Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Guus Kuijer 2012 ALMA winner

This is what I wrote about Kuijer in my book Power, Voice and Subjectivity in Literature for Young Readers (2010):

In Guus Kuljer’s The Book of Everything (2005) the protagonist’s father is a horrible tyrant who not only imposes strict rules in his wife and children, but does not stop at hitting them. The nine-year-old Thomas is mortally scared of his father, but gradually learns to interrogate his authority, and with some help from both adults and other children finally causes his total defeat. Significantly enough, there is a figure in the novel similar to Granny in Aldabra [by Silvana Gandolfi] in her role of the wise woman. She is in fact believed to be a witch, but both the character and the reader are left to make their own inferences whether the seven plagues she sends on the Thomas’s father are real witchcraft, a coincidence, or the product of wishful thinking. Thomas is, unlike Pippi Longstocking, not the strongest boy in the world, but his special gift is seeing things that aren’t there, that is, having powerful imagination. He also finds strength and inspiration in reading. Three other children’s books are mentioned in The Book of Everything – and one non-children’s book. The latter is the Bible, which the father states is the only true book, while all other books, including those children are assigned to read at school, are false. The children’s books, that the witch neighbor gives Thomas to read, are Emil and the Detectives, by Erich Kästner, and Sans Famille, or The Foundling, by Hector Malot. Neither the author nor the adult character comment on the choice, but the protagonist contemplates why he has been given the books. He realizes that both books are about lonely children, children that have to cope on their own; books that encourage him not to be afraid. The third book is a collection of nonsense verses by the Grand Old Lady of Dutch children’s literature, Annie M. G. Schmidt, that apart from their role in the narrative itself, also demonstrates the liberating effect of reading for pleasure as compared to the boring Bible recitations by the father. Kuijer thus depicts a competent child, whose moral and intellectual strength wins over the adult’s physical superiority. When asked what he wants to be when he grows up, Thomas says that he wants to be happy. In some way, this is a proper dialogical reply to the affirmative ending of Pippi Longstocking.

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