Hardly any taboos for children’s books: ‘Children are curious about everything’

Almost anything is possible in a children’s book as long as it is well written. ‘Bookseeker’ Stella Leenders and children’s author Pieter Koolwijk agree on this. In the middle of Children’s Book Week, they shed light on the importance of children’s books.

As a child, Stella Leenders devoured children’s book week gifts. For example, The missing scrapbook from 1976, which several authors worked on, including Hans Dorrestijn and Willem Wilmink. “I think I’ve read it a thousand times. And I still have it at home. It’s about a girl who has gone through all sorts of things, which is how to learn Morse and how Roman numerals work.”

Are all subjects suitable?

A book you can learn something from as a child. “Learning is not necessarily necessary in a children’s book,” says Leenders. She is now a book finder at IKC Het Groene Hart in Zuidwolde and gives reading advice in libraries. “You have such different children. Some read purely to dream away and not to learn anything. A children’s book does not have to be educational.”

According to her, there are no taboo subjects. “Children are curious about everything. If it is written in a good way, you can also discuss very heavy topics from which children can find comfort or support.”

Children’s book author Pieter Koolwijk from Emmen agrees. “I’m fairly open-minded about that. Heavy themes about death, bullying and voices in your head appear in my books. A certain harshness must be allowed, for example, about someone in the family who gets a stroke. But there are limits. some things are too intense, too disgusting. You don’t write about a child who is structurally abused. I don’t want to read that either.”

Imagination, emotion and depth

Koolwijk has now written eight children’s books himself and won the Gouden Griffel for Gozert in 2021. His next book is in the works. As a child, he liked to read, but he didn’t know about Children’s Book Week. He got his books from the library. “I didn’t get into the bookstore.” He also only found out about book week giveaways later. A personal favorite is Anna Woltz’s Shark’s Teeth, a book about running away from home. “I have read it, and then you get to know such an author and you want to read more.”

What makes a children’s book a good children’s book? “For me there should be three elements to it,” says Koolwijk. “A piece of fantasy, fantasy that you can immerse yourself in as a reader. Emotions that need to be laughed at, but there can also be a tear. And something thematic, children need to learn something.” Koolwijk doesn’t think it should be in every children’s book either. “But what I like is getting to know a character.”

Bookfinder Leenders is increasingly seeing that depth is lacking. She feels that books from her childhood were a little more challenging. She gives the Anna series as an example, such as ‘Anna brushes her teeth.’ “I would never choose that for a child. It’s very good. I prefer someone like Annie MG Schmidt, who said children are allowed to do pretty naughty things now and then.” Fantasy in stories is also important to Leenders. Dog Man, for example, half dog, half police officer by the American Dav Pilkey. “It’s almost like a cartoon, but that series is amazing.”

Inclusiveness

According to Leenders, a good children’s book author also notices what is going on in society. “You often even see that literature is ahead of society,” she says. She thinks it is very important that every child can identify with a book, so Leenders welcomes that the main characters in books are more diverse and inclusive.

“Over the last 20 years it has really gotten worse, now you can see that things are moving in the right direction again. It is important that children of color appear more in illustrations, such as in Mylo Freeman’s books. I gave a book of her at school to a girl who comes from Africa You see her cleaning up, become happy when she reads that book The main character in it is also a colored girl You have to be able to find yourself in a book, including children with disabilities for example.”

Author Koolwijk is also aware of this. “It’s very important. I’m white, I come from a white environment and I went to a white school. I had to open my eyes to that too, now it’s there. But inclusivity is not only about people of color, but also about ADHD and children who are not well at home.”

According to Koolwijk, writers are more likely to put something of themselves into stories. “Someone who likes the same sex will be more likely to write about it. I write about ADHD. But the writing world is a white company,” he concludes. Children from all backgrounds need to be excited so that they eventually put their own backgrounds into books. “I think there is a natural attrition. Generations after us will be more diverse, but then they must now have books that they identify with.”

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