winter When Time Was Frozen) was inspired by the winter of famine she experienced as a child during the Second World War on a farm in the Veluwe. The book recounts the experiences of 11-year-old Noortje, who finds shelter on an isolated farm after the battle of Arnhem. She enjoys the warmth of the farmer’s family but also experiences the horrors of war. The story is noteworthy for its authentic tone and direct, penetrating observations.

Els Pelgrom

Els Pelgrom (photo Flip Franssen)

For Kleine Sofie en Lange Wapper (Little Sophie and Lanky Flop, 1984) Els Pelgrom was awarded the highest prize yet. In this very special book, death and life, reality and imagination, cheerfulness and sadness go hand in hand. In a feverish dream the seriously ill Sofie’s dolls and animals act out all aspects of human life for her. With its rich symbolism, innumerable references, ingenious structure and poetic atmosphere, Kleine Sofie en Lange Wapper crowns Pelgrom’s many achievements. In the past few years Els Pelgrom has also reworked several classic masterpieces, for example Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.


The work of Flemish author Ed Franck, one of the most important and innovative of today’s Flemish youth writers, is truly versatile. He addresses readers of all ages - and in all genres. He can write elegant stories, verses and illustrated books for pre-schoolers and beginning readers, historical and psychological novels for teen agers, humoristic detective stories and tales for adults with reading difficulties.

Ed Franck

Ed Franck (photo Altiora)

His talent even extends to adult-sounding poetry for adolescents and tales from the classics of world literature. The careful style and psychological portraits of Ed Franck’s first children’s books, Spetters op de kermis (Stunners at the Fair, 1985) and Tenten in de wei (Tents in the Meadow, 1986), blew a fresh wind through Flemish children’s literature at a time when it was in definite need of airing. With Geen wonder dat moeder met de goud vissen praat (No Wonder Mother Talks to the Goldfish, 1988) and Zomer zeventien (Summer Seventeen, 1990), Franck won over a wide and enthusiastic adolescent public. The characters portrayed are reproduced in painstaking detail: vulnerable youngsters looking for their own identity and place in a frequently threatening society.

In both his verses for preschoolers and his poetry for adolescents Ed Franck experiments with all registers and levels of difficulty of the Dutch language. His work is characterised by a balanced combination of seriousness and dry humour, suspense and emotion, action and contemplation.

Illustration by Gregie de Maeyer

Illustration Gregie de Maeyer

Double talent Gregie de Maeyer can be introduced as the enfant terrible of the Flemish children’s book scene. From cartoonist and illustrator of the work of, among others, Henri van Daele, he has developed since the 1990s into a fully fledged author. After some cheerful experimenting with text and pictures, De Maeyer started searching for his personal style. This became simple, repetitive text and the bare illustrations of Fietsen (Bicycling, 1993), In de put (Depressed, 1993) and Mama? (1994). This trilogy initiated a new era. His style became authentically Flemish and unaffected; in the illustrations everything was reduced to essentials. In the past few years Gregie de Maeyer has engaged in projects with an international note. In collaboration with visual artist Koen van Mechelen he published Juul (1996), an oppressive story about bullying, and De kooi (The Cage, 1997), a book to encourage philosophising by and with children. In these splendid productions, literature, photography and the visual arts are harmoniously integrated. De Maeyer organised projects based on these books: exhibitions, theatre, work shops, philosophy sessions. In his latest book Niemand houdt ons tegen (Nobody’s Going to Stop Us, 1997), photographs by Alex Deyaert and an inventive text by De Maeyer tell an intriguing story.


Dutch author and illustrator Wim Hofman works with a wide range of registers. Fantasy and highly original humour characterise fairy-tale-like absurd stories for young children such as Uk en Bur (1987), Grote Pien en kleine Pien (Big Pien and Little Pien, 1989) and De stoorworm (The Pest Worm, 1980). Hofman used autobiographical material in Het vlot (The Raft, 1988) and De dochters van de kolenboer (The Coalman’s Daughters, 1992). In Zwart als inkt is het verhaal van Sneeuwitje en de zeven dwergen (The Tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Is As Black As Night, 1997) he subtly integrates the idiom and story elements of the well-known fairy tale in an extended, rhythmically composed epic poem which is balanced perfectly by the accompanying illustrations.

Imme Dros is another versatile author. She can write in practically any genre of the children’s book spectrum. In addition to stor ies for young children, most of which are masterfully illustrated by her husband Harrie Geelen, she also writes animal stories (in which the animals have quite human features) and novels for adolescents. The fact that Dros is a captivating storyteller is apparent in her Daan trilogy in which she evokes one boy’s childhood with great empathy and stylistic precision. The boy Daan from the Dutch isle of Texel is twelve years old in De zomer van dat jaar (That Year’s Summer, 1980), sixteen in Lange maanden (Long Months, 1982) and a student in the third part, Ongelukkig verliefd (Unhappily in Love, 1995). In the course of the three books Daan grows from being an uncertain, stuttering schoolboy and finally becomes a young man who is looking to the future.

Imme Dros’ fascination with Homer’s archetypal narrative skills took on solid form in her brilliant and accessible translation of the Odyssey (1991) and in her own interpretations of the epic: De reizen van de slimme man (A Clever Man’s Travels, 1988) and Odysseus, een man van verhalen (Odysseus, Teller of Tales, 1994).

Illustration by  Margriet Heymans

Illustration by Margriet Heymans (from: Annetje Lie in het holst van de nacht by Imme Dros)

With Annetje Lie in het holst van de nacht (Annelie in the Depths of the Night, 1987) Imme Dros wrote a controversial children’s book which rekindled discussions of the borderline between children’s literature and books for adults. Fantasy and reality merge in this story. The innumerable word associations, puns and references make it quite a difficult book. Nevertheless, it is a brilliant, timeless story.

Imme Dros’s illustrated books and stories for the beginning reader show the same careful construction, but here her heart-warming humour sets the tone. In Morgen ga ik naar China (Tomorrow I’m Leaving for China, 1995) the little narrator sets off on a journey to China, because parents there are only allowed to have one child, ‘and a child can get away with anything in China’. The narrative perspective is funny and ingenious. The repetition and piling up of childlike arguments make the narrator’s aggravation perfectly recognisable.

Own rules and conventions

Toon Tellegen, who also writes poetry for adults, is one of those unusual writers who - when writing for children - does not have to twist himself into knots to enter a child’s world. His animal stories, collected in the volume Misschien wisten zij alles (Perhaps They Knew Everything, 1995) float on an invigorating island within Dutch-language children’s literature, an oasis with its own rules and conventions: the stories are never longer than two pages, and there is only one for each animal or tree. The ant, the squirrel, the elephant and the beetle reveal evidence of a considerable intellectual capacity that allows them to ponder extensively about the beech or the oak, about falling out of a tree, about writing letters (collected in the enchanting Brieven aan niemand anders; Letters to No-one Else, 1996) or celebrating birthdays. In Tellegen’s stories hardly anything ever happens. The animals hold long conversations and sink into a meditative silence at the end of the day. No suspenseful intrigues, no cute animals taking on human form, no explicit social criticism. Instead we get a peculiar philosophising, moving but comical situations, virtuoso word games, ethereal amazing poetry and eternal yearning.

Illustration by  Rotraut Susanne Berner

Illustration by Rotraut Susanne Berner (from: Mijn vader by Toon Tellegen)

Tellegen has successfully and carefully preserved a childlike uninhibitedness, amazement and seriousness. This is evident in his stories about people: Juffrouw Kachel (Miss Stove, 1991), Jannes (1993), and Mijn vader (My Father, 1994). In Mijn vader Jozef, the young narrator, tells about his father with exaggeration. The argumentation and anecdotes are funny, bizarre and moving. This makes Tellegen one of Dutch literature’s most original and talented authors, an opinion shared by many adults.

Adult writing for kids

The Flemish author Bart Moeyaert consciously chose, while still a youthful experimenter, ‘adult writing for children and youths’. He is a careful writer, with an eye for stylistic and linguistic consistency and a taste for original ways of using narrative strategies. Although sometimes less accessible for young readers, his books tap uncharted depths in children and arouse interesting needs. Blote handen (Bare Hands, 1995) is a perfect example. The plot is succinct and spans just a few hours. On a chilly winter afternoon on the last day of the year, a drama with the dimensions of a Greek tragedy is played out on the bare cold fields. Little boys occupy centre stage. Boys who hate, whose words are filled with revenge. (‘All great murders are to do with revenge’ or ‘We are going to punish him for existing’) Boys who hate and talk like little boys do. Or love. Their dog Elmer, for example. Or their mothers, who smell like ovens, frying pans, wood fires, like mother and have caressing hands and shoulders to rest your head on. Or their friend (‘We were a pair of shoes. On one shoe we walked crooked’). Through the original composition, the simple use of language, the intriguing images and the oppressive suggestive power, a simple story grows into an obsessive epic full of vague and unspoken feelings, a genuine literary work of art.

The short story Mansoor (1996) contains the same ingredients. In barely 45 short pages Bart Moeyaert compresses condensed tragedy and oppression and evokes the irreconcilability of his own childlike empire and the adult universe. His books for beginning readers (Voor altijd, altijd; Forever and Always, 1992; Echt weg is niet zo ver; Really Gone is Not That Far, 1993; Die steeg van ons; Our Alleyway, 1994) are written with the same artistic rigour. Together with Anne Provoost, he is undoubtedly one of the most important Flemish writers.

Demolishing clichés

For Anne Provoost, writing is a traditional and cerebral occupation. With the devotion, precision and passion of a medieval cathedral builder, she constructs slow and attentive, solid stories. Her breakthrough novel Mijn tante is een grindewal (My Aunt Is a Pilot Whale, 1990) deals with the theme of incest. A young girl recognises her own situation in the beaching of a group of whales on the coast of Cape Cod. A heavy subject, contained in an ingeniously conceived plot. The much-lauded and award-winning Vallen (Falling, 1994) is no picnic either. The narrator, 15-year-old Lucas, recounts the story of a summer vacation in a fictitious French village. This book exposes nationalism, fundamentalism and racial intolerance and shows that clear thinking is essential when making decisions and choosing points of view. Provoost sees through and demolishes the rhetoric and clichés of the far right, who sometimes sound plausible and convincing because of their clever use of misleading logic. The book warns about ignorance of what has happened in the past.

Willy van Doorselaer made his debut in 1991 with Ik heet Kasper (My Name Is Kasper), an arresting and original youth book which struck a new chord. De wraak van de marmerkweker (The Revenge of the Marble Grower, 1996) is a new book by this careful and circumspect writer who is skilled at combining suspense, emotion and humour with a minimum of narrative elements to make a well-considered whole.

Anton Quintana has very much his own voice. His novels are mostly concerned with life and survival, growth and the search for one’s own identity. The award-winning Het boek van Bod Pa (The Book of Bod Pa,1995) describes in a detailed, epic narrative style the development of Perregrin, a rather awkward boy. Bod Pa, a blind, crippled and unpredictable shaman, is brought in to cure the boy and his diseased leg. Quintana creates remarkable literature: compelling storytelling in the oral tradition.

Veronica Hazelhoff’s intriguing novels for teenagers display an immense empathy. In a careful narrative style and balanced compositions, she depicts worlds that are both oppressive and liberating, and populated by recognisable characters. De bijenkoningin (The Queen Bee, 1992), Veren (Feathers, 1994) and De sneeuwstorm (The Blizzard, 1995) are full of atmosphere and captivatingly written.


This exploration of the Flemish and Dutch children’s book landscape is just a brief sketch, inevitably many people and things have been neglected. New authors have very likely been forgotten, established values - by their nature already sufficiently well-known - have not been mentioned. Hopefully this summary is an invitation to and an encouragement for first-time visitors to explore this colourful quilt and go on to make new discoveries. #### About the author Annemie Leysen teaches children’s literature at the Catholic University of Louvain. She is also a critic for the Flemish daily De Morgen. In this essay she turns her attention to Flemish and Dutch literature for children and young adults, a branch of Dutch-language literature currently enjoying international renown. She introduces a number of important writers from a literary quilt which is not only colourful, but also enormous.

The children’s book landscape of the Low Countries is particularly rich in variety. It resembles a patchwork quilt of tiny meadows and broad pastures, of busy sprawling cities and peaceful sleepy villages, of hilly regions and vast plains, of weed-covered ditches and turbulent streams. Upon closer examination the literary geographer will also notice a demographic distinction: a single language region with two dialects, two cultures, two historical backgrounds.