Part 4 of a growing series on Blog of Green Gables, When Writers Read Kids’ Books. Today’s guest is writer and editor Allyson Latta. I hope you’ll enjoy her post, not to mention her detective work uncovering her husband’s favourite childhood stories. I was delighted to see her contribution has a Dutch theme. Allyson writes:
When I was a girl, I sometimes got to watch a children’s movie on TV on Saturday afternoons. The film was different every week, of course, but each was introduced with the same visual “prelude.” A young girl would run out the back door of her home, skirt flapping, and down to a small shed—or was it a treehouse?—at the base of her yard. I’m seeing this through the blur of memory, remember. She must have lived in the country; I seem to recall there were fields all around. Music played; there was no voice-over. Once inside her hideaway, she settled herself among cushions and pulled out a notebook and pen, looked thoughtful for a moment, and began to write.
Then the opening credits would roll, and the film, we were to imagine, was the story the girl was writing.
I loved that opening—the concept of stories within stories. The story of the nameless girl writer (who was she? I wondered), who scribbled stories in her notebook, and the way what she wrote opened up into the story told by the film.
“What did you read when you were a kid?” I ask my husband. We’re drinking coffee in front of the fire in the family room one Saturday morning, he reading the newspaper—or trying to—and me, at the urging of my 15-year-old son, devouring The Hunger Games.
My reading has prompted my question. The popular dystopian adventure, which immediately pulls me in, reminds me of how much I enjoyed the escape offered by fantasies and sci-fi novels when I was younger. But Hans, my husband, was born in Amsterdam and grew up speaking and reading mostly Dutch. He didn’t move to Canada till age 10. What books were special to him?
“Oh,” he replies. “I don’t recall anything in particular.”
Hans, I should mention, approaches memory the same way he approaches locating an item in the refrigerator. He opens the door, gives the shelves a cursory glance, and closes the door again, convinced whatever he was after isn’t there. Until I look and find it, quite readily, a few minutes later.
“Did you read Dutch stories?” I persist. “English stories translated into Dutch?”
“Well, I remember we read a lot of fairy tales …”
“Mm-hmm. That sort of thing.” He rattles his paper purposefully and holds it up between us.
“You don’t remember ANY particular books?”
He lowers the paper again and gives me that look. “Nope.”
“… about two brothers. They got hold of a boat and had adventures on the canals. I read a few of those and really liked them.”
“They were Dutch books?”
“Yeah. They were set in Holland. I doubt they were translated into English.”
“What were they called?”
“Hmm, I don’t know.”
“Don’t know. But”—now he’s smiling—“the boat, I remember, was called the Kameleon. Dutch for ‘chameleon.’”
Growing up in Holland, he told me, the canals and the boats that plied them were a big part of his life. “We were always hanging around the canals … riding our bikes along them … dropping bricks in them …”
He shrugs. “They made a great splash.”
Boys, I think.
“And for a while, someone we knew had a dingy and we used to row around in it.”
“Just you kids? Wasn’t that dangerous?” I thought of the first time my family visited Chaffey’s Locks on the Rideau Canal and my mother just about had a coronary. Stay away from the sides, children! Stop running, you’ll trip and fall in!
“Things were different then. We were off on our own most of the day. Our parents had no idea what we were getting into.”
“So who introduced you to those books?” I ask.
“I don’t recall,” he says. “We went to the library a lot. I probably found them there.”
“What was it you liked about them?”
“That boat,” he says, a distant look in his eyes. “It had a special motor and no one but the brothers knew it could go that fast. It was their secret. They were always getting into trouble, having adventures. That boat was very cool.”
By now he’s grinning broadly.
I knew I’d get something out of him, eventually.
I’m fascinated by authors and the background of their writing, so that afternoon I sit at the computer and begin searching.
The Kameleon books, I discover, were part of a series written by Hotze de Roos (1909–1991) and released by the Dutch company Kluitman. The books are still being published and the series is the most popular and longest running in Dutch publishing history.
De Roos was born in 1909 in the village of Langezwaag, in Friesland, in northern Holland. He was the third of five children, and his father owned a small construction company. As a child, de Roos dreamed of owning a sailboat, but the family couldn’t afford one. After graduating from technical school at age 17, he became a carpenter, but he also wrote regularly for the local newspaper, mostly about a construction project on which he worked for several years. His way with words was noticed and encouraged by some local writers. He later moved to Krommenie, also in northern Holland, and married, but there’s no mention of the couple having children. Yet during the Second World War he began writing tales for youngsters.
One day in 1948, so the story goes, he got on his bike with his first full manuscript—the English translation of the title would have been Sietse and Hielke: The Ringleaders of the Village Blacksmith—and rode the 14-plus kilometres to the Kluitman offices in Alkmaar. After delivering the package, he returned home to await word, and a few weeks later was rewarded with the good news that his book had been accepted.
Kluitman changed the title to De Schippers van de Kameleon (The Skippers of the Kameleon), and that illustrated novel became the first of more than 60 published over the next half century.
The stories feature twelve-year-old identical twins, Hielke and Sietse Klinkhamer, trouble-divining sons of the blacksmith in the fictional village of Lenten. They dream of owning a boat of their own, and their father eventually buys them an old one. The boys lovingly restore it with bits of leftover paint of various colours, and they christen it the Kameleon. When a man the boys have rescued rewards them with a car motor, they install it in their boat. And with this revved-up Kameleon, their adventures take off.
De Roos wrote other children’s stories early on, but none were as popular as the ones about the twins and their speedy craft. He went on to write a total of 59 books in the series, which also includes a few titles added by other writers after his death. Since 1949, books in the Kameleon series have sold more than 13 million copies.
The Klinkhamer twins have also been featured on the big screen in two films, De Schippers van de Kameleon (The Skippers of the Kameleon) (2003) and Kameleon 2 (2005), directed by actor/director Steven de Jong and Marc Willard. (Watch the trailer of the first here and the second here.) De Jong and Jean Ummels co-wrote the screenplay.
Intrigued, I emailed producer Sjef Scholte, former owner and CEO of Bridge Entertainment (he sold the company five years ago), to ask a few questions. De Schippers van de Kameleon, he tells me, was his first of many productions. He and actor/director de Jong had read the books as kids and had worked on other projects together. Because of the books’ popularity, they were fairly sure the first film would find a receptive audience, and they were right. De Schippers sold 84,000 tickets in its first five days, according to Screen Daily, setting an opening weekend record for a Dutch family/children’s title.
The filmmakers made every effort to keep the look and feel of the 1950s. “The [film] was warm, no violence, funny, family-oriented, traditional … back to the old days,” says Scholte. “[And we had] a director who lives in the country and knows the area pretty well.” The filming was done in Friesland, “famous for its lakes and old villages and beautiful landscapes.”
The twins were played by real-life identical twins Koen van der Donk (Hielke Klinkhamer) and Jos van der Donk (Sietse Klinkhamer). “It took some time to find the twins,” he says, “but we succeeded, and it was their first movie so Steven trained them for a couple of months to become actors.”
“To produce it was hard because of the weather, which is never guaranteed in Holland—when you need sun there is rain and storm—but we were very creative.” But the boat and action scenes weren’t a problem because “in Holland we are experienced in storms, boats and water, so we managed.”
The first Kameleon film became the most-viewed Dutch film of 2003, and it sequel, Kameleon 2, was also well received.
Despite the remarkable popularity of the books, de Roos received no formal recognition of his literary success during his lifetime. But in 1980, students in a primary school in the Friesian village of Terherne, who felt the author should be honoured, invited him to visit. When he did, they presented him with a carefully chosen prize: the Sulveren Pinne (Silver Pen). This touching act set in motion plans for a theme park to be established in Terherne based on the Kameleon books.
De Roos died in 1991 at age 81 and, sadly, did not live to see the park bring to life his fictional village and its characters. But in 2001, a statue of him was unveiled there, and just six years ago, the ashes of this much-loved Dutch author were laid to rest in Kameleon Terherne, the “Chameleon Village.”
“You even contacted the producer?” Hans sounds only mildly surprised. He’s used to my curiosity by now.
“Wonders of the Internet,” I say.
He reads what I’ve found about Hotze de Roos and watches the film trailer. “I hadn’t thought of those books in a long, long time,” he says.
I’m sure I don’t imagine the nostalgia in his eyes.
What I’ve learned has rendered more vivid, for me, the world in which he grew up—one that usually feels very distant, both in time and space.
Stories within stories. Like the prelude to those children’s movies I used to watch on Saturday afternoons. The story of carpenter-turned-author Hotze de Roos and his writing. The 59 stories of the Klinkhamer twins that flowed from his pen. The story of the children of Terherne whose gift led to a park that keeps the memory of de Roos’s life and his writing alive.
And the individual stories of the millions of Dutch children who read his books, and who rode their bikes along the canals and dropped bricks in to watch the splash and dreamed of fast boats.
And one of them even grew up to be part of my story.
Allyson Latta is a Canadian freelance writer and an editor of literary fiction and creative nonfiction books, many of which have gone on to win national and international awards. She also edits for the University of the West Indies Press in Jamaica. Allyson teaches memoir writing for the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies in partnership with the New York Times Knowledge Network, and has led writers’ retreats in Canada, the U.S., Chile and Costa Rica. She fell for a Dutch boy she met in journalism school and they now live with their two sons in the Toronto area. Visit her website: allysonlatta.com