Het boek van Jan
A feast for the eye: the strange and unpredictable world of Harrie Geelen
Harrie Geelen is regarded as one of the most important Dutch illustrators. His works are distinctive for their generous, rather rough pencil-drawn strokes and warm, sunny colours. Geelen’s figures are unmistakable. Their toddlers’ feet stand firmly on the ground and their basic shape is square. The top of the heads are chopped off – as if the crown is missing – and then covered with bright tufts of spiky hair.
Geelen’s text is as delicately precise as his strokes are nonchalant. The toddlers’ world, which the author evokes in sparsely formulated sentences, is based on accurate and loving observation. Adults play a minor role. The main characters constantly relate themselves to the world around. Het boek van Jan is Geelen’s third book about John, a small boy with a head full of thoughts. In the earlier two books this head thinks about how a plant grows and about what ‘nothing’ really is.
This time John is writing a book: ‘It was to be a fat book, but it started thin.’ First the budding author racks his brains about the main character: ‘Everybody is called Me. Me too.’ Puss pees a story in the cat’s box, which other cats can read with their nose. His next door neighbour, Ursula, is making a calendar, but according to John, nothing ever happens on it, it’s only people having birthdays. Ursula’s nasty remark that nothing will happen in John’s book either, stings the youthful writer into pronouncing the immortal words: ‘I happen every day.’ And it’s a lot of hard work, that book: ‘Because I’m going to be there a very long time. And I have to keep thinking how I go on happening.’
These are clearly not just fun stories with pretty pictures to go with them. Here we have an author who holds his young public in such high esteem that he wants them to see the joys and burdens of the art of writing through sparkling sentences and unaffected pictures.