Date: 26 July 2021
Interviewer: Vanessa Joosen
Transcript: Cédrique Caethoven
Photo: Jota Chabel
Translation: Lindsey Geybels
VJ: I have tried to reconstruct which books you have written. If I’m correct, did you debut during your student days?
EVDV: No, I don’t think so. Ah, perhaps some poems in De Blauw Geruite Kiel [note: the children’s supplement of Vrij Nederland from 1977 to 1990], but I was no longer a student by then, I think. Actually, I don’t remember. Do you know the year?
I got that information from an article in the Lexicon for Youth Literature, which is on DBNL, and it did mention that you published for De Blauw Geruite Kiel back then and that you were a student. But maybe they didn’t have it entirely correct.
Well, I don’t remember. Maybe it’s true. I didn’t really study; I just did the teacher training, and that was only three years, so it was very short. Maybe it was in the last year; I don’t remember so well. It could be.
Did you write a lot before that?
It’s good that you’re asking now and not half a year ago because back then I would have said, “No, no, I only started later,” but I moved in the past six months and found all sorts of things. Then I did see that at the age of sixteen or seventeen – aside from attempting song lyrics earlier – I was already trying to write poems for children. So, yes, but I had totally forgotten about that. It has actually taken the form of what later became the Superguppie poems, and we’re talking about 25 years later. I do think that when I was sixteen, fifteen, sixteen, that desire to write arose.
And as a child?
No, not at all as a child, I think. I’m not sure what I did as a child – yes, games and things like that. [laughs] And music, a lot of music.
Any diaries perhaps?
No, I didn’t write diaries either. Maybe very briefly, occasionally for two days or so, but not really. I don’t think I’m the typical example of someone who has always written. It really came from music. So, listening to songs, thinking, “Oh, writing lyrics is fun,” and later thought, “Ah, poems for children, that seems a bit similar.” It didn’t come from a desire to write a book or anything like that.
It’s striking that as a teenager, you started writing for children immediately and not, for example, for other teenagers.
Well, I did compose songs and lyrics for adults or for school cabaret. But the short poems, yes, that was because, I think, I wanted to work in education and felt connected to it. I started reading Guus Kuijer back then, and I believe that had a significant influence. Just the language, and through those books, which I found fantastic, I began to think, “Oh, you can also write song lyrics for children, and that seems similar to poems” – something like that.
Now, I’m going to ask a very broad question. We jump 25 years ahead. You’ve gone through various stages of life during that period. Do you feel that your age has played a role in your writing process? Have things evolved? Or do you think, “I have become a different writer as I’ve grown older or had certain experiences”?
Yes, I think so. I must say beforehand that I always felt that it wasn’t entirely, I’ll say it in quotes, “fair” to use things from the life of an adult writer in children’s books. With the idea – this can be nuanced, it’s not always the case – then I’m actually hiding things in those books that don’t belong to children but are mine as a thirty, forty, fifty-year-old. So, in that way, you wouldn’t be able to see it directly; I don’t think you can find an autobiography of me in my work if you look at the topics. On the one hand, on the other hand, almost no book has started without my own interest. So those interests shift, of course. In that sense, I do believe that I now create books that I couldn’t have made 25 years ago, and vice versa. I think, for example, of a book like De dagen van de Bluegrassliefde (The Days of Bluegrass Love) that I wrote almost at the beginning, which is a thrilling love story. I had just had my first significant relationship; I had it for a few years already, but that was my only experience, and I think that directly influenced the writing of the book. Now, I don’t know if I could make such a vibrant love story now – at least, I could make it, but not as completely intuitive as back then. I didn’t think at all, “Oh, this topic is not there, let me work on it,” no, it just emerged. In that sense, you could say that it was very close to my age. The other thing is that writing books with young people, which I do quite often now, can only be done because I’m a bit older now, I think. On the one hand, there is a fascination with the fact that it’s a time in your life where so much changes and so much essential change happens. On the other hand, I think the calmness I could take and the interviews I did before writing the book – that applies, for example, to De gelukvinder (The Finder of Happiness) but also Het Kankerkampioenschap voor junioren (The Cancer Championship for Juniors) and Gloei (Glow), my latest major book – the calmness. I don’t think I could have done that earlier, that I would have taken it personally or something, the conversations that occur. Whereas now, I could actually receive it quite calmly, I think, and very openly, trying to hear as much as possible from the other and not fill in myself. Yes, it’s a bit of an extensive answer.
Another aspect of this is, for example, in De gelukvinder, which is entirely based on the experiences of Ramin, the boy I wrote it with. However, there was one scene that he couldn’t tell me or dared not tell me; it was too intimate – that was the farewell to his very best friend. I was able to fill in that scene based on his story and the warmth with which he talked about that boy, but also because, I think, I understood something about it. And the question is whether I could have done that twenty or ten years earlier. A book like Gloei, where I clearly tried to find something that reflected the current state of discourse on gender and sexuality for a young person, was born from the fact that I find it fascinating now, that it’s so free. I think I find it so fascinating because it hasn’t always been entirely free in my personal history, not very seriously or anything, but it’s not something I allowed myself to think very broadly about. Also because there was always trouble, and there were people who disapproved. That disapproval has just disappeared a bit, it has disappeared from my mind, and it has partly disappeared from society among young people. That made it a very warm and hopeful book to refute the fear that still exists. I could only make that now. Then I still see that as a writer, as a person, I am influenced by what the book has become. De gelukvinder has influenced me when it comes to how I thought about how brave are you yourself, or how alone, or how shameful are you, how would you react if it came down to it, you know, that’s an important theme in it. On the one hand, you can see that it occupied me, because otherwise, I wouldn’t have chosen those topics. On the other hand, I’ve learned a lot from it again. The same goes for Gloei, it occupied me, but then I discovered many things.
Can you be more specific about saying “I’ve learned a lot from it”?
Do you mean specifically about Gloei or both examples?
Maybe about Gloei, which is the most recent?
Well, what I’ve learned from that, what it has brought to me personally, is that I still – no, let me say something else first. When I had just finished it, I was talking to someone about this book, and that someone didn’t know my work at all and hadn’t read that book because it wasn’t out yet. I was telling about all those conversations, about all those young people, and then he said, “Where are you in this book?” I found that a good question because initially, I said, “Nowhere, because I’m just the interviewer. Yes, I made the poems, but not the interviews.” And later, I thought, “Yes, but I do ask certain questions, and I chose certain young people or felt fascinated by a few of the stories.” Now, looking back, I think, “Yes, I am very much in there,” in the quest for how belonging to the LGBTQIA+ community becomes a freedom rather than a limitation. Earlier, I thought, “That’s an aspect of me, and I’m not so ashamed of it, but I don’t always have to talk about it, it’s a self-aspect like my love for football or, well, that I live in a certain city.” Now I think it’s a much broader aspect; it’s not just about sexuality, it’s about having bumped into something at a young age. You realize that you’re not necessarily like everyone around you on all levels and what that yields. All 25 young people I spoke to, no matter how broad or limited their experiences were, have gone through that. They all understood about themselves at the age of fourteen, thirteen, sixteen, “Okay, that’s different from me,” and then that either became a great pride or a difficulty, or they encountered people around them who brought them much further in that or restricted them. Whatever it was, they had to think about something; they had to think more fundamentally about their lives than a lot of other people. I don’t always mean specifically about gender or orientation – you can just as well be heterosexual cisgender and have to think about not being the same as others due to various circumstances (such as illnesses in your family or death or certain character traits). It’s not limited to that aspect, but well, they had to do it anyway, and that made me feel: now I understand why that fascinates me so much. I find the turns in someone’s life incredibly special, and I’ve developed a feeling that is very hopeful. So much is going wrong now; the climate isn’t really good, shall we say [laughs], corona isn’t really good, let’s also say, politics also not really. But the discourse on gender and sexuality is a very hopeful thing for me; it’s progress. Things go wrong there, of course, but at the same time, a lot is happening. So, it also meets my need to be optimistic.
Has it also made you look at your younger self differently? Have you realized things about your younger self by talking to those young people?
Well, I think that’s a more gradual thing; I’ve also started reading a lot of queer books in the last five, six years. But about my younger self… Well, look, my parents died, seven years and three years ago, so fairly recently, and that means in a life that you no longer get visual or narrated information about yourself because childhood is closed. I can’t ask my parents anymore about how I was when I was eleven. But when we were cleaning up the parental home last year, my brother found all sorts of slides, a lot of them, and he digitized them this winter. We had never seen them before, so suddenly there was a huge treasure trove of visual information about our childhood; there were slides from all family vacations in the ’70s until around 1982. I suddenly saw us, but also myself, as a child on screen and in relation to my parents, to my brother and sister, and in some cases, my perception of myself changed. For example, I saw a photo of myself at fourteen, a very unpleasant time in my memory, also a very depressive period at school, I didn’t feel well at school, was a little boy from a village on a very big school of two thousand young people and children, and, in my feeling, only had sarcastic teachers [laughs]. It was okay, there were also a few nice ones back then, but generally, it was distant and, yes, I wasn’t seen. And I saw that little picture, it was taken on vacation, and I’m in a gondola in Venice, looking back because my mother is calling my name, and she, flash, takes a photo right in my face. When I showed it to someone, I said, “Look, I don’t know this photo of myself at all; I don’t recognize myself in it,” but it was a very good photo, and I also said, “I mainly see that introverted, closed-off boy, who knows the world might go the other way, and I don’t know how to deal with that” and so on. To which that person said, “Really? I see a very lively, enthusiastic boy” [laughs], and that made me understand that that was also in there. You ask: did I start thinking differently about myself? I now have a somewhat different idea of those years, I think, “Oh yes, those were depressive years, but I was always busy inventing things and coming up with things and, yes, playing, actually.” Yes, with music, with magazines, and things like that, and I saw that boy at fourteen, and for the first time, I thought, “That’s a young person who knows he’s not into girls.” I didn’t know that 100 percent yet, but it was already on my mind. And then I thought, “Oh, what has that actually brought to him?” so I also saw that it might have been a bit difficult. It wasn’t just miserable, though; I had a very nice family; it wasn’t a difficult childhood, but I think by talking to these young people now, in combination with that photo, I saw myself more as a person at fourteen, fifteen than before. Before, I always thought, “That’s so long ago; I don’t know anything about that anymore, I don’t recognize that child anymore,” now I think, “Well, I don’t think much has changed.”
Do you find it difficult to write about characters who are much younger or older than yourself? Does that come naturally to you, or do you really have to work on it?
No, I mean, not to sound arrogant, but that’s not the difficulty of writing. No. I also don’t feel like I actively do it myself; it just happens. A character like that is there, walking around, saying things. I don’t mean that very mystically, but yeah, I think a lot of characters are mixed memories. There’s a part of what I understand about people or what I understand about myself. But the moment I’ve found a name for them and know what they look like, very vaguely, it doesn’t even have to be very definitive, then they can start walking, running, jumping, talking, so, no, I don’t find that very difficult.
You relatively rarely write about really old people? I’ve been thinking – I haven’t read everything of yours, but quite a bit – and I thought about the grandparents in Toen kwam Sam (Then Came Sam), and apart from that, I couldn’t immediately recall very prominent older figures in your work.
Ah, well, not very often, but in Wat ik vergat (What I Forgot), an early book, I do talk about a relationship of a boy with his demented grandfather, and Kleinvader (Grandchildfather), the picture book with Ingrid Godon, has a bit of that too. But indeed, not very much, I think.
Is that because you find it difficult or because you’re less concerned with older figures?
Wat ik vergat actually originated from a memory. When I was 19, I worked one summer in a nursing home for elderly people with dementia, so that’s where that came from. It wasn’t specifically from a character or anything. And I was much more concerned with that boy, Elmer, the main character, than with the grandfather. Actually, in Kleinvader, it’s not really about the grandfather because it mainly focuses on the boy. In Toen kwam Sam, well, you know, it has less to do with creation because a large part of what’s in there actually happened, so the grandfather is somewhat modeled after the children’s grandfather in the book. Let me think: whether I find it difficult?
Oh no, sorry, I remember what I wanted to say now. When I had written Wat ik vergat, I did feel, “Oh yes, now I’ve really addressed a topic that many writers do because they are dealing with it themselves when they reach a certain age, they come into contact with their parents who get sick or demented.” Later, when I started reading a lot more, I saw that it happens very quickly. There are just a lot of authors, especially from the literary field, who write about grandparents who are sick, about death, about dementia, relatively often. And that’s just because we are confronted with it ourselves. I felt for a while that it’s not always, I have to say it very carefully, but that it’s not always entirely fair. At least, I don’t think it’s fair when, for example, the child’s breath disappears from a book because of that, and if you clearly see an adult writing their own story and happen to cram in a child protagonist. Now I’m saying that in quite an extreme manner, often it’s much more nuanced, of course, and it’s actually not that serious. But I have always thought, “I don’t want to write such a book.” I also thought for a long time, “I’m not going to write books about death.” Look, at the beginning of my career, I wrote some books that I thought were the way it should be – Wat ik vergat was one of those books – because they come from myself, but I thought, “You can’t just write cheerful books about children, there has to be something serious in it too” – in that case that was dementia.
Dom konijn (Silly Rabbit) is a picture book with Gerda Dendooven from the beginning. That was also about how you can see death. I still stand behind that – it’s not that I don’t think it’s a good book, but later I thought: “I want to move towards topics that resonate with more children.” Of course, I want to write it in my own way, but that was the case for a long time. Of course, as I told you, my parents have passed away, and I was very involved in both cases, as were my brother and sister. My father also had dementia, and I visited him very often, and that was a very beautiful time because my mother died of cancer, she wasn’t demented, but that lasted a long time, two years, so I consciously experienced that. I haven’t really used those two things in my work yet. The dying of my mother, I’ve incorporated a tiny bit into one of the Sofie series, not the dying but the illness. Now I think, I’m going to start a new book tomorrow [laughs], now I think I’ve found a way to process dealing with my father’s dementia in a relatively cheerful children’s book. And that book will be completely… I don’t think many people will recognize my personal story in it; my brother and sister will not say, “Hey, that’s about dad” – well, maybe they still will say it, but many people won’t. But I do think that I want to write about the beautiful side of it, being with someone in their last days, whom you first thought you didn’t have much connection with, but because someone is dementing and becoming dependent and asked for my help, turned me into a different kind of son (that’s what happened), from “Oh, I don’t know this man, and I don’t know what I have to do with this man” to “I actually want to hug him,” you know, all the time I want that – that change, I want to write about that. I just didn’t think about it properly before, then I thought for a while, “I’m not going to put autobiographical things in my books because I don’t think that’s entirely right.” Now I think, “Yes, but only if I do it in a way that children can also relate to,” like not leaving out the humor or the suspense. Those are two big elements in that.
I just read your book Papa is een ijsbeer (Dad is a Polar Bear) and I feel like it’s already in there a bit. It’s about the children, but it’s also about the father and how they try to understand each other.
Yes, by the way, that’s not at all from an autobiographical fact. Not at all – only that I was dealing with polar bears for a while and read a lot about them for another book.
I do find very beautiful in that book that the caring is on both sides. So I’m curious about the book you will write about your father’s dementia.
Yes, also very complicated. Maybe I won’t succeed at all; it’s not necessarily only about dementia, but it is indeed exciting to see how that can be. But still, about Papa is een ijsbeer: that’s a good example in the sense that – of course, it’s about a divorce and about being the child of divorced parents, but I can only make that, I find, because there’s an enormous warmth in it. Also in the drawings, but you feel that both the father and the mother, despite the divorce, love the children a lot, and the things that go wrong don’t go wrong because they are malicious. There’s actually a lot of warmth in it, and that’s why I think I can take on those kinds of topics.
Some authors I have interviewed sometimes mention news articles or, like Aidan Chambers, also read a lot of professional literature, referring to psychological literature to better write – in their view – about adolescents, for example. Do you do that sometimes? Are you also inspired by books or articles you read about children and young people?
No, I don’t think so, no. It can be a story idea that I read somewhere or saw in a movie, something that sticks a bit, but then it’s more that I think, “Oh, that fits with the story I already wanted to create.” It’s not that I suddenly think, “This will be the plot of my next book,” and not like Aidan, where you really study how things work with young people or so, no, no.
What about the concrete living world of young people? Recently, there was an interview with Jan Terlouw, who says, “I no longer have a feel for it.” Aidan told me that the whole social media phenomenon was the end for him of the desire to write for young people. Their living world has evolved due to technology, and especially social media, so much that it is too far removed from what he still wants to write about or what he wants to engage with. Do you find that an obstacle, the concrete living world of young people?
No. I don’t understand it, but social media, for example, doesn’t scare me off, although I don’t have TikTok, I don’t need to start with that. It’s not necessary, but I could. Not making videos, not that, but I mean, I could become aware of it if it were important for a project. It doesn’t scare me off, but it is true that I do all those things – that’s no different than ten years ago – only through others. So if that is going to be part of a book, it is because I heard about it from someone else. I consciously won’t do that, write a book about a fourteen-year-old that I made up. No. There has to be someone behind it who tells me about how their life is. It’s not that I want to delve into it, that’s not it.
But you haven’t done that so far, because Aidan, for example, does or did. If you dive into his archive, you’ll see that he sometimes asks very concrete questions to young people, like “send me song lyrics from this or that” or “what are you busy with,” “what have you read,” those kinds of things.
But what do you mean, that I haven’t done that?
Or maybe you have done it already?
To ask for information in that way, you mean, for a character?
Yes, about young people.
It works differently because I haven’t written young adult books without someone behind them. The only – look, the book where I did that the least visibly is Oliver, from 2015, about an eighteen-year-old Norwegian boy, no, he’s sixteen in the book. But there I just did a lot of research, and I went to Norway a lot and talked to a lot of people. I did the research back then, but it wasn’t specifically for the youth part. It was more about what it’s like growing up as a silent athlete in Norway. And what does the nature look like there, so let’s say the emotional part, of not wanting to talk about something and avoiding something, I didn’t ask anyone about that. But if it really is about… For me, the limit is really around the age of twelve. Above twelve, I won’t write books without it actually being about someone else, whom I know very well, you can call that research or call it a person connected to that book, whatever. Like I did with De gelukvinder and with Gloei and with all those other books. Under twelve, it’s a bit easier because maybe childhood is a bit more general. You don’t necessarily have to put all kinds of things from today into a book to have a credible book. And besides, I still have nieces in that age [laughs], they’re just a bit older, but I have noticed that I sometimes asked them, “What kind of games do you play,” or I noticed or saw it or something. So in that sense, yes. Maybe I would ask that first. This week, a book is coming out, it’s called Rekenen voor je leven (Counting for Your Life), a half non-fiction book about math education. I wrote 21 stories for it about 21 eleven-year-old children, and they are all different, and it was a very diverse school where they go. I didn’t ask 21 different children for that. I just wrote it, but I did a lot of research, not literally asking the children, but yes… There was one, for example, about a Surinamese girl growing up in a Surinamese Dutch family, and then I really wanted a certain kind – it was about her mother cooking, and I wanted a controversial dish to come out, like Brussels sprouts are controversial for us. So I did ask a Surinamese Dutch person, what can I put in here, like that. But in terms of psychology, I didn’t feel like I was fooling anyone by writing this without a co-author I asked. So far, I feel confident about that. That can, of course, change.
It seems to be more about a kind of cultural frame of reference than something specifically age-related, of course. I also wanted to ask you a few questions about the age of readers and how that may or may not play a role in your work. I read a piece by you – it’s a bit older, from 2000 from Literatuur zonder leeftijd (Literature Without Age), where you were very critical of categorisation in youth literature and adolescent literature in particular. How do you view it now, the classification into age categories in youth literature?
I don’t remember exactly what I said back then. What was that about?
It was about the disdain for youth literature. A young person with whom you had contact had sensible things to say about De dagen van de bluegrassliefde but still wasn’t allowed to read it for the list, and it was about the division into reading limits.
Yes, I remember that it was a real example of what I had experienced at the time, and I think that was also the topic of the article I was asked to write. I wrote about it then. I must say that later and still today, I think, “Well, you know.” Let me clarify: I find it very wrong if young people are not allowed to read literature published by a youth publisher, I still think that’s criminal. But I won’t quickly champion the cause that youth literature should be viewed more maturely by adults than adult books. I don’t need to be read by adults. If that happens, that’s fine, but the main thing is that at least a few young people read those books. Whether they say much about it or not, if I’ve felt somewhere that the book is saved because a few young people considered it important, that’s sufficient. Whether there is then no attention paid to it on TV or radio programs, well, I don’t care much about that. Aside from sales. Of course, it’s nice for the publisher, but I wouldn’t quickly proclaim, “We are also very serious writers,” because I don’t write for adults. It’s not necessary; I don’t need to have equally large pieces in the newspaper as they do. I think it’s fair, I also think it’s nice, but that shouldn’t be the very first response we should get.
Regarding age limits, I think the more literary a book is – no, books where accessibility is coupled with a literary quality spread naturally. Hopefully, they reach younger children because of their accessibility and adults, a few adults, like to read them because of their literary value. That’s very nice if that happens. The goal isn’t necessarily to stretch the age limits as much as possible; I don’t care much about that, but I do try to do my job very well. So, I genuinely try to write a book that is also innovative in terms of language, structure, and originality. That’s because that’s the kind of book I like to read myself. In addition, I want them to be understandable, and you don’t have to think, “What is this vagueness or what kind of language experiment is this,” that’s not my kind of work. I genuinely try to achieve the marriage of those two. But I intentionally make it accessible for young people and children because that’s the drawbridge they can walk over to the book, but I don’t make it literary to attract adults. It’s nice if that happens, but I would do it anyway because that’s the kind of language I find interesting.
Do you sometimes think when you write that adults are also reading along, or is that not something you are concerned about?
[pause] I don’t think very concretely about readers, not specifically – that’s always a difficult question because I don’t think about no audience either, that’s not the case either. The safe answer would be to say that I actually always write a book for the main character; there’s something in that, there’s always a kind of reader I see in front of me who roughly has the characteristics of the main character, that’s true, as if I want to do them justice as well as possible. I want to convince my own main character that the book I am writing about him or her is allowed to exist, even though it’s a fictional book. And if there is already an adult audience, then I am that in the first instance, I think. I really have to enjoy what is written, and when I read it aloud, it sounds good. Yes. And maybe way in the distance, there’s still a kind of adult entity that resembles a mixture of avid readers and reviewers, not in the sense that I think, “What will the critics think of this,” but yes – but that’s a really distant person – that I feel like, I want them to see that it’s original, that I’m trying to do something I haven’t done before, or that I think I need to try now. So, if I’m being completely honest, that’s still a bit there, but even there, I’m partly that reviewer myself. I am really looking at what literature I have read for this age and how my ideas fit into that and whether it looks too much like what someone else is doing, and so on. But that is really a kind of fifteenth person that I might think about. [laughs]
Within children’s literature itself, your work is quite diverse. It ranges from fiction, non-fiction, to poetry, but also in terms of age. You cover all age groups within children’s literature. Is that something that plays a role? You mentioned focusing on the main character; is that the guiding principle in terms of age, or are there other factors at play? Perhaps instructions from publishers or such?
No, not the latter… I think the genre comes first, so I do think, “Oh, now I want to create a read-aloud book,” or “Now I want to create a young adult book.” But it always comes with an idea; there are many more ideas than the books I actually write. I might say now, “I’ll start on that one book tomorrow,” but I could also start working on several other ideas. Those things are always varied on their own, and occasionally, I might think, “I haven’t written a young adult book for a while,” or I think, “I haven’t really written a reading book for 9 plus, 10 plus for some time” – which, by the way, is one of the most challenging, in my opinion, it’s almost the pinnacle within children’s literature if you can create a good book in that category. I find it the most difficult because it has to meet many criteria simultaneously. There are also the fewest of those kinds of really good books, I think. Technically, they are very challenging because you have to combine originality with pace, and especially connect plot with content, warmth with a certain fluency in reading, so many things come into play at the same time. Plot development is really complicated too. I must say, the longer I write, the more complicated I find it. In the beginning, I never thought about it and just made something, and, yes, a story emerged. Now, I tend to think, “Yes, but it needs to go deeper, there needs to be another layer, it needs to have a universal value,” – there are many more criteria.
Mhm, yes. I hope you try it again because you have made some beautiful books in that age category, like De raadsels van Sam (The Riddles of Sam), for example, and Toen kwam Sam. I might even place Papa is een ijsbeer in that age category, but I don’t really know where it’s classified in the library.
I think it’s something like that, but for me, it’s not really a read-aloud book. The book is like the books about Sam, and I don’t remember how I made them; they just happened to me, so [laughs] – I’ve had that with more books. But I don’t have a very clear idea now of “if I want that, I have to approach it this way,” I just don’t know.
Yes, that’s okay [laughs]. As long as they’re good! Has it ever happened that you were writing a book with a certain idea in mind, maybe for a specific age group, and then it shifted, and you thought, “I can’t do this for that age group,” or “It’s wrong”?
I experienced that once with a book, later titled Het lekkere van pesten (The Pleasure of Bullying). It was about a boy I met, again in collaboration with someone, who was a male model or is. He was, I think, 27 at the time, and he talked about the time when he was severely bullied in high school. So, I thought it would be a book for young people, and when we were working on it, it turned out that the setup and his way of telling the story were more suited to an adult book. But I still don’t find that – I find it an interesting book, and I think what that boy told was very good, and there are some good aspects, but it’s not my best book because I feel less interested in literature for adults. But it didn’t start that way; if I wanted to make a book about bullying for adults, I would have read a lot more secondary literature about it or something. So, it has happened, but it’s not the happiest when it happens.
Is Gloei then the first book of yours that appeared as an adult book? Is that correct?
No, it didn’t appear as an adult book. No, it was published by Querido Glow – that’s an imprint of Querido children’s books. Otherwise, it couldn’t have received a Griffel (note: a Dutch literary award).
Have you ever published a book for adults then?
Het lekkere van pesten, that book.
Ah, I misunderstood that, sorry. I thought that was also a children’s book.
No, it was published by Athenaeum. It was initially with Querido, and then they said, “Shouldn’t it be with Athenaeum,” which was under Querido at that time. It was called Singel 262 back then, so that’s where it was published. The informational book about the Eurovision Song Contest that came out last year, I think, has an adult NUR as well as a children’s one. It’s both, so it’s a bit ageless.
Maybe. Is Het lekkere van pesten the most relevant example here in your interaction with the publisher, for instance, or in your own perception of the writing process?
[pause] Yes, well, that started with an editor from Querido children’s books. It then got passed on to an editor from Athenaeum, I don’t know, and I already knew that person personally. But I still think: “If I want to write a book for adults, I want to do that entirely; it wasn’t the goal of the book.” The same with De gelukvinder – that also came out as an adult book, with the same text. It doesn’t bring me joy; I’m okay with them doing it, but it doesn’t mean anything to me. It’s not like I think, “Oh, now I finally have a book for adults,” no, I actually find it – with Het lekkere van pesten, I even find it a bit regrettable that it was published there. I agree, there was no other option, but that makes it somewhat outside of my books for me. So, whenever I have an interview and I say, I work with young people, I notice that I only mention the young people from the books published by Querido. Even though I could just as well mention Julian, with whom I made that book, but in my head, I often forget him. Not because he’s not good, it’s not a failed book, but it’s somewhat fallen outside.
Can you imagine, and you hopefully know I say this with the utmost respect for children’s literature, but can you imagine that you might want to write a book for adults someday?
No. I don’t think that’s going to happen. If it happens, it’s by chance, but it’s not driven by a strong desire. It’s even the opposite because you’ve mentioned something about it – you know Het griezelmeisje (The Horror Girl) the book I made with Isabelle Vandenabeele. And when I see it now, I still see that the illustrations are fantastic; I think it’s one of Isabelle’s best books, but I’m not very happy with the text. Not because the text isn’t good, but the text is for adults in a book that was released for children. I still feel that’s something that doesn’t fit.
Where does that adult element in the text come from for you?
It’s about a girl who discusses her bitter experiences with men, and it’s about the point where she says: “Now I don’t want men to touch my body anymore; I decide that myself.” In that sense, it’s related to Rood, rood, roodkapje (Red, Red, Red Riding Hood), which also learns to say no, and I still find that perspective interesting, people who suddenly stand up for themselves. But while the Red Riding Hood from that book is clearly a child, the girl from Het griezelmeisje is not a girl but a young woman. She has already had sexual experiences with men; that’s what it’s about. So it’s not about it being too gruesome or heads being cut off – that can happen in a children’s book [laughs], that’s not an issue – but essentially, it’s not about something children could experience. I find that a bit unfair for myself. Not in service of the book, again, because I know why I did it, and it was really at the request of the publisher, at Isabelle’s request. I only said ‘yes’ because I find those illustrations beautiful, so it’s not that, but I always felt: that’s a picture book that falls outside my work.
The interesting thing is that it builds on a fairy tale where that element is also very present, which actually is about adults, of course, with Bluebeard. I do think it’s a fantastic text, though. [laughs]
[laughs] Thank you; it’s not that I don’t find it good as a work of art. I see that there are good things in the text too, but still – there are, of course, more fairy tales that deal with sexuality or something that’s actually for adults, which children can still enjoy. But I think Bluebeard is never really – it’s not the first fairy tale you think of when you think of children’s fairy tales. Unlike Red Riding Hood, even though Red Riding Hood and also Sleeping Beauty, they also have a very sexual component, and that’s also written from an ancient concept that is more rooted in adult society, I think. But you’re right because it’s a fairy tale, it can still work. If I had truly written about a woman of today, with a name, that really wouldn’t have worked. That book was nominated for the Children and Youth Jury Flanders, and then you come to such a day where many children have read the book, and they’ve read eight books and selected their favorites, and then there was a show, a theater show where all of us authors had to walk on stage one by one, and when it was announced, “And now, the author of Het griezelmeisje,” many children started to boo [laughs]. That was terrible, but I understood them, I understood them well. Because I thought, “Yes, compared to those other books that truly are about you, what do you do with this here?” As a work of art, yes, but as a book communicating with children, no.
Do you often receive reactions from children who send you emails or approach you?
Not so much in person, but at book signings sometimes, and occasionally through emails. It has to happen because if it never did, I would be swimming in some kind of vacuum.
Have you ever learned something about your own work from these children’s reactions, or have you been surprised by their interpretations?
Well, yes, the reactions I received for De bluegrassliefde completely changed my writing. That had a significant impact. I’ve always received the most reactions on that book, and on De gelukvinder, but especially on the former. They were passionate reactions, extremely passionate. It’s not like I got thousands of responses, not at all, but a considerable number, and they truly taught me. All those young people who wrote emails, their collective message was like: “You can continue writing, you may. There’s an audience on the other side, and this is how they react to your book.” That really determined that the other side, the readers, remained important for me. There need to be outstretched hands ready to catch the book, and while it might be just a few, they must be there. I’ve said this many times, I visualize the book I’m writing becoming one that children hold close to their chests, or a young person who identifies with it and says, “This is me, this belongs to me.” It shouldn’t be the author’s anymore, not Edward van de Vendel’s, but theirs. They can forget my name on it because they should make the book their own, something that nudged them in a certain direction. If that happens, then the book can exist, and that’s what I genuinely aim for.
Is this also true for younger children? Have you received reactions that confirm your path or maybe offered a new perspective on certain books?
Yes, I strongly felt that with Toen kwam Sam. I sensed it before, too, that this is a book that matters, or a story that matters, I should say. It’s one of my most-read books, along with the second one, and it’s been translated quite a bit, so I sometimes get similar reactions from abroad. Even there, you see kids saying, “Is there going to be another part?” or “Can it be about this animal next time?” or “I always laugh at that particular side character.” These reactions continually validate my legitimacy to create these kinds of books. Or kids writing that their new favorite animal is an okapi. That kind of feedback.
Gloei now has the highest ratings on Goodreads among all my books. Maybe not because of the book itself, but because of its specificity, as it brings something not broadly explored into the light. It’s not a book that’s assigned in schools or on reading lists, which could lead to more negative reviews because when you don’t get to choose, you might not like a book as much. People genuinely choose to read it because they want to. So, while I understand why it has such a high rating, the descriptions people give on Goodreads sometimes really make me hopeful and happy about this book. For example, I was more moved by this award than I think all the other awards. This might sound arrogant, given that I’ve received several awards, but this one was so… I was convinced that it couldn’t get any award, for all the reasons, considering its age group and the fact that it’s an interview book. Yet, it turned out to be a hopeful book, and the fact that both the interviewer and illustrator were recognized, coupled with those reactions, meant a lot.
This was actually a beautiful closing statement, but I’ll still ask one more question. I want to go back to the publisher. Have you ever had discussions with your publisher about the age group? It could be about the target audience’s age, whether certain things are suitable or not for a particular age group, such as themes, word choices, or anything else?
Not so often. I think it’s because I read a lot myself, so I often test what’s out there. But it can happen occasionally. A good example is Vosje (Little Fox). Vosje was a book that I had written in a slightly different version. In the beginning of this version, Vosje jumps off a bunker and loses consciousness. In the first version, he got hit by a car and lost consciousness. I didn’t find it that shocking because nothing really happens to him, and he gets better in the end. However, the publisher and Marije, the illustrator, said, “No, that’s too intense. You can’t do that for children, for this age group,” which is 6+, 7+. “It’s just too shocking at the beginning; you have to change that.” And I didn’t see that at first because I thought, “He’s not going to die in the end anyway,” but, of course, you don’t know that in the beginning. So, I even ran it by Bibi Dumon Tak, my best friend, who initially said, before reading it, “Yeah, but those are young mothers at the publishing house, they’re a bit more sensitive. I think it should be fine.” Then, after reading it, she said, “No, Edward, they’re right; you can’t do that.”
[laughs] And you didn’t mind making the adjustment?
No, because it wasn’t crucial for the book. It could be just as well the way it is now, and that’s the only change made. But it’s an example; it doesn’t happen very often.
Great, yes. I think I’ve asked all the questions I wanted to ask. I don’t know if you have anything in mind that could be relevant or something you still want to share?
No, I think we’ve discussed a lot of things.