International children’s authors are great. They’re just not particularly well known in America. There are various reasons for this. Some of it has to do with the dearth of international children’s book importing. Bringing a book over sometimes requires translation, and there’s often little hope of the writer or illustrator touring if English isn’t a second language. Then add to this the fact that all the major children’s book awards in the U.S. have to go to American residents. Once in a while there’s an exception to these rules, of course. You’ll get a Shaun Tan or a Mem Fox (both Aussies, but you know what I mean). Generally, however, we dwell in ignorance and have to make an effort to know who else is out there in the world. Consider then the case of Annie M.G. Schmidt. If international children’s book authors are rarities on our fair shores, what are we to make of international children’s poets? Finding poetry for children here in the U.S. is a tricky enough proposition as it is. Add in the international element and it’s little surprise that Schmidt’s name rings few bells. Fortunately, our ignorance is our children’s gain. A Pond Full of Ink proves a charming collection of Schmidt’s work, translated expertly, original to its core.
“A fairy tale author I know / starts work every day when the roosters crow.” So begins the first poem in this collection of children’s poet Annie M.G. Schmidt. Twelve poems, judiciously edited, perfectly selected, are paired with the ribald art of illustrator Sieb Posthuma. Readers who flip through the pages will encounter everything from thieves that covet the moon to a teakettle with musical aspirations. The end result is a collection that is silly, subversive, and sly by turns.
So what do we know about Annie M.G. Schmidt? Well, I looked about and heard at least one person refer to her as, “something like the Dutch Astrid Lindgren, [who] never broke through in the English-speaking world.” That would be translator David Colmer’s description. Looking her up I found various sites praising her, saying things like “almost everyone in the Netherlands is able to recite at least a line or two from one of her songs or poems. Her children’s books have become a national institution.” We might call her the Dutch Dr. Seuss then. As this is pretty much the only book of Ms. Schmidt’s that we have here in the U.S., A Pond Full of Ink has a lot of promise to fulfill. Fortunately, and as it just so happens, the book is charming. Akin to something along the lines of Shel Silverstein in terms of the unconnected ridiculous, Schmidt dwells on the silly and the thoughtful alike. Every person I know who has read this book has his or her own individual favorites. For my part, I was quite partial to “The Furniture”. Kids will pick their preferences. In fact, the book would actually be ideal for children’s book groups since each child would have their own personal faves.
Just as I was unaware of the existence of Ms. Schmidt, so too was I unfamiliar with the art of Sieb Posthuma. Dutch too, Mr. Posthuma gives this book a distinct flavor entirely of his own. In fact, a little digging found that for this book Mr. Posthuma actually won the 2012 Gouden Penseel or Golden Paintbrush, the top prize for children’s books originally published in The Netherlands. One sees why. There’s a sly, clever quality to Posthuma’s art here. From the vampire fanged little girl of “Nice and Naughty” to bespectacled deer of “Aunty Jo” you can’t help but like these characters. Best of all, the book isn’t afraid to take a moment to just enjoy the art. There are several wordless two-page spreads that offer a quiet accompaniment to their preceding poems. Like the lush greenery of “Aunt Sue and Uncle Steve” or the blue and red vision of sea and land after “Three Elderly Otters”, Posthuma has been given the chance to muse.
It’s not that I haven’t heard objections to the book. Some folks I’ve shown this too have questioned the translation, saying that only some poems really spoke to them. For my part, I think the translation keen. For one thing, David Colmer, the translator, had to translate rhyme. I just can’t even begin to imagine how hard that must be. Not only must the poems scan but rhyme as well? It’s at this point that one begins to wonder how the invisible hand of the translator plays into the text. With some digging I discovered that David Colmer is an Australian translator of Dutch literature based in Amsterdam. He seems to do particularly well when it comes to translating poetry and works for children. As a four-time winner of the David Reid Poetry Translation Prize, the man also appears to know what he is doing. I cannot even begin to fathom how one aligns scansion and rhyme in translation. All I can do is trust that Colmer does it well.
For my part, the only real objection I had to the book was the design. The poems are written in a typewriter-like font. No problems there. But occasionally the poems appear in large, unwieldy clumps. When integrated with the text, as they are with the poems “Three Elderly Otters” or “The Man Who Writes Fairy Tales” they can be lovely. But in cases like “Belinda Hated Getting Clean . . .” even adult readers will feel daunted when faced with a full page of tiny poetic type without so much as a break or an indentation to be seen. I don’t suppose there was much that could have been done about this when the book was translated for America, but it’s a pity just the same.
It is encouraging to think that though Ms. Schmidt was never brought to America in her lifetime, posthumously her words can fulfill their destiny decades after her death. A Pond Full of Ink does not attempt to be anything other than what it is. A short, smart selection of fun poems for kids of every age. A small clever treat, consider its loaded silliness for your own personal collection.
On shelves now.
Source: Advanced reading copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It by Gail Carson Levine
- The Man in the Moon Fixer’s Mask by JonArno Lawson
- Thunderboom! Poems for Everyone by Charlotte Pomerantz
Other Blog Reviews: Children’s Illustration,
- So how did translator David Colmer tackle this book? Get the inside scoop here.
- Read one of the poems in its entirety over at Live Your Poem.
A book trailer! Who would have thunk it?