#DutchKidLit – I Wish by Toon Tellegen, ill. Ingrid Godon, translated by David Colmer

Post by guest author Helle Kirstein from the International School of Amsterdam.

“I WISH I wasn’t scared of dying.”

“I WISH I never had to blush.”

“I WISH I had more courage.”

“I WISH happiness was a thing and I / found it somewhere and took it home with me.”

“I WISH I had a friend and we’d both / saved each other’s lives at risk of our own.”

“I WISH I had an extremely unusual pet.”

“I WISH I knew what life is.”

What do you read in a person’s face – what are they thinking, what are they hiding? How do you convey the human condition whilst keeping a beautifully poetic tone?

This is I Wish, a gorgeous collaborative piece of art that came about when Dutch author/poet Toon Tellegen learned that Flemish artist Ingrid Godon had created a book of portraits. Portraits of ordinary people, mostly children, of whose thoughts, emotions, and wishes the viewer can only guess, but is invited to wonder about. Being an admirer of her work, Tellegen contacted Godon and suggested he write the poems accompanying the portraits. And almost a decade after the book was first published in the Netherlands, Elsewhere Editions gifted the title to the English-speaking world in the masterful translation from the Dutch by David Colmer. This order of events is honored on the cover of the book where the artist’s name is placed above that of the author, and the translator’s name has a deserved prominent placing as well.

Tellegen started writing the poems before he saw the portraits which were all named by Godon. We meet Alice, Paolo, Carl, and 53 other people staring out from the pages. On most spreads a portrait and a poem sit together on opposing pages. Each written piece is a free-verse poem in complete sentences presented in small rectangles of text on a white background making the text stand out. Throughout the book, transparent pages introduce stand-alone poems adding to the sensation that these are indeed somebody’s thoughts, veiled and hidden, and that we are fortunate to be given a peek at them.

MARIE and ROSE, “I WISH I didn’t know what everyone knows.”

The intended audience, children, is held in high esteem by Toon Tellegen and is presented with philosophical subjects and life’s big questions:

In the poem JULIA, she muses, “IF I think about it, it’s actually pretty weird / that I’m me.” She continues imagining being the ant she is watching in the forest:

Imagine if I was that ant! But then who’d be me?
The ant?
It’s best not to think about things like that.
There are so many things it’s best not to think about.
Maybe more than what you can think about. (p.40)

ALICE, “THIS IS my last request.”

Toon Tellegen never shies away from difficult themes in the book, but brings the portrayed quiet existences’ intimate thoughts and desires into the light. Death is a recurrent theme as is the search for happiness, worry about appearance, and fitting in:

THIS IS my last request.
When I die, I want them to check
how long someone’s still thinking of me.
There’ll be a machine they can use.
There isn’t one yet. But when I die there will be.
Mark my words.
A memoriammaphone.
After one year, ten days, six hours and nineteen
minutes: tring-tring, tring-tring.
Nobody’s thinking of me anymore.
I’m forgotten forever. Deleted is what they’ll call it.
And if someone thinks of me again later by mistake, just for a moment,
maybe because they looked at a photo and somebody pointed me out
and asked, “Who’s that?” and somebody else racked their brains
and managed to remember that it’s me, that won’t count anymore.
Once you’re gone, you’re gone. (12)

But don’t forget that these are children’s wishes, and so we also encounter a wish for an unusual pet, a rhinocerous, a surprise that lightens the mood but is just as seriously described as the rest of the pieces.

Curious children will be enthralled by this book. The artwork is intriguing and the poems’ full sentences and relatively simple language will make it accessible to most readers 9 years old and up. It will lend itself beautifully to a collaboration between the visual arts and language departments, inviting children and young adults alike to explore the creative processes of painting a portrait and writing an honest poem in free verse about their ponderings to go along.

I Wish
Art work by Ingrid Godon
Written by Toon Tellegen
Translated from the original Dutch by David Colmer
Published by Elsewhere Editions, 2020
ISBN: 9781939810328
Originally published 2011 as Ik Wou by Lannoo Publishers

You can buy a copy of I Wish here.

Listen to Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, read the book, I Wish, here for DC Family Reads.

For further exploration:

Visit artist Ingrid Godon’s website here.

Read the dossier on Toon Tellegen, nominated for the Hans Christian Andersen Award 2020

Watch I Wish – The Movie, “Elsewhere Editions, the children’s imprint of Archipelago Books, is pleased to announce I Wish by Toon Tellegen and Ingrid Godon, translated by David Colmer. A melancholy and hopeful book of portraits and meditations for our melancholy and hopeful moment.”


“This Dutch import pairs portraits with poetry to articulate wrenching individualism, yearning, humor, desires, and pathos … This probing psychological journey makes for an exciting exploration in empathy.” Kirkus Reviews

“Each face is round as the moon, with small shining eyes that sit curiously far apart…The figures rarely smile. One boy wears a bellhop’s uniform; another, a red jersey and cap. Tellegen’s inward-turned, free verse poems, gracefully translated by Colmer, give them voice…By voicing the fears, angers, and secret desires of the figures, Tellegen spurs readers to embrace those of others, and their own.” — Publishers Weekly

I Wish isn’t going to sit quietly in a category. It’s the kind of book that would rather wander off and make up its own categories, expecting you to follow dutifully behind. And you will, because it is strange and wonderful and ultimately very very memorable. Can many other books out there say half as much? … If ever there was a book worthy of a Batchelder Award, or some similar medal for translation and writing, it is this. A strange, melancholy, oddly hopeful book for our strange, melancholy, oddly hopeful little world.” — Elizabeth Bird, School Library Journal‘s “A Fuse 8 Production

This post may contain affiliate links that earn Global Literature in Libraries Initiative a commission at no extra cost to you.

Toon Tellegen is a Dutch writer and poet. He is a nominee for the 2020 Hans Christian Andersen Award. He has published more than twenty collections of poetry to date, including the 2001 winner of the British Poetry Society’s Popescu Prize for European Poetry in Translation, Raptors (Raafvogels), translated into English by Judith Wilkinson. Tellegen has also been awarded the Theo Thijssen Prize in 1997 and the Constantijn Huygens Prize in 2007, each for his full body of work.
Ingrid Godon is a Flemish children’s book illustrator. A born observer, her evocative drawings are charged with great seriousness and strangeness, with immense compassion for ordinary people. She was awarded the Boekenpauw Award and the Gouden Griffel in 2001 for her book with André Sollie, Wachten op Matroos. She also won the Boekenpauw Award in 2015 for Ik denk. Godon’s drawings in I Wish were exhibited at the museum M in Leuven and around Europe, and I Wish was nominated for the Deutsche Jugendliteraturpreis in 2011.
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.
Helle Kirstein is the Lower School Librarian at the International School of Amsterdam. Helle has a Master of Education in Teacher Librarianship from Charles Sturt University  in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia, a Masters of Sciences in Business, Language and Culture from the University of Southern Denmark, and a Bachelor in Primary School Education from Blågård/KDAS Lærerseminarium, Copenhagen. Originally from Denmark, she has lived on three continents and worked in international school libraries for 10 years in both Europe and Asia. Helle’s languages include Danish, Swedish, English, French, and German. You can follow her on Twitter @kirsteinhelle
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.

4 thoughts on “#DutchKidLit – I Wish by Toon Tellegen, ill. Ingrid Godon, translated by David Colmer

  1. It reminds me of “Che cos’e’ un bambino?” by Italian author-illustrator Beatrice Alemagna (“What Is a Child?” translated by Anna Bennett).


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