Translator Michele Hutchison, co-author (with Rina Mae Acosta) of The Happiest Kids in the World: How Dutch Parents Help their Kids by Doing Less, explores the relationship between happiness and the books that are available to Dutch children, and some of the differences between children’s book publishing in the Netherlands and the US. Her most recent translation for WWB is Griet Op de Beeck’s “What You’ve Given Up Hoping for Counts Twice as Much, She’d Discovered.”
After UNICEF had twice rated Dutch children the happiest in the world and my friend Rina Mae Acosta had written a viral blog about why this was, I was drawn into a book project. In April 2017, the book we cowrote, The Happiest Kids in the World: How Dutch Parents Help their Kids by Doing Less, was published. We discovered many reasons why Dutch children could count themselves happy, a number of which I will discuss here in relation to my work as a translator and as a mother of two Dutch-raised children who like to read.
According to the American National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, “Reading is the single most important skill necessary for a happy, productive and successful life. A child that is an excellent reader is a confident child and has a high level of self-esteem.” One of the ways the Dutch encourage a love of reading is by not teaching literacy until the children are ready and willing to learn. Whereas some babies in the United States are shown flashcards of the alphabet in the race for a head start, many children in the Netherlands are just learning the alphabet at age six. That said, once they’ve started, many Dutch schoolchildren soon get the hang of it and commonly become fluent readers within the year. If you want kids to benefit from reading, don’t try and teach them before they are mentally ready.
Are the books Dutch children read culturally specific and do they contribute to child happiness?
Are the books Dutch children read culturally specific and do they contribute to child happiness? First of all, the books they begin with aren’t usually translatable because they are language specific. “Early readers” are often written in a formula related to language acquisition and phonics, so the idea of translating them is nonsensical. Content can be driven by set words to be learned. Often these words rhyme. Dutch children grow up thinking that crocodiles like to bite your ass just because “crocodile” and “buttocks” rhyme in Dutch (krokodil/bil). In the same way, Dr. Seuss has influenced the imagination of generations of English readers. A cat wears a hat. I’d love to know how these things affect our collective subconscious. However, I’m not sure they affect happiness.
After the early readers, Dutch children often move on to popular series. Paul van Loon’s very successful Alfie the Werewolf series, for example, which was translated for the British market. It’s about a small boy who turns into a werewolf at night but by day leads a regular life. I’ve just finished translating something similar, Dummie the Mummy and the Tomb of Akhnetut, volume two of Tosca Menten’s bestselling series aimed at middle-grade readers. It’s about an Egyptian child mummy who comes to life in present-day Holland when his scarab amulet is struck by lightning. The first book in the series was published by Penguin Australia a couple of years ago and even though both books have been successfully filmed, there hasn’t been any interest from America. Americans have their own werewolves and living mummies, one must presume, no reason to import them. Neither, I think, do they contribute to happiness.
Agnes Vogt, who is responsible for children’s literature at the Dutch Foundation for Literature, agrees that series rarely get translated because countries have their own series writers. Sales are also dependent on authors being able to repeatedly promote in person; an ocean in between gets in the way of that. A while ago, I translated two novels by one of the best-loved contemporary children’s writers here—Jacques Vriens—for a Dutch publisher who hasn’t placed the rights. I can’t really think why War Secrets, a moving historical novel about a Jewish girl in hiding in a Dutch village during the Second World War, hasn’t found a publisher. However, it’s easier to guess with Twelve-Year-Olds Don’t Cry, the tragic story of a girl who dies of cancer in the last year of elementary school. It’s tough, typically YA subject matter, but for a younger readership. My son read it when he was ten.
I get the impression that there are fewer taboos in books published in the Netherlands for the seven-to-ten age range. This relates to an issue that Rina Mae Acosta and I discuss in our books—one element of Dutch children’s happiness is a relationship with their parents that is fed by openness. It is common for Dutch parents to answer difficult questions frankly, without trying to protect their children from challenging subjects like death, sex, or drugs. The same approach is taken in schools. So while American or British children might find out about such things from their peers, Dutch kids have a fair bit of information at their disposal from an earlier age. It’s only natural that these topics should appear in their reading matter too. “In Dutch literature, sometimes very difficult subjects are tackled in a natural manner,” says Agnes Vogt.
During the period I was co-writing The Happiest Kids, my daughter was eight and read a book in a series called Het Geheim van . . . (The Secret of . . .). It included a scene in which a young child came across his previously heterosexual-identifying mother making out on the sofa with her new girlfriend. I only noticed this detail because I glanced over my daughter’s shoulder and was surprised by the illustration. Now several such series later, I can say it’s fairly common for what I’d perceive as adult issues to be noted casually in books for young readers, without a big deal being made of them. The Secret of . . . is a formulaic series with an adventure and mystery theme, written by various top Dutch authors. “Difficult” subjects also pop up in the endless soccer books my daughter has read over the past two years. Volume three of De voetbalgoden (The Football Gods) by Gerard van Gemert, one of her favorite writers, is about the two young protagonists uncovering a doping scandal. She’s currently reading a novel by another bestselling author here, Francine Oomen, whose series Hoe overleef ik (How to Survive) follows the life of a girl from age eleven to eighteen, no holds barred. It is a kind of Bridget Jones for (pre-)pubescents.
Realism is a dominant genre in Dutch literature for both adults and children. However, there are also fantasy adventure stories among the classics. One example: the prize-winning The Letter for the King and The Secrets of the Wild Wood, by Tonke Dragt, distributed in the US by Pushkin Press and translated by one of the most prominent translators of children’s literature from Dutch to English, Laura Watkinson. When I asked Laura if she had experienced any cultural differences between Dutch and American children’s books, her first thoughts were about similarities and the difficulty of generalizing: “I’ve had just one instance where there was a plot change for the US but I think it was maybe more a question of the editor’s preferences.” She added, “The big thing with kids’ books is to get the [main character’s] parents out of the way so that the kids can have an adventure. That’s become more difficult with the ubiquity of mobile phones, so parents seem to be killed off [in children’s books] more often these days (if you’re dead, you can't send text messages), but that applies in most of the world.”
She raises an interesting point and one that relates to another of the elements that Rina and I explored for Dutch childhood happiness: the relative amount of freedom children here have. They can play outside unsupervised from a very young age (around five or six on my suburban street) and cycle to school and to sports clubs on their own. They have very little homework before the age of ten and generally have more time available for adventures than their American peers. So writers of the kind of realistic/adventure fiction my eleven-year-old daughter enjoys have a head start. Although phones might need to be lost or out of range, it’s much easier to start with a parent-less premise.
Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, an Amsterdam-based illustrator who works for both American and Dutch children’s book publishers, alerted me to several other differences: “My Dutch publishers were all for nudity if the text called for it. For example, in one book, a boy is taking a shower in the countryside and his friend, an older man, a truck driver, is next to him. He was completely nude except for the soap suds covering his penis. But that was my doing, the covering part. The publisher laughed at me for being so American. In the States, for an educational book, one publisher had me add more covering to the shoulders and lengthen a skirt because the children were showing too much skin. I was like, ‘What??!!’”
Joanne mentioned that she’s received more art direction from American publishers and creative freedom from Dutch ones, though she made it clear that she loves working with both. She also shared that there is greater awareness of and attention paid to diversity by American publishers: “I have to make sure that there is always a right balance of race in the book, whereas that is not a consideration with my Dutch publisher.”
It’s fairly common for what I’d perceive as adult issues to be noted casually in books for young readers, without a big deal being made of them.
Elaine Michon, a children’s book agent based in Amsterdam, said that there is an increasing amount of interest from the US for Dutch books—“doors are opening.” Scholastic, Arthur Levine, and Eerdman often publish Dutch children’s books, and anything about Anne Frank or Jews in hiding during the occupation remains popular. It seems that the real difference in content is to be found in middle-grade books, with Dutch children encountering real-world problems in a natural way at an earlier age. My next children’s translation is another such book, which has a political theme. The Gruesome General by Jozua Douglas is a charmingly illustrated, humorous, and rather topical book—think modern-day Roald Dahl—about a corrupt dictator and his family. It has been commissioned by an Australian publisher but American rights are still free.
Meanwhile, in my own family, my fourteen-year-old son is now deep into American YA fiction, enjoying authors like Nicola Yoon, Jennifer Niven, and Jandy Nelson, who tackle subjects like death, suicide, and mental health problems. He finds more American writers to suit his tastes these days than Dutch ones. Series like Twilight and Divergent are read by many teenagers here, and like most Dutch kids, my daughter has read all the Jeff Kinney books. But interestingly, the only American author she’s read and loved recently is graphic novelist Raina Telgemeier, whose book Drama made the New York Times article about banned books in 2016. Incidentally, the rest of the books on that list look right up both my children’s alleys! Perhaps because of their open-minded Dutch upbringing.