I am twenty years old, and until quite recently I’d never heard of The Cat In The Hat. I first discovered The Chronicles Of Narnia when it was made into a movie. Harry Potter, as an everlasting worldwide success, is a notable exception, but there’s lots of English children’s literature that I’ve never heard of, because I was raised in The Netherlands.
I’m Dutch. I grew up in Amsterdam. I grew up eating stroopwafels and lots of bright yellow cheese with holes in it and sitting in the front seat of bicycles. If, like me, you are a lover of children’s literature, of its imagination and its loveliness and of all the ways it makes you feel warm and safe inside, here is a list for you. It has all the books on it that I think of when I think of being a child. I have, at one point or another, read all of these in a tent made out of blankets illuminated only by a flashlight, when my dad had said twice already that it was really, really time to go to sleep. They have all been translated into English, so go ahead and read them. Read them to your children. Read them to your grandchildren and your nieces and nephews and the children you babysit.
The books are arranged by the age group I think they’re suitable for, starting with the books meant for the youngest of the young and building up to those timeless classics you’ll still want to read when you’re eighty.
Miffy – Nijntje, by Dick Bruna
I could be wrong, but I think Miffy is internationally famous. On my bookshelf, I have an edition of Miffy translated into Latin, entitled Miffa Ad Mare, so I’m guessing it’s been translated into a bunch of other languages as well. Miffy books are all quite short, and illustrated by simple drawings in primary colors. They include such titles as Miffy Goes To The Beach and Miffy Goes To School. It’s not the originality of the stories so much as it is the style in which they are written, that makes Miffy worthwhile. I can’t judge the English translations as I’ve never read them, but in Dutch every Miffy-book is a delight of concise and clever rhymes.
The Cat Who Came In Off The Roof – Minoes – Annie M.G Schmidt
Annie M.G Schmidt is a household name in The Netherlands, and she should be in your household, too. Minoes is my favorite of her many novels, but perhaps you have heard of Pluk van de Petteflet, (Tow-Truck Pluck), Jip en Janneke (Two Kids from Holland) or her collection of poems, Een Vijver Vol Inkt (A Pond Full of Ink).
Minoes, or as the English translation says, “Minou,” is a cat. She roams deserted rooftops at night, hunts mice and birds, climbs trees to get away from dogs and washes herself with saliva. Until, quite suddenly, she is a lady. From one moment to the next, Minoes becomes a human being. This is great for struggling young newspaper writer Tibbe, “Tibble”, in English, because now Minoes can tell him the breaking news as she hears it from all of the cats in the neighborhood. Soon, the cats’ eavesdropping gets all of them into trouble. In short: this book features a cat turning into a person. What’s not to love?
How To Become King – Koning Van Katoren – Jan Terlouw
This is probably my favorite Dutch book of all time. I presented it in class when I was ten years old, complete with home-drawn illustrations and a fair amount of blushing and stuttering. This book taught me what a pomegranate was, so I took one to school to show it to my fellow pupils. Luckily, I wasn’t the only one who wouldn’t have recognized a pomegranate if it walked up to me and introduced itself.
The book is about a young guy named Stach. It’s not just you. Even in Dutch, Stach is a funny name, that reminds me both of spinach and of pistachios. Stach lives in Katoren, a country which has been ruled by six bitter secretaries ever since their king died seventeen years ago. Stach wants to end the cabinet’s reign of terror and claim the throne for himself. In order to do so, he has to complete seven difficult and dangerous tasks. With an enthralling combination of cunning and bravery, Stach figures out How To Become King.
The Letter For The King – De Brief Aan De Koning – by Tonke Dragt
If you have a taste for adventure, this is the book for you. A sixteen year old boy named Tiuri has sworn to wake in silent contemplation on the night before he is to be knighted. His silence is disturbed by a sudden voice in the dark, a desperate plea for help. Tiuri must deliver a letter to the king, but the road that leads him there is not without peril. Tiuri can’t trust anyone he meets. He has to deliver the letter safely. Most importantly, he has to keep its message secret.
I love this book because it showed me that sometimes obedience isn’t the way to success. Sometimes, you have to break your vow of silence to save the kingdom. You have to disregard the rules in order to do what is right. Seems to me like a great lesson to teach children.
Crusade In Jeans – Kruistocht in Spijkerbroek – Thea Beckman
Rudolf Hefting takes part in a science experiment. There is a tiny computer error, and Rudolf ends up in the middle of a Children’s Crusade, rather than the tournament of Medieval Knights he was aiming for. Who doesn’t love a time travel story? So now Rudolf is in the Middle Ages, with thousands of children traveling to their Holy Land on foot. The children, of course, are plagued by hunger, exhaustion and illness, and Rudolf has to use his modern knowledge to help them survive.
My knowledge of children’s literature is limited. In the comments, tell me what books defined or brightened your childhood. There’s only one rule: they can’t originally have been English books. I want the books the Spanish were raised on, and the Germans, and the Japanese and the Argentinians and the youth of Zimbabwe.