The best Dutch children’s literature in translation: now and in the future?

To celebrate the publication earlier this month of The Cat Who Came in Off the Roof by Annie M. G. Schmidt, translated by David Colmer, today I’m sharing my 5 favourite Dutch children’s books which are available in English (being a Dutch-English bilingual family this is something we know a little bit about 😉 ).

But that’s not all!

Thanks to award-winning translator David Colmer you’ll also be able to find out about some of the great Dutch titles just waiting to be translated. (Hint HINT Publishers! )

Copy_of_Cover_Cat_who_came_in_off_the_RoofI reviewed The Cat who Came in off the Roof by Annie M. G. Schmidt, translated by David Colmer a couple of weeks ago (here’s my review in full) but my elevator pitch for this book is: This is a timeless, warm-hearted, thought-provoking and charming read all about one shy person’s struggle to stand up to power, alongside a clever exploration of the very essence of what it means to be human. And yes, there are lots of cats involved. It’s also very funny and written with a lightness of touch which ensures readers will devour this book despite its meaty themes. Last week one newspaper book reviewer called this brilliant book her “find of the year to date“. It might just turn out to be yours too!

letterAn epic adventure involving knights, bravery and brotherhood, The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt, translated by Laura Watkinson tells of a gripping quest full of excitement and peril; it speaks volumes that this book was named the best children’s book ever in its homeland. A young boy has almost completed the tasks he must undertake to become a knight, but when a stranger requests his help the boy cannot turn down the plea, even if it means abandoning his long held ambition to be knighted. He is tasked with delivering a secret letter to the King across the Great Mountains, a letter which holds the fate of an entire kingdom within its words. Fans of Tolkien or Arthurian legends will love this book, with its thrilling action, and an epic landscape with soaring mountains and mysterious forests. Chivalry, courage and fabulous characters abound this is a hugely enjoyable read to share with all the family. You can read my interview with the translator Laura Watkinson here.

bushThe Day My Father Became a Bush by Joke van Leeuwen, translated by Bill Nagelkerke is a tender and yet funny and unsentimental story about a refugee child forced to leave her home country because of war. Whilst it is certainly thought provoking and moving, the darker side of the story is finely balanced with humour and pastries (the child’s father is a pastry chef – so there are plenty of excuses for enjoying this book with a choux bun or slice of mille-feuille!)

“A brilliant, eerily engrossing evocation of war as it brushes up against youth—a harsh slice of the world during a mean piece of history.” (Kirkus)

misterorangeMister Orange by Truus Matti, translated by Laura Watkinson first came to my attention early this year when it won the 2014 Mildred L. Batchelder Award

With one of the best openings I’ve read in a long while this is a moving story about the power of imagination, loss and longing. Set in New York during the Second World War it follows the hopes and fears of Linus, a teenage boy who steps into the shoes of his older brother, a soldier who has left to fight in Europe. Comics play an important role in this book, as does the redemptive power of art; (true) details of Dutch artist Piet Mondrian’s final years in the Big Apple are interwoven into Linus’ life, with evocative period description and a thoughtful exploration of growing-up.

kindercaravanFrom one of the most recently tranlated books to one that has been around for 44 years, Children on the Oregon Trail by An Rutgers van der Loeff, translated by Roy Edwards is a tale of endurance and skill following a family of orphaned children travelling west across America as pioneers in the 1840s. This enthralling story is based loosely on a real family of pioneer orphans, and if you or your kids have enjoyed the Laura Ingalls Wilder books or simply like stories where children show ingenuity and maturity without adults around, then do give this book a try. In fact, I’d recommend any book by Rutgers van der Loeff (several were translated in the 1950s and ’60s) for she really knows how to write adrenalin fuelled stories with a keen eye for the wider world.

Now over to David for his recommendations about Dutch children’s books still waiting to hit English language bookshelves:

wiplalaSomething else by Annie M.G. Schmidt.

[David has translated several books by the person many would call the Queen of Dutch children’s literature, including a collection of Schmidt’s poems, A Pond full of Ink, which has received much praise in the US /Zoe] ‘Wiplala‘ for instance and ‘Wiplala Again‘, a very funny two-book series about an elf-like creature called Wiplala, who has been banished for magical incompetence and plays havoc in a typical Schmidt-style single-parent household. ‘Wiplala’ was originally written in the 1950s but came out in a new edition with illustrations by Philip Hopman in 2007. A film version is currently in production.

kweenie ‘Dunno’ by Joke van Leeuwen. [Dutch title: ‘Kweenie’]

Brilliant integration of text, typography and illustrations in this story about a character who falls out of a bedtime story and the little girl who tries to return him to his parents. Trouble is, there are so many stories… Which one was it? A children’s story about story telling itself sounds way too postmodern, but this book works on every level. More information about this book can be found on the website of the Dutch Foundation for Literature:

annetje‘Annabel Lee in the Dead of Night’ by Imme Dros, [Dutch title: ‘Annetje Lie in de holst van de nacht’] with black-and-white illustrations by Margriet Heymans.

This is a hallucinatory story about a little girl in an uncertain world whose feverish dreams take on a life of their own. It’s eerie and strange, but my own daughter loved it and read it over and over. It was published in English in the 90s, but is now out of print. If nothing else, a new translation could respect the author’s wishes and call the main character “Annabel Lee” in English, as a homage to Edgar Allan Poe, whose work inspired the original.

ikwouIngrid Godon and Toon Tellegen’s I Wish [Dutch title: Ik wou]

Maybe an art book more than a children’s book, Godon’s emotionally-charged naive portraits are wedded to Tellegen’s prose portraits to form a moving whole. And while I’m on the subject of Tellegen, his poetry and animal stories have been rightly praised in the UK, but his other work deserves publication too. Sneaking in another title, Pikkuhenki, with illustrations by Marit Törnqvist, is a gem in the fairy-tale genre with a great story about a tiny Russian witch who discovers that she has enormous powers and overthrows an evil tsar.

sprookjesAnd that brings me to my last recommendation, another book my daughter couldn’t get enough of, insisting I it read over and over for her bedtime stories: Fairy Tales from the Low Countries by Eelke de Jong and Hans Sleutelaar, illustrated by Peter Vos. I’m partial to fairy tales, true, but the problem is that most collections are either poorly written or poorly translated or both. That’s not the case here, where the style is always clear and beautifully fluent, a joy to read out loud. This book reminds me of Italo Calvino’s Italian folktales, and besides variations on familiar Germanic themes, there are plenty of stories you’ve never heard before. My favourite: “One Hunchback Mocks Another”. Warning: not for Disney fans.


My thanks go to David for his excellent choice of books waiting for English translations. I do hope one or two publishers might be tempted by his suggestions!

I feel a little bit guilty for almost reaching the end of this post without mentioning Miffy or The Diary of Anne Frank – perhaps the two biggest exports from the world of Dutch children’s books. There are also many other books I’ve not been able to include in an attempt to keep the post from running on past everyone’s bedtime, but let me end by pointing out three publisher who have made a name for themselves publishing (amongst other things) brilliant Dutch children’s books in translation: Pushkin Press and Gecko Press with a special honorary mention to Book Island who have published several great books translated from Flemish by Belgian authors and illustrators.

Come back tomorrow when you could win a copy of The Cat who Came in off the Roof by Annie M. G. Schmidt, translated by David Colmer AND The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt, translated by Laura Watkinson! Two of my favourite books in any language, I’m sure you’ll love them too.

13 Responses


    Zoe, thanks so much for bringing these books to our attention!
    Two years ago I bought ‘Children’s Picturebooks: The Art Of Visual Storytelling,’ which has been a tremendous resource and inspiration for the world of non-English writers and illustrators that i was ignorant of. Since then my appetite for learning about other talents has been gargantuan… So, with this post you have provided us with a fine feed! I’m looking forward to hunting them down.

  2. Zoe

    Hi Simone, thanks for your kind comment. I feel bad not including any picture books in my list of fave NL books. Do look out for anything by The Tjong King (several of his wordless picture books have been published for an English speaking audience by Gecko Press), and also for the breathtaking ‘Holland’ by Charlotte Dematons – also wordless, providing amazing doorway into Dutch culture and landscape.
    Zoe recently posted..The best Dutch children’s literature in translation: now and in the future?

  3. Chantal

    So happy to see Dutch books translated in English, especially Annie M.G. Schmidt. Being Dutch (but now living in the UK) and having grown up with Annie M.G. Schmidt’s books, I always felt the English children were loosing out big time with not having Annie’s books available to them. Hope there will be many more of her books here in the UK soon, especially the ones with Fiep Westendorp’s gorgeous illustrations.
    Thank you for the great blog post!

  4. Zoe

    Thanks Chantal – yes more books from Annie would be super. I know some are available in the Netherlands but don’t have publishers here in the UK, which is such a shame.

  5. Katherine

    I think I want to read The Cat Who Came In Off The Roof, beautiful cover. Really interesting post, our close friends in Belgium are a bilingual French/Flemish family with children close in age to Bagl, it would be lovely if they can all read some of the same books in their own languages as they get older. Their 4 year old is already fascinated by different languages, he hasn’t seen us for a while but gets quite concerned on the Brussels metro that they don’t have announcements in English for us!
    Katherine recently posted..Le Tour de France: Yorkshire Grand Depart

  6. Silvia

    What a great list! It would be fantastic if you could tell us a bit about age recommendations for each of the titles. Thanks!

  7. Zoe

    Hi Silvia, I generally avoid ages on my book recommendations as I’m concerned they will put people off (“oh that’s too young for me”, “that’s way above my kids’ level” etc). But of the ones translated into English I would say very broadly that The Cat who cam in off the Roof could be enjoyed by 5+ if read aloud to them. If a child were reading it themselves then perhaps 8+. I think the Letter for the King is often described as 12+ but my 6 year old has had it as her bedtime reading twice (at her request), and my 9 year old also really enjoys it. The language in The Day My Father Became a Bush is quite simple, but the concepts mean it might be normally targeted at 9+? Mister Orange is probably a bit older, though again language isn’t complex, but issues are perhaps more engaging for older kids. Children on the Oregon Trail was loved as a bed time read by both my kids when they were 5/6/7, but it is probably marketed as a 10+ novel to read yourself (rather than listen to. Hope that helps.
    Zoe recently posted..The best Dutch children’s literature in translation: now and in the future?

  8. Silvia

    Thank you! I usually don’t like assigning age recommendations to books either, but since I can’t have a look at them because I can only buy them on the internet I wanted to have a broad idea of how challenging they might be to read. I hope you continue posting lists like these!

  9. Julia Marshall

    Thanks Zoe – a small note that there is a new collection of stories by Toon Tellegen just about out called The Day No One was Angry – illustrated by Marc Boutavant. It is beautiful and philosophical and quietly funny and thoughtful. I hope you like it enough to add to your list!

  10. Susan

    A marvelous one to add: Nine Open Arms by Bennie Lindelauf, translation published in 2014.

    • Zoe

      Thanks Susan. I’ve read this but it didn’t quite work for me I have to say. Hopefully that will make people curious – two different opinions and they’ll go and seek it out!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.