#DutchKidLit and The Canon of the Netherlands, Part 2 – The Subversive Wit of Annie M.G. Schmidt

“Never do what your mother tells you to do, then everything will be all right,” to quote Annie M.G. Schmidt. Just saying what you want to say, not making a fuss, breaking any rules that don’t make sense, and recalcitrant humour; these are the secrets of her pen [sic].

“1911-1995 Annie M.G. Schmidt: Going against the Grain of a Bourgeois Country”
The Canon of the Netherlands

Children’s author Annie M.G. Schmidt is a legend in the Netherlands, and her inclusion in the 50-window Canon of the Netherlands is a testament to her Dutch kid lit legacy and hugely successful career. She is the only other children’s author included in addition to Anne Frank. Schmidt began her career writing text and articles for the newspaper Het Parool in the 1950s and it was there that she met artist Fiep Westendorp who helped her produce daily illustrated stories about an impish pair of toddlers named Jip and Janneke. Schmidt soon began exerting her insightful, irreverent influence more widely in Dutch popular culture, a culture she found stuffy and in need of shaking up, hosting a hugely popular radio series about living in Dutch post-war society. She began writing poetry from a young age and creating collections of narrative children’s poems the lines of which many Dutch adults can recite by heart. She found a huge audience for her work when she published her fantasy novel Minoes/The Cat who Came in off the Roof that was turned into an award-winning film. It is still affectionately represented in Dutch popular culture, as well as being a canonical text for classrooms and libraries.

During her long career Schmidt won the most prestigious Dutch children’s literature awards including the Gouden Griffel, awarded annually to the best Dutch children’s book, as well as the Zilveren Griffel, which is awarded to the runner-up each year by the Collective Propaganda for the Dutch Book. In 1965 she won the State Prize for Children’s LIterature. In 1987, she was awarded the prestigious Dutch Constantijn Huygens Prize for her entire body of work, and then in 1988 she received the Hans Christian Andersen Award by the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY), “the highest international recognition given to an author and an illustrator of children’s books” and which is presented bi-annually to an author whose “complete works have made an important, lasting contribution to children’s literature.”

The secret of her success? “I have always been eight years old. And I actually write for myself. I think that is the whole point. I am eight years old.”

– Annie M.G. Schmidt, The Canon of the Netherlands
A Year in Holland with Jip and Janneke
Written by Annie MG Schmidt
Illustrated by Fiep Westendorp
Translated from the original Dutch by David Colmer
Published by Querido’s Kinderboeken Uitgeverij, 2017
ISBN: 9789045120584
Met Jip en Janneke door Nederland
Written by Annie MG Schmidt
Illustrated by Fiep Westendorp
Published by Querido, 2013
ISBN: 9789045116112

As award-winning and beloved in the Netherlands as Schmidt has been, there weren’t many successful English translations of Schmidt’s work for it to reach an international audience outside the Dutch-speaking world for a long time. Despite sharing many enjoyable and engaging similarities with the works of Roald Dahl and Astrid Lindgren, Schmidt’s work was often overlooked. Thus, there was great rejoicing in Dutch expat communities and world children’s literature circles when the stories of Jip and Janneke, Schmidt’s most famous, mischievous preschoolers with their iconic black silhouette illustrations by Fiep Westendorp that ran initially in the paper Het Parool between 1953-1957, were finally translated into English by David Colmer. Now we could all understand what the Dutch loved so much about Jip and Janneke and we could also make sense of all the t-shirts, children’s cutlery, posters, and beach toys that feature Jip and Janneke and/or their pets, dog Takkie and cat Siepie. Their 65th anniversary was celebrated by Het Parool in 2017 with a full-sized pdf link to the page where the first story appeared:

It might be tempting to minimize the challenges of translating a children’s series from the Netherlands that has been in publication since the 1950s, but that would be missing the point of Schmidt’s timeless appeal for Dutch grandparents, parents, and children today. Her savvy, sly social commentary was woven carefully into Jip and Janneke’s hilarious behaviors and escapades, still resonating with what it means to be a happy, Dutch child and doting, tolerant Dutch family today. As a bookseller from our local independent bookstore, The American Book Center wrote in 2011, award-winning translator David Colmer “translated those much-loved stories from Dutch to English, keeping the freshness and charm of the original simple prose without making them seem twee. His version of Jip and Janneke is perfect.” 

Twee they are not. A Year in Holland with Jip and Janneke is the perfect introduction to this very Dutch Kid Lit institution, a collection of Schmidt’s stories that span the seasons, showcasing both the beauty and range of Dutch life experiences for children. There are parties in the back gardens of Dutch row houses, trips to the farm animal petting zoos that the Dutch love and that exist in almost every village, the beach by the North Sea and the Amsterdam Zoo, boat rides on canals (without an adult in sight!) and enjoying frost instead of snow (as it rarely snows here anymore).

In this collection there are 26 tales, one to two pages each, perfect for reading aloud at bedtime. They are fascinating to pore over, with detailed, full-color illustrations by Westendorp, who herself preferred to draw in black and white as in the original stories, depicting gentle explorations of the world and small, manageable, yet real misadventures in tiny Dutch neighborhoods. Through Schmidt and Westendorp’s very Dutch lens, the Jip and Janneke stories and settings mimic the idyllic childhoods we all either had or wish we had had once upon a time. There are also a lot of emotional outbursts, some serious yelling and shouting by both Jip and Janneke when they get upset, to temper the perfection of Westendorp’s iconic scenes of green gardens full of animals and nature, bucolic flower gathering along canals with a colorful cow and birds looking contentedly on. If Jip is standing in the canal with Janneke looking on from the grassy bank, both of them watching his shoes and socks get soaked, well, boys will be boys. 

And that brings us to the fact that when enjoying Jip and Janneke stories, it is impossible not to bump up against the at times exasperatingly traditional gender roles embedded into the characters and their relationships, where Jip is often seen as going first or engaging in the more daring activities, and Janneke is often the nurse or making pancakes or the one going to bed when she’s supposed to and worrying about being careful. That said, there is an equally shared, rambunctious glee that Jip and Janneke experience while solving their small, cozy Dutch life problems that are, of course, hugely important to small children everywhere.

JIp and Janneke proudly taking home some of their neighbor’s flowering forsythia branches from the story “Cold but Already Spring” in A Year in Holland with Jip and Janneke.

I discovered a delightful animated short for a Jip and Janneke story about their cat Siepie, in English Sippy, “Sippy Is on the Cupboard” which is narrated with a droll tone and demonstrates the slight forays into danger Jip and Janneke get up to with their real-word toddler problem-solving. Sippy, the famous pet cat in the stories, is up on a cupboard and Jip has decided Sippy needs help getting down. What follows is a quick, funny series of decisions and actions the children make to reach the tippy-top of the wardrobe and bring Sippy to safety. Sippy, like most cats, has their own ideas about being saved. No sugar-coated resolution here, there is a struggle, a scratch, a bit of blood, some anger from Jip and concern from Janneke, and then there is a sudden shift to playing hospital with Janneke as nurse providing the healing plaster and Jip the impatient, unpleasant patient. All of this happens with the benevolent Mother character (no idea whether Jip or Janneke’s mother, it clearly is not important) who is there all the while but only joins in the narrative at the end, letting the children, ostensibly with her close by somewhere else in the house, have their adventures without much interference except for providing some patience while they stack the furniture into a precarious tower, some good-humored tolerance while Janneke plays nurse to Jip’s cat scratch, and some gentle observations about all’s well that ends well as the episode closes.

“Sippy Is on the Cupboard” ends up with a merry chase around the garden and Mother dryly and without fuss observes, “Such a weird hospital…the nurse chases the patients through the yard!” The narrator, I imagine is Schmidt herself, closes “Yes, a weird hospital indeed.”

This type of parenting, with an interested and invested but to a large extent hands-off and kind-hearted distance from interfering in their children’s lives, is arguabley one of the key reasons the Dutch believe that growing up the Dutch way in the Netherlands nurtures happier children, a parenting style that is alive and well today as described in the recent book The Happiest Kids in the World: How Dutch Parents Help Their Kids* (*and Themselves) by Doing Less by expat mums Rina Mae Acosta and Michele Hutchison, who is also a translator.

During my research and reading for this post, I discovered that each year there is a celebration surrounding Schmidt’s birthday in May sponsored by publisher Querido Children’s Books. This year due to the pandemic, Annie M.G. Schmidt Week 2021 was re-scheduled for 1-11 September 2021, how fortunate that Dutch kid lit is being featured here on the GLLI blog for #WorldKidLitMonth during that time! Featuring stories starring Schmidt’s loveable character Pluk from Tow-Truck Pluk (Pluk van de Petteflet), first published in 1971, and now a new generation will be introduced to Schmidt’s books as they “take center stage in bookstores, libraries and schools.”

More Annie M.G. Schmidt to come next post with a review of her Kirkus starred poetry collection A Pond Full of Ink.

Annie M.G. Schmidt (1911-95) was regarded as the “Queen of Dutch Children’s Literature” and her books have been an essential part of every Dutch childhood for the last fifty years. She trained as a librarian but burst onto the literary scene when the newspaper she was working for discovered her gift for children’s verse. Having won numerous awards during her lifetime, including the 1989 Hans Christian Andersen Award, Schmidt is now included in the Canon of Dutch History taught to all Dutch schoolchildren, alongside Spinoza, Anne Frank and Vincent van Gogh.
David Colmer translates Dutch literature, including literary fiction, nonfiction, children’s books, and poetry. He is a four-time winner of the David Reid Poetry Translation Prize, and received the 2009 Biennial NSW Premier, a PEN Translation Prize, and an International Dublin Literary Award. He has translated much of Annie M.G. Schmidt’s work.
Kim Tyo-Dickerson, seen here visiting the Kinderboekenmuseum/Children’s Book Museum in The Hague, is the Upper School Librarian and Head of Libraries at the International School of Amsterdam. She was the guest editor for Global Literature in Libraries Initiative’s #WorldKidLitMonth in September of 2020 where she celebrated #DutchKidLit, the children’s literature of ‘the happiest children in the world (as measured by UNICEF). Kim has a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York, a Master of Arts in English and a Bachelor of Philosophy in Interdisciplinary Studies from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. She is one of the founding members of the grassroots professional learning project International Teacher Librarians Lead (inTLlead) and is committed to world libraries, literatures, and literacies. Originally from United States, she has lived on three continents and worked in international school libraries for 16 years in both Europe and Africa. Kim’s languages include English, German, and Dutch. You can follow her on Twitter @kimtyodickerson.

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