Communicating through Imaginations: Gerda Dendooven and the Rights of the Child Reader

Award-winning Belgian illustrator, playwright and lecturer, Gerda Dendooven, shares her experiences of acting as the Children’s Consul of Belgium, representing young people and stimulating debates both nationally and internationally about literature, culture and the relationship between adults and children.

As part of the Nations through Narrative programme, led by The Arts Council, to mark Ireland’s presidency of the Council of the EU, Inis is delighted to present the first of two specially-commissioned online features which focus on European literature for children and teenagers.

In 2007, you were appointed as the first Children’s Consul of Belgium. What did you want to promote and achieve through this role?

This was a very new position at the time and the title was still being confirmed. I didn’t think that ‘Children’s Laureate’ worked well in Flemish or French and the Reading Foundation in Flanders proposed ‘Children’s Champion’ which made it sound like I was selling dishwashing powder! So we decided on Children’s Consul, which covered a bigger idea: I would take care of and speak for children in an adult world. The position officially lasted two years, but I’ve never actually stopped.
Some people (the Department of Children’s Rights) tell me that this is a lifetime achievement, so I have continued to act as Children’s Consul. The arts were and are for me a fundamental right, the same as fresh air, shelter, education…

I aim to make things wider than just focussing on reading and books.  I want not just to do workshops with children but to talk with all the adults who are part of the political decisions and policy discussions about publishing for children and teenagers. When I was appointed, I wrote an open letter in a Belgian newsletter about the importance of supporting children’s creativity and literature. I then had two meetings with the Minister for Education to put forward my ideas on education, the role of the arts and the crucial role of quality teacher education. In Belgium, the reputation of primary and secondary teachers and the rigor of the selection process of applicants wanting to become teachers are diminishing. I don’t need to persuade those happy few adults who believe that it’s important for children to read and go to the theatre and to be encouraged to have imaginative journeys. Through stories you can travel from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century and into the future. Everything can happen through turning the pages of a book. Reading is full of wonders. There are so many lives in just one book.  I need to reach everyone in the community – teachers, authors, politicians, librarians and parents– to promote the power of education and the importance of the arts for children to offer hope and to open other views on life.Do you have certain principles or values underpinning your work as storyteller and Consul for children?

During my time as Children’s Consul, I developed ‘Five Golden Tips’ , a kind of manifesto for encouraging children’s reading and the importance of children’s literature:

1) Children and adults live in the same world. Children see the same things that adults do –although through different eyes, because it is a new experience for them– but they still see hunger, violence, love etc. You cannot pretend otherwise.

2) Every child is different. There is no ‘universal’, ‘standard’ or ‘common’ child. Each individual child loves and should be facilitated to have access to and love different things: poetry or maps or comics or history.

3) Seduce your audience! If you talk with enthusiasm about, say, a salt shaker, then your audience will become interested and intrigued. This is particularly important for parents and teachers: you must convince children through passion and curiosity so that they want to learn and discover. Talking about books (for example, at dinner) creates a link between adults and children: it is a kind of glue between people.

4) You learn from those you admire. Adults must practice what they preach and read! If children don’t see the adults around them reading, then they will think reading is only for children and that it happens only in school and then they will stop reading. If they never see adults reading, children won’t do it either.

5) What you learn as a child can be a joy forever. Reading is a habit. The things that you learn, do and enjoy when you are young will enrich the rest of your life. Bringing children regularly to museums, libraries and theatres to build these regular cultural, regular habits is all part of helping young people to develop their independence, creativity and ability to communicate through their imaginations.

You have such a strong commitment to following these values. What are your experiences of the editing process? Have publishers or editors ever tried to change anything in your work?

It’s important for me that I can put my own philosophy and view on the world in my work, whether I’m creating illustrations or theatre for children. When I want to make a play, I want to enjoy myself as a creator but also as an adult audience member watching the play and as a young member of the audience. So I have to think of multiple levels: as an artist, as a person and as a child. That is why I am very critical of my work. I am my own worst critic, much more than for other people. I have to be: other people won’t see what needs to be improved, or else they don’t want to be so honest. I am lucky and have very good editors but most editors cannot evaluate illustrations, perhaps because they studied languages or history but not visual arts. They can analyse the text in picturebooks very effectively, but very few editors have given me good advice about how to solve problems in the illustrations.

Here’s an example from my 2012 book, Takkenkind (The Twig Child), about a wife who wants a baby and her husband who goes out in the middle of night to find one for her. He dismisses different possibilities – one baby is too weepy and another is too troublesome– and eventually he brings back a piece of wood shaped like a child. The woman is furious and takes an axe to cut the wood into pieces. She accidentally cuts her husband’s finger and the blood falls on the wood and makes it come alive. The woman falls in love and treats the Takkenkind as her child, and the three characters finish the story as a family. Children often prefer this very part of the story but my publishers said that this violence would be problematic and they wanted me to change the text as well as the illustrations throughout the book. I know that it’s a very dark story but I wanted to keep the anger of the woman against a non-living thing with no name. If parents adopt a child and there’s something ‘wrong’ with it, what do you do with that child? Do you give it back? Or do you love that child with all its strange appearance and character? I wanted to keep the importance of the woman’s acceptance and love for the child at the end. So I kept the pictures, but I adapted the text slightly to make it seem less cruel. I think it’s important for children’s literature to feel complex and real, but to have a happy ending and offer hope, like Roald Dahl’s books.

You’re going to be acting as the ‘godmother’ of the 2013 Filem’on Children’s Film Festival in Belgium in October later this year. How did you get involved in this event?
I am very interested in animated film and I was delighted to be asked to help curate the festival. I will be doing workshops on storytelling along with musicians. There will be Belgian as well as international films, but it is a bilingual festival in Flemish and French which I think is very important. I am going to create a list of my favourite films for children to screen as part of the programme, including works of early film history, for example, by Louise Reiniger, a German animator and film director during the 1920s. And we will also bring in some ‘wordless’ stories for children of all languages and backgrounds.

In your role as lecturer in graphic arts at the University College in Ghent, what advice do you give your students about illustration?

Work hard and learn the methods of drawing, the craft of registering life. I cannot give people ideas but I can teach ways to get your ideas onto paper. Some of my colleagues call me ‘old fashioned’ because I emphasise the skills of drawing and design: how to use line and shape and capture light and shadow. I tell my students: ‘take your diary or sketchbook, draw every day and analyse everything you experience. Organise your ideas and thoughts on paper’. Conceptual art dictates that students of fine arts don’t need to know how to draw; they just need an idea or just inspiration. But you always need a combination of craft and idea. Like a sculptor who wants to make a sculpture, you have to think about the techniques you might use as well as the idea for and behind each particular sculpture.