Guus Kuijer. Photo: Stefan Tell

Deep philosophical insight and graceful poetic expression

Guus Kuijer, born 1942, grew up in a strictly religious home in Amsterdam. He did not enjoy school but nevertheless decided to train as a primary teacher. He taught for six years until 1973, when he published his first novel and became a full-time writer. Two years later, he made his debut as a children’s author with Met de poppen gooien (1975, Daisy’s New Head). Kuijer has published over 30 books for children and young adults, mostly for readers in their early teens. Several of his works have been adapted for film or stage.

Early in his career, Guus Kuijer became active in the public debate. In the early 1980s he published a collection of essays dealing with how children are perceived by society, Het geminachte kind (1980, The Despised Child). In recent years, some of his writings have covered issues relating to intolerance and fundamentalism – hot topics in today’s Netherlands.

Respect for the child as an individual permeates Kuijer’s entire literary production. He addresses children with the same degree of seriousness and openness as if they were adults, and does not avoid difficult subjects. The consistent message of his books is one of tolerance, understanding and broad-mindedness.

His commitment extends to social and religious issues alike. Kuijer strongly repudiates religious dogmatism but leaves the door open to private experiences of a transcendental, existential nature. The characters he creates sometimes enter imaginary worlds of equal importance to the real world. He combines openness and sharp intellect with great understanding of the importance of the imagination.

In his debut work, Met de poppen gooien, we catch glimpses of what would later become typical features of Kuijer’s writing: a strong female protagonist who speaks her mind, and a keen eye for social issues. The book was the first in a series of five about nine-year-old Madelief, published between 1975 and 1979. The fourth title, Krassen in het tafelblad (1978, Scratches on the Tabletop), in which Madelief tries to find out why nobody liked her late grandmother, attracted particular attention. The picture that emerges is one of a woman who was never able to fit in with convention and the traditional role of wife and mother. The Madelief series enjoyed great success.

Kuijer’s next work, the satirical Hoe Mieke Mom haar maffe moeder vindt (1978, How Mieke Mom Finds Her Wacky Mother), provoked a certain amount of discussion. Mieke Mom is a completely different kind of children’s book – one that many people found provocative, not only because of its absurd style, but especially because of its ruthless criticism of the way the adult world relates to children.

Guus Kuijer’s major breakthrough came with the five books about the girl Polleke, published between 1999 and 2001. In the first book, Voor altijd samen, amen (1999, Together Forever, Amen), the 11-year-old Polleke herself is the narrator. Here Kuijer widens the social perspective to take in some of the challenges of modern society: ethnic tensions, drug abuse and new family structures. All this and more is part of Polleke’s world. Without ever moralizing, Kuijer lets Polleke observe the world through clear eyes, enabling the reader to do likewise.

Like so many of Guus Kuijer’s other works, the Polleke series is aimed at readers on the cusp of their teenage years. The protagonists are confronted both with current social issues and with life’s big questions. In Kuijer’s works, children are individuals with their own opinions and thoughts that deserve to be taken seriously.

Kuijer’s two most recent children’s books, Het boek van alle dingen (2004, The Book of Everything) and Florian Knol (2006), are more fanciful in character. The former is set in 1951 and tells the story of nine-year-old Thomas, born the same year as Kuijer. Thomas has a strictly religious father, who abuses both his wife and his son. Abhorrence of tyranny and religious dogmatism permeates the book, but there is also room for humour and warmth. Even in this story of autocratic power, the underlying perspective is optimistic. Thomas’ only wish is to be happy when he grows up, and he discovers that the route to happiness is to stop being afraid.

Het boek van alle dingen is, like the Polleke series, firmly rooted in the era in which it is set, but in this case there is also a transformation of reality that allows for surreal imagery and visionary flights of fancy. While Thomas moves seamlessly between reality and fantasy, his father has lost all notion of what it is like to be a child and the difference between right and wrong. Het boek van alle dingen is about what happens when one loses oneself and one’s capacity for independent thought. As is typical in Kuijer’s works, the dialogue carries the story and contributes to the subtle and sensitive characterization.

The mixture of reality and fantasy recurs in Florian Knol. Florian is a philosophical young man of about 10 who discovers that what is normal for one person may seem strange to another. A sparrow takes up residence one day in Florian’s red hair, but it soon turns out that the sparrow actually lives in the hair of an old lady, also a redhead. The old lady has dementia, as Florian and his classmate Katja soon realize. But how can they help her? And is it really any stranger to refer to keys as forks than to drink beer for breakfast like Katja’s father? Florian realizes that there are some problems that adults have to fix for themselves, but that friendship across the generational divide is both possible and rewarding.

The uncompromising perspective of the child is a consistent feature in Guus Kuijer’s works, but at the same time, through his young protagonists, he paints a perceptive picture of the adult world. With humanity and warmth he portrays a complex world in unpretentious yet subtle language.