Right. Before I start with the story, I need to sort some technical stuff first. Bear with me, it’ll be over in a minute. There are gnomes and witches and secret gardens ahead, so it’s worth sticking around. Oh dear. Lost some of you already.
I want to introduce one of my favourite Dutch children’s books to you, but I've stumbled on a slight problem. The title of the book, which also happens to be the name of its main character, is not the easiest one for non-Dutch speakers. It’s Scholletje. What did I tell you? Impossible name. And try translating it! The main character of the book is nick-named Scholletje, because she once nearly drowned during a traditional (and unbelievably stupid) Dutch game called ‘scholletje trappen’ or ‘kicking the ice’. You go to a frozen ditch or canal, stand on the ice and kick it, to separate the ice you’re standing on from the main body. Now the game is to stay afloat on that bit of ice as long as possible, without falling into the water - and possibly drowning. Told you: mind-bogglingly dumb. But there you have it.
You see my problem. Try making a catchy translation of a name that means ‘little plate of ice’! I suppose I could go with something like ‘Frosty’ but then it either suggests the girl has a bit of a cold personality, or it conjures up an image of a grinning tiger with a bowl of cereal. It just doesn’t work. But never fear: I've thought of an alternative. As this is a water related incident, and the story is about all sorts of creatures from the realm of enchantment, I've decided to go for Nixie. A nixie being a water sprite. The name sounds rather fun, don't you think? Quite pleased with it actually. All in favour of Nixie then? Alright yes, I'll get on with it now.
Nixie is an eleven-year-old girl. Her actual name is Jacoba Lapwing, which is obviously something she'd prefer to forget. The things parents do to their children. Anyway. Nixie is a dreamy girl as well as a bit of a tom boy, who lives with her family and her rather promiscuous cat Betsy Catchum in a small house in the city. The family only recently moved from the country and Nixie still misses the outdoors desperately. Her new home only has the tiniest of patio gardens - barely large enough to store the garbage bins.
This would all be rather depressing for a nature child like Nixie, if it hadn't been for the Garden. Behind the patio fence, there lies a huge, luscious garden, the only remaining part of what was once a grand country estate. The Garden runs along the entire length of the street and Nixie has a perfect view of it from her bedroom window. She's not supposed to enter it of course, as the unpleasant woman who owns it is sure to raise hell if she finds out (Nixie thinks she beats her pale-faced children and nagged her husband to death). Our heroine is of course undeterred and very frequently climbs over the fence.
There are many different kinds of trees and other plants in that wonderful green haven. It also boasts a large pond and a hedge that runs straight through the middle of the grounds. But the main thing about the Garden is that it is enchanted. Around midnight, the garden dwellers come out from their hiding places. There are fairies, gnomes, goblins, witches, will o' the wisps, brownies and even some musty old demons. Among other things. According to Betsy the cat, there should even be a couple of white ladies and fire sprites about, but she admits she never saw them herself. She just heard that from a rodent she interrogated. Before she killed it.
The most powerful of all the enchanted creatures is the Garden Spirit - tall and solemn and as old as the world, he is respected by all. His powers include the ability to make the garden and all its occupants take to the night sky - to travel to special places in nature, or the scenes of ancient legends. Nixie is allowed to come along on these trips and the Garden Spirit even takes her to places where the others are not allowed to follow. Still, to her the dearest of all the garden folk will always be Tom, a thousand-year-old gnome, her friend and protector.
One day, Nixie is forced to make a hasty retreat from the garden after a day-time visit (helping herself to some nuts from the trees), and makes a nasty fall. She breaks her leg and as it is a very complicated fracture, the doctor tells her she will need months of bed rest to heal. But she can see the garden from her bed and her friends do not abandon her, visiting her and still taking her along on their trips when the garden takes flight.
Then infection sets in and Nixie is moved to the hospital, where she will need to stay for many months. She pines for her beautiful Garden, and worries whether her family will take good care of Betsy, who is expecting yet another litter. The Garden Spirit sends her one of the magical creatures every couple of nights, who tell her stories of their own adventures, or fairy tales, or just make her laugh with their silly antics.
Nixie's infection however turns to septicemia and her life is hanging by a thread. The garden folk realise she will not make it without their help, and as they are skilled in herb lore, they know only one thing can still save her: a special herb that only grows in the Siberian Taiga. Tom and his friend and fellow gnome Everhard set out on a quest to find the plant for Nixie and take it back to her in time, encountering many dangers as well as helpful creatures on the way.
Why did I like this book so much? I guess because it had everything I looked for in a book when I was a child. There were so many elements to it that interested me. The fairy tales, the history, an element of spookiness and adventure. And the main character I found so very real and likeable. Nixie addresses the reader in a very matter-of-fact, no frills kind of way and narrates the stories she has been told or experienced the way a child would, without being overly sentimental about some of the more sad or gruesome facts. There's a touch of Roald Dahl in there I think. In any case, I find her totally convincing.
All in all, I don't understand why this book isn't known to a wider audience. As far as I can tell, it has never been translated into another language - quite rare for Dutch children's books of that period. But even in the Netherlands it is long out of print and very hard to come by. Perhaps at the time the book was written (1974) the author, a physician 'in real life' (hence the abundance of medical details in the book) was still not very widely known. But he went on to co-create a book that sold millions of copies the world over.
Who doesn't know this much-loved book about Gnomes? Wil Huygen created it together with illustrator Rien Poortvliet in 1976, only two years after he wrote 'Scholletje'. Many of the elements in Scholletje return in his delightful book about the life of gnomes (including the ecological/environmental messages - plus some very entertaining stories about the outsmarting of trolls). Why is it that one book has found such national and international acclaim, and the other is all but forgotten?
It's true that Scholletje doesn't have Rien Poortvliet's magical illustrations, which I admit played an essential part in the success of 'Gnomes' (it has several illustrations by Carl Hollander instead). But the stories in it are equally charming and entrancing. In my not-so-very humble opinion anyway. I would have thought publishers were sure to study an author's other works to see whether they were equally marketable. And I wonder why they decided this one wasn't. Too many stories in one book, and therefore too much going on? Too Dutch with the local folklore bit? A tad too much realism here and there? Or maybe something as mundane as a dispute between publishing companies?
I believe children across the world would still be delighted by this little book. You can't tell me there aren't kids out there anymore with a love of reading about magical creatures and adventures and what not. Did I mention there's a time machine device in there as well?
If Wil Huygen were still alive (he passed away several years ago) I would have written to him to see if he couldn't get it reprinted. Secretly hoping he'd then invite me to tea obviously (just assuming a children's book author is a nice person which might very well not be the case). As he is no longer with us, I may just have to approach the publisher myself.
So... what is your verdict, based on my synopsis of the book? Do you think you would have enjoyed reading it as a child? Be Dutch with me. I can take it.
First photo is the cover illustration of the book, made by Carl Hollander, photographed by me with my iPhone. The Gnomes book photo was nicked from Amazon.com, other photos are stock photos from 123rf.com