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Thea Beckman Prize winner Martine Letterie: the woman who writes faster than her shadow

In 25 years, Martine Letterie has written a small library of children's books: no fewer than 120 titles in all age categories have already been published by her. She recently won the Forbidden to fly Thea Beckman Prize 2020.

 Last month, during Children's Book Week, it was once again a madhouse. Martine Letterie, who turns 62 in December, raced across the country for school visits. Now she does that all year round, twice a week on average. But during Children's Book Week, she is of course extra busy. So take a breather, although that won't be easy for a woman who writes faster than her shadow.

One hundred and twenty books, what unimaginable productivity.

'Yes, but that includes AVI starter books for children starting to learn to read, you know. In the beginning, I wrote a lot of them, now only very occasionally. I write for all ages, but with an emphasis on middle grades, groups 5 to 8 and secondary education. People sometimes ask me how I know which story is for which age. Apparently, I have intuition for that and sense well what a child knows and experiences at a certain age. But where exactly I get that from, I don't know.'

Forbidden to fly is a beautifully illustrated war story about a family with pigeons, which are in danger of being confiscated by the Germans. How did you come up with the idea?

'Rick de Haas, my regular illustrator and also a good friend, has a cottage in France. In summer, when we go camping somewhere, my husband and I often visit Rick for a few days. Last summer, Rick's sister and a friend of hers whom we did not yet know were also there. That friend told us about her childhood in the 1950s, in a family with 11 children in a village in Brabant. Once a year there was a pigeon festival, she told us. Then they ate pigeon croquettes, pigeon soup, pigeon ragout. Rick and I got the idea to make a kind of picture book about a pigeon that hears that this pigeon festival is coming and thinks "oh, fun!" and then gradually discovers that it is not so much fun at all. My publisher asked if my new book could be about World War II. When I started reading, I discovered all sorts of fantastic things about pigeons in World War II.'

Martine Letterie and Rick de Haas ©Sake Elzinga

What was your most extraordinary discovery?

'The obvious and bizarre parallel between pigeons and the persecution of Jews: pigeons were also put on lists and taken away and never returned. The contrast with the dove as a symbol of peace and freedom is then quite wry and beautiful. There was also a list of 'brave pigeons' because they carried messages between Allied troops during the war - you can't make that up yourself, can you? Anytime you do historical research, you discover such remarkable stories.'


Why do you like writing historical books for children, and what is the importance of it?

'I think children can learn a lot from history. When people are more aware of it, they also start looking at the present differently. For example, many people don't remember that when Jews fled from Germany during World War II, the rest of Europe closed its borders. We don't talk about that anymore, but even now we have to deal with that again when it comes to refugees. If you know that history, it changes and nuances your image of the present time. Then you know, for example, that refugee problems are of all times, and that in the seventeenth century there were more immigrants living in the Netherlands than people of home soil.'

©Rick de Haas

You've been nominated for the Thea Beckman Prize before. What is it like to have actually won now?

'What I actually like as much as winning the prize itself is that the Thea Beckman Prize has gained weight. At the first nomination, things were very different from what they are now. We sat on kindergarten benches in a small room in the Archeon. Now it is a festive ceremony and you notice that the prize has grown into a serious award with meaning.

I have read all of Thea Beckman's historical novels. Hasse Simonsdochter was my favourite book, because I find her one of Beckman's most believable characters and because, among other things, it takes place in my own neighbourhood, in Zutphen. One of the first pieces I wrote was an article in the Zutphen newspaper about what you could find of the book in the city. At the time, I was still a Dutch teacher at the Stedelijk Lyceum and went with students from my school to the inn in the Rodetorenstraat, for example.'

©Rick de Haas

Youth books

Is any subject suitable for a children's book?

'I think so, and also for any age. It just requires making choices in what you tell and how you tell it. You have to stay very close to a child's perspective and also not tell everything at once.'

What is most important when writing a good children's book?

'A good balance between the information and your story. This is a big pitfall for beginning historical children's book writers, and I understand it better than anyone: during your research, you stumble across so many great things, and you then actually want to put them all in your story.'

Did you have any childhood heroes of your own actually? Or a book that changed you?

'Yes, I knew Alone in the world By Hector Malot from memory. I thought it was such a wonderful story. The book, which still belonged to my father and from which he read to me, is still very dear to me, which is why I had it restored. The other day I took it out of the cupboard again because I had heard that Malot wrote it to teach children about France. I read it again with the map of France in my hand, and it was so different and fun again.'

And when you were older?

'At 16, I loved Couperus very much. Eline Vere I read it as many as four times. I also loved Thomas Hardy - yes, I loved historical settings even then.'

No distinction

Love for stories starts with children. The strange thing is: adults think children should read more. At the same time, we hardly take children's literature seriously and newspapers and magazines pay very little attention to it.

'Yes, that's right. The media pays attention to adult authors, but not to youth book authors. Many children's books are also wonderful books for adults, but that is overlooked. We take it for granted that, as adults, you don't read books like that, but why, really? Fellow author Sjoerd Kuyper once said - and I think this is a very good statement - that this classification is wrong: you shouldn't distinguish between adult literature and children's books. Yes, of course there are books for the little ones. But what we usually call 'children's books' is actually literature for all ages.'

Good to know Good to know

Forbidden to fly and other work by Martine Letterie and Rick de Haas was published by Leopold.


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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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