Dutch Boys and Fast Boats: guest post by Allyson Latta

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?”

“Dutch.”

“Like …?”

“Well, I remember we read a lot of fairy tales …”

“Like Grimms’?”

“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.”

But then, seeing that I’m wearing my look (the determined, yes-it-is-so-in-the-refrigerator one), he pauses and sighs. “Well, there were these stories …”

“Yes?”

“… 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.”

“Author?”

“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 …”

“Bricks?”

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.

Kluitman started out in the 1860s, with printing, bookbinding, and bookselling happening under a single roof.

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.

Hotze de Roos

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.

A still from the first Kameleon film

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.

De Roos, centre, receives the Silver Pen award

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

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30 Comments

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30 responses to “Dutch Boys and Fast Boats: guest post by Allyson Latta

  1. Marilyn Charbonneau

    Lovely posting….I know the frustration of getting childhood information from a Dutchman. I watched the trailers of the stories of the young boys. They look very authentic and so exciting. I’m sure my 12 year-old grandson would love them.

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. (It’s too bad, though, that you can relate to my difficulty getting childhood information from my husband!) I’m hoping to find a way to show the Kameleon films to my sons. They’ve seen a few Dutch films through the Sprockets International Film Festival for Children here in Toronto and always enjoy stories set where their dad grew up.

  2. Funny! And re the Dutchman you are speaking of, notice how boats are such a big part of this story, for the author, the reader (A’s husband) and the twins in the books.

  3. Maureen McGeachie

    Talk about a story within a story within a story. I was given this link in a shipyard in Satun Thailand buy a Dutch/Canadian friend who is working on his yacht here. Thank you so much Jim, Wonderful reading and I will now look for the books to send to 2 very special little boys in Australia.

  4. Thanks for visiting Maureen! I hope you’ll stop by again.

  5. From Henk Geuzinge:

    Hi Allyson, I did read all the books from “the Kameleon” , my son has a few in his room… I really enjoyed reading your post on this blog 🙂

    Ask Hans about “Snuf de hond” by Piet Prins. It is about a German shepherd and a boy having adventures in the WW2 period. Every boy read these books.

    • Thanks Henk. My dad and his brothers read the Dik Trom books in the 1940s, also from Kluitman. Looks like the Prins books have been translated into English with the title “Scout.” http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/282622.Piet_Prins

    • Isn’t it wonderful when we can share books we once loved, and still remember, with our children? I asked Hans about “Snuf de hond” but he doesn’t recall it. He left Holland when he was 10, so he may not have read as many Dutch books as his friends did. Since Kristen (also curious and given to detective work!) has discovered the Prins books in English, I’ll certainly look for them. Thanks for commenting, Henk.

  6. From Wilfred van den Brink:

    Nice piece you wrote on the Kameleon, Allyson! I did read one or two when I was young myself. The first film a few years ago did spur some new interest in the books themselves amongst people in general in NL. The overall feel in the books has NL in the fifties all over, at least this is how I imagine the fifties to be like….wasn’t there myself…

    Saw the blog’s owner is Kristen ‘den Hartog’; might even be related to me, as my mother is a den Hartog.

    • Wilfred, we’ll have to check our family trees!

    • Thanks for your comment, Wilfred. I get the impression that for readers today there is a sweet nostalgia to the books and it sounds like the filmmakers made every effort to recreate the feel of that decade.

      [I should mention that Wilfred is related to Hans through marriage, so a den Hartog connection would be VERY interesting!]

  7. This is a fascinating exploration of children’s reading, post-war. I know Allyson. I know her husband Hans. I can easily visualize their conversation on the morning of Allyson’s first detective work. If anyone was going to get to the bottom of the mystery, it was Allyson. This is fun reading and so heartwarming to think that the author got substantial recognition, even if post-humously.

    • We should get her a Sherlock Holmes cap. I think it would be very fetching on her.

    • Mary, you are so insightful. As I found out more about Hotze de Roos, it occurred to me, and spurred me on, that in writing the post I could share his remarkable life with a broader (English-speaking) audience. Reading about the Silver Pen actually brought tears to my eyes. At the outset I didn’t expect the post to be so much about the author — but then, writing is the most fun when it takes unexpected turns.

  8. From Piero Stanco, of Kluitman:

    Indeed the wonders of the internet are great! Thank you for all the research you did on our series about this little but very fast boat ‘De Kameleon’!

    I’m the owner and manager of Kluitman. In a few years we will have our anniversary as a still independent publisher of children’s and Young Adult books of 150 years old.

    ‘De Kameleon’ is one of the series many emigrants from the Netherlands remember, andit has a strong nostalgic appeal to them because of the ingredients of the stories. The series has never been published in English, probably because it is so typically Dutch. Years ago it has been translated into German. In the Netherlands more than 13 million copies have been sold, a success no other series in children’s literature has surpassed.

    • Lovely to hear of houses that have lasted so long and made such a mark on children’s memories over the generations.

    • Piero, I’m pleased that you found my post and liked it. Thank you. How wonderful that Kluitman is still publishing books for children after almost 150 years. It must be gratifying to know that several generations of young readers have enjoyed your many titles.

  9. From Jan Witvoet:

    Very funny, Allyson. Ask Hans about Pietje Bel, Dik Trom, Kruimeltje and Sjors en Sjimmy. That should bring back memories to him.

    • I asked him, Jan, and he does remember Pietje Bel. He says he read “Pietje Bel in Amerika” shortly before moving to Canada. Years ago we also took our boys to see a “Pietje Bell” film at Sprockets film festival. Hans’s sister is a little older and may have read more of these Dutch children’s books. I’ll ask her…

  10. sjef scholte

    Dear Allyson

    You did a great job Realy nice reading and fun
    I am working now on an App for Bassie and Adriaan 2 Famous Dutch Clowns for 40 years
    At the same time we will hopefully release some books of them
    B&A In Europe and B&A in the Wild West
    enough content for a new blog i would say
    I loved your blog
    sjef scholte

    All the best
    Sjef Scholte

    • Sjef, thank you for letting me interview you about the Kameleon films. I’m very glad you liked the post. Good luck with your app about Bassie and Adriaan. It’s great that technology can bring characters and stories to life in new ways. I’ll watch for news of B&A.

  11. Sherry Hinman

    Allyson, you are such a natural storyteller — leave it to you to tell the story within the story, in loving detail. Thank you for sharing this!

  12. Shirley Kolanchey

    Allyson, you did so much research (as usual) and came up with an amazing information about the author of Hans’ favorite childhood books. It has also got me trying to remember the names of books and authors from my childhood.

    • It’s lovely to know this post — and Kristen and N’s blog — sparked memories of your own childhood reading, Shirley. The books we read as children, or have read to us, influence us so much. I have fond memories of a few that I read growing up, ones I’ve had fun sharing with my sons. And I loved finding out more about what Hans, and other Dutch readers (through their comments here), read. Thanks for dropping by.

  13. Pingback: Allyson Latta | Children's Authors: Enid Blyton on writing from life

  14. Marleen Rechsteiner

    I really like your posting, Allyson! It is not only well written, but as a Dutch woman I also recognize your husband’s sentiments about the Kameleon! When we lived abroad I read the books to my boys and they loved the movie. Last year we moved back to The Netherlands and the first thing our boys (12 and 14 by then) wanted to do was visiting Friesland to see the boat and town of the Kameleon boys. So we did; for that only moment we loved being a tourist in our own country….Marleen Rechsteiner, The Netherlands

  15. Kees

    Hi there Allyson,
    Pfff, I just came across this site, only took me about 5 years…..
    You ‘hit’ the story of the Klinkhamer boys very well, and me being Dutch I know the feeling one gets when reading those books.
    As I am the historian (others gave me that name) of ‘Het schooltje van Dik Trom’, I could tell you some similar stories!
    Cheers
    Kees

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