Reading guide for The Book of Everything

by Guus Kuijer

Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award Laureate 2012

Written by Ulf Boëthius

About the author

Guus Kuijer was born in 1942 and grew up in a strictly religious home in Amsterdam. He did not enjoy school but nevertheless chose to train as a teacher. He made his debut as a children’s author in 1975 with a series of books about a nine year-old girl called Madelief. One of the most popular books in the series is the multi-award winning Krassen in het tafelblad (1978). In total he has published about thirty books for children and young people. Several of the books have been filmed or televised.

Kuijer’s writing is characterised by a fundamental respect for children. He talks to a child as seriously and openly as he would to an adult and does not flinch from difficult topics. The message running throughout the books is one of tolerance, understanding and unprejudiced broad-mindedness.

Kuijer’s engagement not only addresses social issues but also religious ones. His main characters are open to private, existential experiences and sometimes enter imaginary worlds that have the same status as reality. Freedom from prejudice and intellectual edge are combined with a deeply philosophical approach and great aesthetic sensibility.

Kuijer’s major breakthrough came with his five books about Polleke, published between 1999 and 2001. With a sly mixture of seriousness and humour, the author confronts his protagonist with the various problems and conflicts of modern society. Polleke’s parents are divorced, her father is a drug addict, she is in love with a Moroccan boy with an outdated view of women and best friends with a girl whose biological father is gay. Kuijer never moralises, instead letting Polleke view the world with her clear gaze, giving the reader the opportunity to do likewise.

Kuijer’s two most recent children’s books are The Book of Everything (2006) (original title: Het boek van all dingen) and Florian Knol (2006). The former, which Kuijer himself rates highest of all his books, is the focus of this reading guide.

About the book

The Book of Everything is about nine year-old Thomas and is set in 1951, in the shadow of the Second World War. The main character was born in the same year as Kuijer himself. Thomas’ father is an authoritarian patriarch who demands absolute obedience from his wife and his children. His son is beaten for putting the tiniest foot wrong and when his wife attempts to defend him, she too is abused. They go to church on Sundays and the Bible is the only book his father will tolerate. After meals he reads aloud from the grim Old Testament story of the plagues of Egypt – which, when he is abusing him, Thomas hopes will be inflicted on his tyrannical father himself.

And so they are, in a sense. Here the book sometimes crosses the line into the fantastical. When the water in Thomas’ aquarium suddenly seems to have been transformed into blood, we understand that Thomas has poured red juice into the water. But when Thomas sees millions of frogs outside the house and then they start coming in through the letterbox, we don’t know what we are supposed to believe. Especially when even Thomas’ neighbour, “the witch” Mrs Van Amersfoort, has seen them too; it even seems to be her who conjured them up.

Mrs Van Amersfoort knows what is going on in Thomas’ home and helps him. She sometimes lets him listen to Beethoven – music he finds so beautiful that he suddenly floats up into the air in his armchair. Mrs Van Amersfoort was in the resistance during the war and hates brutal tyrants. Now she spearheads a women’s revolt against Thomas’ father. She writes a letter which Thomas places in his father’s Bible and when as a result of the letter he once more attempts to abuse his son, Thomas’ sister Margot suddenly puts a knife to his throat. The revolution has begun.

Despite its dark subject, the tone of the book is light and it is full of humour and poetry. Thomas dreams of being happy. The first step towards happiness is not being afraid, says Mrs Van Amersfoort, and this is exactly what Thomas learns as events unfold. The woman next door becomes his role model but he also receives a lot of help from the books she lends him – and which are a sharp contrast to his father’s strict Bible. She also teaches him to love literature which doesn’t mean anything at all, but just makes life worth living.

The perspective is always that of Thomas, who besides the frogs, also sees tropical fish in the canals of Amsterdam. He talks to Jesus from time to time. We also get to read the different thoughts and ideas that Thomas writes down in his diary “The book of everything”. It not only includes his experiences in the home and his love for Eliza, seven years older than him and disabled – he also loves words, especially ones that he doesn’t understand. Thomas’ obsession with language is demonstrated in the way the story is told, in an almost musical way; the author subtly repeats phrases and linguistic fragments, bringing them back and varying them like a theme in a piece of music.

Things to think about

The book begins with a conversation between Guus Kuijer himself and Thomas Klopper. What is the significance of this introduction? Would we have read the book differently without it?

Describe Thomas’ father. What values does he have, what does he think of books and music, what does he think of people?

The action takes place in 1951 and we get glimpses of the Second World War. What role does the war play in the story?

The boundaries between reality and imagination are crossed on several occasions. Can you give some examples?

Mrs Van Amersfoort is sometimes depicted as if she wasn’t actually real. Give examples.

In the first chapter Thomas says that he saw a hailstorm that blew all the leaves off the trees. What is the symbolic importance of this vision?

Jesus appears at various points in the story. What is it that triggers his visits? And what function do Thomas’ conversations with him have?

What picture do we get of Jesus? Try to describe him.

Jesus has similarities with at least some of the other people in the book. Which? And what are the similarities?

What picture does the book give us of God? What does Thomas think about God?

Which books does Mrs Van Amersfoort give Thomas?

Why does she think he would like these books and what role do the books then play for him?

We hear that one is a story by the Brothers Grimm. Why that one in particular?

Thomas is interested in words, especially words he doesn’t understand. Give examples of this.

What role does “The book of everything” play? Why does the author have Thomas write in it at various times?

The author repeats phrases and fragments of the story, varying them as they reappear. Give examples of some of these repetitions and variations. What is it that is repeated and what is the effect?

Further reading

There is an essay in English that includes The Book of Everything: Helma van Lierop-Debrauwer, The power of dialogue: religions in contemporary Dutch novels for children (in International Research in Children’s Literature 2009 (2):1, pp. 115-127).

For those who read German there is Regina Hofmann, Der kindliche Ich-Erzähler in der modern Kinderliteratur: eine erzähltheoretische Analyse mit Blick auf aktuelle Kinderromanen (2010). This also looks at a couple of the Polleke books.

This Reading Guide was written by Ulf Boëthius, member of the jury for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. It was first published in Swedish in May 2012.

 

Further reading about Guus Kuijer