Interview with Joke Van Leeuwen

Date: 26 November 2020
Interviewer: Vanessa Joosen
Transcript: Lotte Huyge
Photo: Brenda van Leeuwen
Translation: Lindsey Geybels

VJ: When you debuted, you were about twenty-five years old. Did you write a lot before that?

JVL: Yes, for myself. From elementary school, I wrote long adventurous stories with at least one girl in the lead role, countering the stereotypical girls’ books [laughs]. Since I was young, I wanted to write and draw later on.

Have there been periods when you did not write?

No, no, in my adolescence, I wrote poems that I wouldn’t show to anyone anymore. I also made booklets that I put together, with drawings, of course, and text. Yes, and I wrote songs. I was in a Protestant youth club in Brussels – many Dutch people there – and every year we did a kind of music performance on a specific topic, and I wrote all the song lyrics. Another boy composed and added music. I’ve mentioned this before; at home, we had a lot of encouragement, a house orchestra, I had the house newspaper, we held a few home song festivals… I never stopped doing it; it was really what I wanted. I just didn’t know how, of course; there was no internet, and I didn’t know how to become a writer – well, those kinds of things…

Your debut contains many images. Was that an important reason for you to debut with a children’s book? Or were there other considerations for publishing your first book for children?

No, it was quite simple, actually. It was the idea of “I write and I draw.” I thought, “Children’s books have illustrations, so let me try that.” There were no children around for miles in those days, but it seemed logical to me. And by doing that, I discovered… yes… how much fun it can be. I mean, if it’s not educational, if it’s not well-behaved, but if it’s a bit… as Alison Lurie says: a bit subversive. And what fun things you can do with it. Besides, I was involved in cabaret for adults. Especially in the Netherlands, because it didn’t work out here at first. So, I was working for both children and adults at that time, but in two different forms.

I’d like to come back to that in a moment because these two tracks seem to be a constant in your writing career. Now, as I mentioned earlier, you have become a lot older in the course of your writing career. Do you feel that your age played a role in the way your authorship developed, in terms of certain themes that suddenly became interesting to you, which you hadn’t thought about before, or in a different way?

I think that as you get older, you know what you can do and, therefore, stand more firmly on your feet. You also care a little less… I didn’t care in the beginning either, with my first books; I didn’t know what the trend was at that time. But it’s not like I thought, “Because I’m getting older, I’m going to write more for adults.” I started with poetry in the early ’90s. It stemmed from my cabaret texts; I wanted to expand it, be freer, write more poetry. And at some point, also due to my personal life, I felt that I wasn’t mentally jumpy enough for children’s books. Well, that passed thankfully. In the same period, I started experimenting more for adults. And, of course, that has expanded a lot, so I alternate between different genres all the time. Novels, poetry, and children’s books. And sometimes non-fiction or a comic book. With poetry, I now feel that with my long poem Levenslust (Zest for Life), I have found a new form. It’s not that I write more about old people as I get older.

You mentioned earlier that in the ’90s your mind was less agile…

Yes, to write good children’s literature, there must be some basic agility, a freshness in your thoughts. You identify with beginning people in a certain way. I thought, would I still be able to do that? But that passed, and I started experimenting again with a different kind of children’s books.

So, it was more about your own feeling?

It was related to a somewhat challenging period with many obstacles. It was also related to the computer, Photoshop, being able to put books together myself; in 2003, I created Kweenie (Idunno). It became a new form for me. You could even make droplets fall on the text as if the protagonist were crying. That book didn’t do anything in the Netherlands at the time; the Netherlands was becoming flatter and more commercial. Still, it did well in Germany and Flanders… So, yes, it came back. I feel that as I become more wrinkled on the outside, that inner agility is increasing. I can just keep hopping.

You already answered my next question to some extent: if you ever found it difficult to create characters or empathize with characters significantly younger or older than yourself and how you do it?

No, I don’t find that difficult. I’ve said it before… People sometimes said, “Wow, you can empathize so well with children.” I think, yes, we have all been children, and I also empathize equally well with a male character, and I’ve never been one. So, it’s just a matter of empathy and keeping your eyes open…

I also thought, for example, of a character like Ada, from Alles nieuw (Everything New), who was considerably older… How did that go?

I don’t even remember. You look, you look closely, and you see things. I think there are novelists who can only write about themselves or things they are dealing with, and on the other hand, people who write more from the environment, others, or the world. I think I belong to the second category, although sometimes I think, “Should I write autobiographically?” [laughs] I haven’t done that yet. In the book for the Confituur bookstores, Niet met de wattman spreken (Don’t talk to the wattman), I did, but not otherwise.

Some authors actively seek out professional literature, read psychology, and so on. Aidan Chambers is a good example of that. His entire bookshelf is full of books about adolescents, the characters he often writes about. Have you ever been inspired in that way by things you read, or have you actively sought them out? Or is that something that doesn’t fit into your writing process at all?

Not when it comes to psychology or such things. But I do conduct research. Let me give you a few examples: for children, I remember, let me think, that was Kukel, who wraps himself as a gift to reach the queen. They are together by the pool, and they go swimming, and the queen finds it all very pleasant… I remember reading a book about Mao Tse Tung’s life, and I read in there that Mao received his guests by the pool. So, that ended up in that children’s book. Such things can happen. Or certain stories from my father: that as a boy, he was in nature with his father, and they both had to pee. The connection he felt then – I think that’s in Het verhaal van Bobbel die in een bakfiets woonde en rijk wilde worden (The Story of Bobbel who Lived in a Cargo Bike and Wanted to Become Rich). For my historical novels, I do conduct research. But it’s not like I build a character based on what I read in a scientific, psychological book about certain ages. Sometimes I think of a particular person or a mixture of certain people. It’s just stored in me.

Has parenthood influenced you in this regard as well? Because that is also an answer I sometimes get to that question; people who are inspired by their own children or anecdotes from their interactions with their children…

Not at all in the beginning because I didn’t have a child then, and there was also no friends with a child. So, it had no influence at that time. But yes, when I had my son, I naturally looked at him a lot. There are certainly things in my stories that I saw in him, yes… Sometimes very literally. I once made a little verse, ‘Zorgen’ (‘Worries’): “Mama he says / one morning, if / dinosaurs never / exist again, can that ever / happen with bears and people / too, and where / did you lay out my clothes?” [laughs] It’s almost exactly what he said when he was seven. Standing at the top of the stairs, that philosophical age.

Some authors also feel that their characters almost take on a life of their own. Have you ever felt that you learned something from your characters?

Well, what struck me sometimes is that by writing, I saw in those characters what I was dealing with, for example, one of my dilemmas.

Do you sometimes reread older works that you have written yourself? You often stand on stage, so probably. But do you ever feel that you start looking at older work differently as you yourself have become older?

Not so much in my older work; I see how it evolves, especially with drawings. Just the practical aspect alone, I used to make a lot of pen drawings with such a small dip pen. At some point, your eyes also age a bit, and I don’t find it so pleasant to do anymore. That’s what I like about the computer; you can enlarge the image. Deesje has been reprinted because of my forty years of writing, and then you see again how dangerous it is to include technical things in it. That’s not a problem because I just say when I read it aloud: “That’s how it was then.” In Maar ik ben Frederik, zei Frederik (But I am Frederick, said Frederick), I also write that it played out when there were no computers yet. The whole story of Deesje depends on the fact that she doesn’t have her own phone. That wasn’t the case at that time. So, she went to a phone booth. Those are things that change quickly. But that doesn’t matter much for such a book. I quote Erich Kästner somewhere, who presented it as a funny impossible story in his book De 35ste mei (The 35th of May) in the 1930s, that someone suddenly picked up the phone in the middle of the street and started calling.

For some authors, such evolutions are a reason not to want to write for children anymore. I talked about this with Aidan Chambers, and he said that all these technological evolutions were actually a reason for him to stop writing for adolescents.

Because he thinks it should be included?

Yes, and he was mainly talking about social media. He said, “That’s something I can’t and don’t want to follow,” but at the same time, he felt that he couldn’t write for adolescents without including it. Anne Fine, I don’t know if you know her, I also interviewed her, and she said something similar; she also said that it creates a big distance for her with children and young people of today… How do you view that, the evolving technology in the lives of children and young people?

Yes, I think it can also go very well without including that technology. Often things change so quickly – it’s like using fashionable words. Miep Diekmann had that sometimes; I remember that from earlier. I’m not on social media since a fake account was created for me on Facebook. Figure it out yourself, I think. I understand their friction, but the essence is not social media; the essence is human life. And yes, I have never really written for teenagers; I also switched from children’s books to adult books myself. Except for my book Bezoekjaren (Visitation Years), but that was also intended for adults. The essence is not technology. It could very well be that there are young people again – I’m fantasizing now, maybe too hopefully – who think: “It’s so peaceful not to have that restlessness for a while and completely disappear into a book and into the lives of others…” I hope so anyway. I do see a difference between Flanders and the Netherlands in that regard.

How so?

Well, in 2018, I believe, they looked at the ten most borrowed children’s books in the Netherlands, and those were only the Loser and Boomhut (Treehouse) series. So, simple books with simple drawings, easy content. It’s also about this sensitivity to hype. While here, more effort is made, also with the children and youth jury, to show them: “Look, these books are also there, read them too.” So, at least they come across them. I feel that the Netherlands is not really proud anymore of its best children’s book writers; they still talk about Annie M.G. Schmidt, about Jip and Janneke, saying it was a bit stereotypical, with the housewife and Janneke with dolls, and such an opinionated letter writer who then said: “Yes, I do read it, but I’ll turn it around, I’ll put the father to do the dishes.” And then I think: “Guys, there are generations after that who have written beautiful books, also for young children, take a look!” In the Netherlands, it was so good in the ’80s; there were journalists writing about it. In Flanders, it really started in the ’90s, in the Netherlands, the attention is much less now.

Here, we could use a bit more, I think [laughs].

Oh, definitely. But just the fact that there is such a thing as a word academy or a word department of an academy. I go there sometimes because they use my books and my rhymes, and then I see a lot of different children, including children with parents wearing headscarves, to put it cliché. Something like that exists here, and it doesn’t exist in the Netherlands. So, I do find that a difference. I also have friends who work at the radio, at VRT, who told me how much they benefited from it as children.

That actually brings us straight to the next theme I wanted to address. Have you ever been inspired by readers’ reactions to your books, or have they ever given you a new perspective on a story you had written?

It’s more the other way around, that they say I’ve given them a new perspective. [laughs] Sometimes, I get very nice reactions. Recently, a beautiful note, handwritten, from a seven-year-old, that she was walking in the forest with her mom, and they were thinking about Mooi boek (Beautiful Book), and suddenly they saw an ‘A’ somewhere in the twigs, and that fantastic mom and child went on to search for the whole alphabet in the woods.

Oh, superb! [laughs]

I like that they deal with it in that way. And it happens more often.

And that they let you know.

And that they let me know, yes, with pictures included.

You mentioned earlier that you have mainly written many children’s books and then books for adults, and that you have written less for teenagers – although I think some of your books are also read by them. Do you see a reason for that, why there is a gap there?

We had a lot of books at home, a real cabinet full, I think two cabinets full, apart from all the study books of my father. We read children’s books, and at some point, I just started taking books from my parents’ shelf. Also, books where I obviously wasn’t ready for yet. But I never had the need to read specific adolescent books.

Not even to write them?

No, so also not to write them. What I have written now, I think someone aged sixteen, seventeen, eighteen can read it very well and might even find it beautiful, maybe someone aged fifteen as well… Because it’s that age I wrote about [in Mijn leven als mens, My Life as a Human], but it’s an adult novel. I actually have one book that I thought is also for young people, and that is published as a book for young people, and not for adults again, with all that compartmentalization… Now there are at least prizes like the Dioraphte.

As a teenager, I wrote a diary about my infatuation and whatnot, but I preferred to read something that went beyond my little life, books by historian Bouman who wrote about the lives of famous adults, I found that very fascinating. That was also the reason that after art school, when I couldn’t get a foothold, I thought: “Then I’m going to study history.” In any case, the answer might be: I never read them myself.

Do you sometimes read the work of authors that fall more into adolescent literature now?

A few. For example, I read Allemaal willen we de hemel (We All Want Heaven). Also works by Anne Provoost, such as De arkvaarders (The Arc Sailors). I think it’s published here as a youth book, but in the US as an adult novel.


That makes you think: leave that compartment out, yes.

There are also books by David Almond that sometimes reminded me of your books because, for example, the story about Bardo begins when the character is very young, and you follow him as he grows. David Almond has also written a few books, and they are sometimes classified in children’s literature, sometimes in adult literature, depending on the country.

Well, that’s strange. Sometimes they make the mistake of classifying graphic novels for adults in children’s books, like Shaun Tan’s De aankomst (The Arrival). The American artist Chris Ware created a box full of stories. Just the pictures of a woman standing naked and uncertain by the bed where her husband continues to read on his tablet. A typical adult marital scene. That story was listed in the New York Times among the top ten children’s books. It’s not a children’s book at all.

Yes, that surprises me too because it’s a very explicit image. While from British and American quarters, you see very conservative standards.

Yes, it’s explicit, it’s adult, it’s really not a children’s issue. Such under-agedness does play a role, I think. I remember a ten-year-old who couldn’t relate to Bezoekjaren, in which a girl tells that she started menstruating.

But you saw that book more as adult literature.

Yes, it’s for young people, from around fifteen, I think, to understand what it’s about. Although it also starts with her being small. The intention is for her to grow along.

Have you taken experiences from writing for children into your writing process for adults, and vice versa?

My books for adults are more complex: my sentences are longer, and I also look for different kinds of metaphors and whatnot. But I do think it’s good to have the experience of writing children’s books to make sure not to write too literary, to write clearly, like an adult, but also not unnecessarily long. I often feel that with thick books: 100 pages can be cut out, and it would be better. But that’s also my style: if I can say something well in three sentences, I’m not going to use a whole page. And that also has to do with writing for children, I think. Occasionally, I sneak in a sentence, even in my latest novel, that is also in a children’s book, which I believe no reader knows. [laughs]

Now I’m going to look for it, you know! I’ll let you know when I find it. [laughs] But I can cheat because we also do digital research. [laughs]


I’m also curious about the use of images, whether that’s something you carry over into your adult literature because your children’s books are so defined by that. In adult books, you sometimes leave that out. How does that work for you?

I made one novel with images in it. But I think the visual aspect is more in the descriptions, that I want to describe things visually. When I wrote my novel Vrije vormen (Free Forms), I initially thought about making images too, but it’s about striving for perfectionism – you will ruin that if you add images because your images are by definition not perfect.

With my latest long poem, I did make images for it first, and also for my poetry. Scraperboard images, where for me, they are not illustrations but images. My basic idea is that you create poems with everyone’s words, and then you make something different out of it, and to do that with images too because those images mainly consist of very recognizable objects: a coat, a suitcase, but then portrayed in such a way that it becomes different from an ordinary coat, an ordinary suitcase. The shadow of the suitcase crumbles, for example, which cannot happen in reality. Or that coat floats above the ground, those kinds of things.

I created the comic Ergens (Somewhere), which falls a bit between two stools; it doesn’t belong to the world of illustrated books – it’s also something that doesn’t fit into a category. And it’s for everyone from about ten years old but was placed in a significantly too young group for the Children’s Jury. There is still a lot of confusion when there are images: who is it intended for. And actually, I think bookstores and libraries should have a kind of ageless shelf, where it doesn’t matter if you’re thirteen or thirty-five. If you can benefit from it, so that it’s not so structured and compartmentalized. But I have nothing to say about that.

And how is it in your own thoughts when you work on it, do you sometimes have a feeling or even a very deliberate way of working with a certain age in mind?

Only an under-age, certainly, when it comes to children. I have only made two picture books, and that was actually because I wanted to play with the form of the book itself, that it coincided with the content.

Like the leporello form?

Leporello, inside out, the other side back. And Heb je mijn zusje gezien? (Have You Seen My Little Sister?) with walls that open up. I clearly thought of an under-age, also regarding the structure of the story.

And with books for older readers, did you sometimes have a lower limit in mind?

I think you can read Iep! (Eep!) earlier than Toen mijn vader een struik werd (When My Father Became a Bush), for example. There was also a Berlin school that used that book from the first to the sixth grade and did all sorts of things with it; they even had refugee children create comics about their history and then hung them up in the corridors… So, some work with it more broadly than others.

I’m also curious about the role publishers play in this. Do you ever talk to your publisher about the age of your books?

No, actually not. It’s not on there anymore, I believe. I do remember that there was a time when it said something like ‘from nine to twelve’ or something. But I don’t like twelve, of course. However, Mooi boek has on the back: a beautiful book for those starting to read and everyone who loves letters. So that gave an indication.

When you say “I didn’t like twelve,” is that because an upper limit was set?

Yes, then an upper limit is set. I don’t like it myself. Look, there are, of course, teenagers who say, “No, I’m not going to read childish books with pictures anymore,” but there are also those who still love them, I’ve noticed, even adults who still love them. So it’s not all that rigid. I find it a bit arbitrary. There are six-year-olds, I’ve known them, who could already read Harry Potter, and there are eleven-year-olds who still can’t get through a page with just letters. There’s such a difference.

Have you ever tested your books with children beforehand?

No, I don’t test my books.

I thought so. [laughs]

I read aloud, and then I see the reactions. I remember the last or the penultimate book fair here in Antwerp that I made some poetry, some poems, verses, tested them briefly. I read them aloud, see how they react, and that was good. So I did do that. Look, children are as different as adults. You have to feel it a bit. I have encountered adults who adopt a childish tone but still come up with words that are undoable, too complicated. So yes, there must be a kind of naturalness, taking them seriously, yes. Sometimes people talk about them as a target group far away. Then I think, “Hey, don’t you remember anything? Don’t you remember how it felt when you stood in a square with all adults around you and felt like you couldn’t breathe, just to say something. Or how you could feel humiliated without the adults realizing it?”

So those memories are also a very important source for you.

The emotional memories, yes… yes, they are important, so you don’t forget that.

Are there certain trends you’ve seen in children’s literature that you found very inspiring or even very numbing?

I was glad that I didn’t know in the beginning, so in the 1970s, that the big trend was to put everything, divorce, death, and whatever else, into one book. Another exaggerated trend, first thinking, “Children’s books don’t talk enough about the world,” and then it swings the other way, and there are way too many books constructed around all sorts of misery… It was good that I didn’t know and just started. I noticed – and I wasn’t the only one, I noticed that Sjoerd Kuyper felt the same way – that there was, especially in the Netherlands, from the late 1990s, early 2000s, a turning point, that people actually weren’t that interested anymore. It was a kind of exaggerated market thinking. Then original books were suddenly called elitist. There was a great sensitivity to hype. It seemed as if the average – let me put it that way – among the authors suddenly saw the chance to take the lead, whatever you want to call it. I really saw a tremendous decline in interest in what was going on, while in the 1980s, there was so much attention for original children’s books that were written with heart and soul and not because they thought “I’ll write something too.” I found that very problematic. I also saw my sales decline.

The debate in the ’80s and ’90s was also very much about accessibility, I think.

Yes, I fell off the ship during that time. I already knew for twenty years that all kinds of children were reading my books, that they were absolutely accessible. I went to places, let’s say the Schilderswijk in The Hague, a working-class neighborhood. I remember Aruba, where I was working with children on the non-touristy side of the island – in a basic way, I enthused children for years. Of course, there were books that were actually more philosophical books for adults, although you never know what a child takes from it. It was as if I was being swept along in that controversy and fell in between. That’s how I felt then. [pause] I don’t belong to the popular fuss, with the clichés, but I do write books – I knew that for twenty years – that can appeal to all kinds of children.

I remember a letter from a long time ago, from someone who said “I had a lousy childhood, but that one book about Bobbel lived along with us,” it was like an anchor in their youth. Just recently, a woman who works as a night porter in a hotel and had no customers for a while, sent me an email about how much certain books from her childhood meant to her. So, there was absolutely no elitism. Yet you were carried away by the idea that if you didn’t write mainstream, you belonged to that elite club. Yes, I experienced that very strongly in the Netherlands.

One of the problems, now I’m just giving my personal opinion, is also keeping books available, and the problem is also simply the speed and the quantity of books that publishers want to bring to the market. I’ve been advocating for that for a while, also at Querido, for example. Sometimes I want to put a book on our reading list at the university, barely a few years old, books that have won major awards, and so on, and they have simply disappeared from the market so quickly.

That’s the impression I get too. Well, let the publisher know about that. But in the Netherlands, I know it’s really a problem of Centraal Boekhuis, that more money goes into preserving those books. The first twenty years of my writing, those children’s books just kept going, and that’s logical too because there are always new seven-year-olds, eight-year-olds, nine-year-olds. But publishers are having a harder time financially. You also see that they publish less poetry.

I think it’s partly solved by e-books. But the problem, of course, is that only a very small group of children gets an e-reader.

Yes, exactly. I find it different. The beauty is precisely with children’s books, with all those beautiful images and drawings, that you should actually see and hold them. But it’s definitely a problem; the turnover is no longer what it used to be.

A while ago, we wanted to do a study (but unfortunately, we didn’t get funding, so it didn’t happen) on the effect of those different children’s juries. In the Netherlands, it’s a kind of popularity contest.

That’s exactly what it is. I’ve said it a few times in interviews: it’s such a difference. In the Netherlands, it’s simply a popularity poll, and they add a bit of sophistication to it, with words like The Senate, or whatever it’s called.

I myself have guided KJV groups for a long time, and what I found beautiful about it was that there was never a book that wasn’t in the top three for any child – because in the end, they have to make such a top three. Not even those books everyone beforehand shouted about, “Yeah, that’s not for children, that’s too difficult, that’s an adult book disguised as a children’s book,” and so on, then there was always one of the children in my group who had put that book in the top three.

While I’m at it, I find it a shame that there is no longer that big book party at the end with as many as two thousand people, and all ages. I thought that was fantastic with those children and all the writers who were there and talked to the children. If you compare that to the Children’s Book Ball in the Netherlands, where I’ve been a few times. The last time I was there, I saw books again; there were books again. But around, when was it, 2008, 2009, when Peter Verhelst received an award in the Netherlands for Het geheim van de keel van de nachtegaal (The Secret of the Throat of the Nightingale), there was no book to be seen. Then you were allowed to sign a piece of paper. The stage was dominated by people who were known from TV, probably. I remember one who had the audience sing a refrain with the lyrics “Get lost, get lost.” And I remember Guus Kuijer receiving an award, and well, he had to leave the stage again in no time. It was decadent. It was also decadently decorated. I remember an image, chocolate milk came out of the butt of that image. I thought, “What’s going on here?!” And if you compared that to the cheerful seriousness of such a grand closing party.

Yes, I resisted it too, there is no literary festival for children either. And I think it would also be good to have a festival that is separate from the children’s and youth juries. Anyway, there is way too little cultural offer for children; I noticed that myself when my own children were small: there is actually very little if you want to do cultural activities with your children. I think the decision is mainly driven by the cost of the event because it was very expensive. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to signal to them that there was a very big added value. Now it is spread over libraries, and it actually has more the character of an author’s reading than such a big book party.

You are part of something big… Yes, I find it very unfortunate. It was serious, but at the same time, it was festive. While, yes, in the Netherlands, I’ve said it many times, and I said it often then, people don’t know that such things happen there. Okay, now there are books again, I saw that the last time. But there is no rest; it all has to be WOW, WOW, and popular. Well, yes, that.

I am also very curious about what will come of the new plans for a new book prize, a proper book prize. [laughs] [note: This interview took place before the Boon was awarded for the first time in 2022] It’s also quite a loss in recent years, so let’s hope…

Yes, after all those years and all those awards, I still notice: when I receive an award, I sell more. It remains important. We don’t need the awards to get an award, but because it is a stimulus – especially now, you still need to be seen for what you do. That’s how it started for me, getting a Griffel and a Penseel, and suddenly they see that you’re busy, that’s how it works.

I have often said that the closing party was so good and that it was much more serious than that whole Children’s Book Festival, perhaps also because it is organized here by a foundation that promotes reading, while in the Netherlands, it is organized by the CPNB that promotes sales.

Yes, and that’s the case with us too; there are also certain commercial interests at play.

Yes, it’s the mediocre and the lowest common denominator that sell the most. [laughs] I know that I am absolutely not elitist, and on the other hand, I am, especially in the Netherlands, a bit pushed aside as if I am. Yes, that’s not nice.

The good side of the matter: you have remained a fixture; you have a very extensive and diverse body of work.

Yes, and I will continue.

That’s an optimistic note to end on, I think, Joke.

Yes, very good.

Thank you very much for your time. I have learned a lot from your answers, even though I had already read some interviews with you.