My Dutch Life: Maaike Koning

9 December 2016

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Maaike Koning is a Dutch photographer living in Amsterdam with her partner, a photo editor, and their two children, Sam and Sverre, aged twelve and nine. She loves to be outside: biking, gardening and hiking, and enjoys visiting museums and collecting photography books. The entire family travelled through Australia for four months a couple of years ago. She is currently working on several assignments for design and communication agencies and researching a new portrait series.

How long have you been a photographer?

I started studying photographic design at the art college (KABK) in The Hague in 1995 and graduated in 1999. So somewhere in between, I probably ‘became’ a photographer. I got my first job just after I’d graduated. My boyfriend and I took pictures of the kitchen staff for a restaurant guide to London and Amsterdam. We had a great time enjoying all the free food we got in those restaurants.

Was it difficult to find work at first?

Difficult but not impossible. I was really eager to make money out of it… I was lucky enough to get a scholarship (startstipendium) in the year I graduated, so I had time to work on a nice portfolio and buy a good camera. It made things easier. My graduation project was a book about different phases of women’s lives. Making a book was unusual in the pre-digital period. I sold quite a lot of books to design agencies, which meant they did not forget my work and remembered me when they had a suitable assignment. I also joined a photographers’ agency in my first year. But still, the first eight years were off and on, with either having lots of jobs and being incredibly busy, or looking for jobs for months. The last eight years, I have worked for clients who give me enough space for my own style. I also published a book about people and places in Amsterdam Noord. It reflects the identity of this part of Amsterdam, long known as an underprivileged area. Below is a picture from the book. Mr and Mrs De Vries have been married for seventy years, have always lived in Noord and experienced the severe flooding in Oostzaan in 1960 when they witnessed their home-made furniture floating out of the house.

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Have you been influenced by any other Dutch photographers? 

There are so many fantastic talents, not only in Holland. I did my internship with photographer and director Yani. He inspired me a lot. His playful approach to assignments is enviable. Bertien van Manen is one of my favourite documentary photographers. I love the book she made about Russia: A Hundred Summers, A Hundred Winters.

Ed van de Elsken is pretty unique and great. He is one of the documentary photographers who shows that you don’t need to go far away to make great series. Alec Soth, an American photographer, is one of my favourites these days. I love his style and light and the subjects he chooses.

What do you think makes a good photographer?

Difficult… It can be many things. First I would say it’s quite crucial that a photographer develops a style that makes him or her identifiable and recognizable. (This is also important for clients.) Photographers that know what they are doing and why. The photography I love is where the use of daylight is stunning without claiming the entire picture and where the people or animals or moment intrigue me. Then, there is always one very important thing: how people react to the photographer. It all has to do with ‘taste’ and it’s great if it feels like the perfect expression or moment. This does not necessarily mean the sitter has to think it’s a great picture of him or her, but it usually means the viewer is intrigued by the picture, because of something in the picture.

Dutch photographers, artists and architects are all famous for being good with light? Is the light special here? Or is the lack of light in the winter a reason to seek it out and cherish it?

Some people say the beautiful light has to do with the reflection of the sea in the clouds, which makes the light great in a big part of Holland, and also because of the ‘flatness’. I don’t really know. I do know it can be a real challenge. Winters are dark, you really have to search for the light sometimes, but when there’s a sunny day, the light can be awesome. In summer, there is totally different light, so Dutch photographers are experienced in lots of different types of light.

You lived in Australia for a while, would you rather live somewhere other than Holland?

For a long period, I thought I could live in Australia. I lived there for a year when I was younger. I love the wild nature and the infinite space. But when we travelled there with the kids, it felt too far away from home for the long term and the space and hot climate was too much for a daily life. I also realized it was too late for the kids to move. We love our life in Amsterdam far too much to move away for a long time. It gave me peace of mind to realize this.

The trip was great. We did a lot of wild camping, fishing, hiking, we stayed at an aboriginal farm for a while. The kids learned a lot. They shared some of their adventures with their classmates on a blog.

What’s your experience of raising children here? Does it mirror your own childhood or are you doing things differently?

Holland is great for raising kids. It’s quite safe and you can find anything you want for them. My childhood was a bit more free than what I can give my own kids in Amsterdam and I think I grew up a bit more independent than them. I grew up on the edge of a small village. Our large garden bordered a wood in which I’d go on daily expeditions with my brother or friends. We’d build huts, run around, jump over ditches and hide in an empty house. We all cycled alone to school, in my case from the age of seven.

When our daughter was born, we were living in Amsterdam West in a third-floor apartment. I wanted a house with a garden before she could walk, or at least a few trees and a lawn, so that Sam could go on mini-expeditions like the ones I’d been on, without me always having to be there. We found the right house in Amsterdam Noord. Now that the children are older, their ‘territory’ has expanded to fields, woods, and cycle and walking paths in the area. I think it’s important for them to go on expeditions alone. I want them to make their own decisions and, most importantly, have a lot of fun, without their parents hovering over them. Maybe that’s something typically Dutch, letting your children off the leash. In the end it’s also really handy for parents when their children are independent.

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What are the main challenges of raising kids in Holland?

I think the pitfalls can be found in social pressure. For a while, it was a trend to send your children to a crèche for four days a week. I really had to defend myself for choosing not to do that. The children went to a host mother (gastouder) two days a week and for the rest of the time we were either at home or the grandparents helped out. Having less money as a result can also be a choice. Anyway, when your children go to school, there’s more time for work again.

The same goes for all the things your kids do outside school, like music, sports and their swimming diploma. In the Netherlands, parents start with those things very early. I wonder whether it’s really the right thing for every child and I think it’s better to wait until they discover their own interests. I find the school days long enough, certainly for young children.

What you do have in Amsterdam is a lot of choice in terms of education. It’s great that everything is possible, but in total that makes a lot of choices and it can be quite overwhelming. It’s nice if parents are able to choose a path that suits their children, without taking too much notice of what everyone else thinks.

 

All photos (c) Maaike Koning, 2016

 

 

The Art of Crafting Dutch Surprises

1 December 2016


One of the skills I never thought I’d need so much as a wannabee Dutch parent is crafting. Growing up in England in the seventies and eighties, I did plenty of arts and crafts stuff as a kid. My mother went through a hippy phase of teaching me and my brother to collect, spin and weave wool (she still has the spinning wheel at home), to craft corn-dollies out of straw (truly hideous things which attracted mites!) and to sew and knit. At school, we made arts and crafts projects out of toilet rolls and crepe paper. But I never expected these crazy skillz to equip me for my kid’s childhood in the new century.
        Glue and coloured paper and crappy-looking creations are a major part of Dutch day-care and primary school. Both the Dutch childminders we have had, have spent the majority of their time knutselen – a handy Dutch verb for doing craftwork – with the kids too. And they’ve loved it. They’ve done more than I ever did as a kid, despite my seventies-style mum. My daughter is currently a big fan of origami and can spend hours in the kitchen making little birds. It’s got to be preferable to spending hours on the iPad (her other main ‘hobby’).

        The parenting crafting challenge comes in the autumn in Holland. First there’s St Maarten’s Day on 11th November which requires a home-made lantern. (St Maarten, patron saint of Utrecht and Groningen – aka Saint Martin of Tours – was a Hungarian-born bishop who famously donated half of his cloak to a beggar.) The children go from door to door, singing songs as they hold their paper lanterns aloft, and collecting sweets. The lanterns are relatively easy to make and don’t require much adult intervention, thank God. Here’s what Ina made on her own this year.


The real test is Sinterklaas (celebrated on 5th December) when children draw lots at school to see who will make a ‘surprise’ for a fellow classmate. A surprise is basically a fantasy holder for a hidden gift (worth no more than €3,50 according to the brief). But if you’d never seen one, your eyes would pop out at the array of expert-looking DIY animals, computers, play stations, sports paraphernalia et al displayed in the class on the day the surprises get handed it. To a foreign parent, it is a truly daunting sight. How the hell do the kids make these things? And how the hell do their parents know how to help them? Checking out Pinterest will give you an idea of the skill and complexity I’m talking about.
         

             The first year I just let my son wing it on his own. He made a cardboard climbing wall covered in little modelling clay penguins that looked really cute to me, but somehow didn’t fit in with what the other kids had made. It wasn’t “boxy” enough, a fellow parent tipped me off. The next year he made a cardboard guitar and then it was my daughter’s turn. A skipping rope with massive handles fashioned out of papier-mâché covered balloons and toilet rolls and then painted, looked pretty credible. The gift was hidden in one of the handles. Last year she made a house and a garden on top of a cardboard box base and the girl who she gave it to couldn’t hide her disappointment. “You can always tell which kids have foreign parents,” I heard one mum murmur. I’d finally found the one area of parenting where Dutch parents seemed a little competitive.

           

              And so this year, in her last year of primary school, Ina is determined to ‘win’ at surprise-making. It’s her last chance to make a splash and so it’s been all hands on deck. She decided to make a life-sized dog with a football out of chicken wire and papier-mâché. The gift would be hidden inside the ball. I spent an entire day consulting Dutch parents, googling and purchasing chicken wire, tape and wallpaper paste. At the weekend, we put on our gloves and attempted to bend bits of wire into the shape of a dog, based on a drawing of a friendly-looking dog Ina had found online. It took hours and was one of the most difficult things I’d ever attempted in my life (in craft terms). Just getting the dog to stand on all four legs took us about an hour and a half.

           

                Trying to ignore the fact that it looked like a pig with a long tail, we covered the frame in papier-mâché and left it to dry – which took three days, there was so much glue! (We always do this kind of stuff in the bathroom to make clearing up easier). Then Ina painted everything with acrylic paints and this is the result. It’s not too bad but will her classmate like it? And will anyone comment on her non-Dutch mum?

Falling for the Hatchimal Craze: Parenting Fail

25 November 2016

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Only now I’m a parent do I realize just how clever and merciless toy companies, retailers and their commercials can be in hyping a new toy in limited quantities just in time for the gift giving holiday season. And in our American-Dutch household, we’re twice as vulnerable as we open our wallets two times in rapid succession  – on the fifth of December with Dutch Sinterklaas and on Christmas morning with American Santa Claus.

The hottest toy of 2016 – a Hatchimal – was staring right at me in the local toy store’s window. Something  between a Tamagotchi and a Furby, a Hatchimal is a stuffed imaginary animal that hatches itself out of an egg with a child’s help. It’s vaguely reminiscent of the strange phenomenon  of those youtube videos featuring anonymous strangers opening surprise eggs and toys that mesmerize toddlers. This unboxing mania is quite unnerving, especially to a mom who prefers her baby and toddler to have a relatively unplugged, old school childhood.

But there was the Hatchimal, an irresistible temptation beckoning me to walk into the store and buy it for my four year-old. Mind you, he doesn’t even know they exist. I felt a momentary smug satisfaction at proving newspaper articles like The Guardian’s Hatchimal – the must have Christmas toy you simply can’t get , Bloomberg’s This $60 Egg Just Cracked The Holiday Market and The Daily Mail’s The must-have toy that is every parents’ nightmare this Christmas: Hatchimal egg is so popular it has already sold out all wrong. Apparently, in Holland, I could easily get one.

€59 poorer and feeling quite foolish, I Whats’ apped my co-author Michele with a picture of the Hatchimal and the words “Dutch parenting fail”.   

“Was the Hatchimal a shoe gift? Is it a bad thing? What is it? Is it expensive?” texted Michele back. “I’m busy getting mostly craft stuff for Ina, school stationery for Ben, and socks for everyone.”

Her response made me pause. A shoe gift refers to the Dutch tradition of children leaving out their shoes, often with a drawing and a carrot placed inside for Sinterklaas and his horse Amerigo in exchange for a small gift. Usually it’s a chocolate letter, or a toy costing no more than €3.50. I hadn’t even thought that far ahead yet whether the Hatchimal would be a shoe gift, or a larger gift from Sinterklaas on pakjesavond (the main gift giving day), or from Santa Claus.

I’m an American and though I can fake-it-till-I-make-it about being integrated into pragmatic, sober and thrifty Dutch culture, my true colors betray me during anything celebratory – birthdays, holidays, you name it. Perhaps it’s because I am overcompensating for past childhood disappointments of never getting any of the must-have toys like Cabbage Patch Kids Dolls, Tickle Me Elmo, and Beanie Babies. Dig a little bit deeper, and it’s really about my deep-rooted fear of missing out and wanting to fit in. And I don’t want my own kids to miss out either, as a consequence.

Intent on getting to the bottom of this holiday toy craze, I did what any parent would do: crowdsource my mommy social network on Facebook. I asked them if whether or not they have heard of a Hatchimal, is it all just hype and if they would try to make any extra effort in purchasing one.

Jennifer Weedon Palazo from MomCave TV responded, “I’ve never heard of it. I’m in Massachusetts. But it looks like another piece of junk I’ll regret buying!”

Another friend of mine Kim Bongiorno from Let Me Start by Saying gave me some insight. “My nine-year-old discovered Hatchimals on her own, and was genuinely thrilled once I found one. Was it worth the extra effort to go through to get it? Yes. She adores it, and it lives in an adorable little nest she keeps by her bed.” wrote Kim back. “But the toy itself is already a bit overpriced in my opinion. It did not hatch on it’s own: we had to help it along the way. I’m glad I only put in extra time –not money–in seeking it out.”

Curious to know if this phenomenon has reached Dutch shores, I turned to Ray van Os, a happily married father of three. “I think I saw a commercial about that toy last week,” said Ray. “ But I am not going to get it for Sinterklaas for two reasons. First of all, they haven’t even asked for one yet so why get it for them?” said Ray. “The child in me says it is really cool, but the Dutch parent in me tells me that it is a very expensive toy. We have three daughters and I’d have to get three of them. We try not to spoil them.”

Perhaps my friend Lucia Bill, a Dutch mom repatriating back to the Netherlands from Doha, would know. “Hi dear! Actually my kids did not mention it and this is the first time I’m seeing one, or hearing about it.” responded Lucia Boll.

Chances are, as Michele and I suspect, the Hatchimals will also be heavily advertised over the coming period and be on the Christmas lists of Dutch children too. Toy trends often start in the United States  and make their way across the pond. And like with almost every other toy out there, the desire for Hatchimals will die down after the holiday season when there are plenty in stock and their novelty has already worn off. The mixed reviews of the Hatchimal, especially from disappointed parents and children, further re-affirm this temporal toy craze.

The problem is, the premise that you need to buy your child this year’s Christmas it-toy is a modern day, consumerist construct deeply ingrained in my American culture. We’ve someone convinced ourselves as parents that getting such a rare toy would make Christmas morning even more magical and earn bragging rights in the world of competitive parenting.

Christmas toy crazes aren’t yet ingrained in Dutch culture because not only are the Dutch much more pragmatic, but they’re also quite economical. The reason I could easily get one in our local store was that regardless of one’s own economic circumstances, it’s traditionally against thrifty Dutch morals to spend so much money on a frivolous toy. And making a concerted effort to purchase such a toy, if demand did ever exceed supply, would be akin to the walk of shame after a one-night-stand – shameful and best kept to yourself.

As I stare at the purple Hatchimal penguala (they come in five species), I’m tempted to return it. But I decided to keep it as a reminder to never fall for the Christmas toy hype again. Perhaps though, the ultimate judge will be my four year old son when he opens it on Sinterklaas morning.

Getting to Grips with Dutch Grades

23 November 2016

 

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Of all the things expat parents have to get used to in the Netherlands, coming to terms with the bizarre Dutch grading system is one of the toughest. Especially because of the tendency all of us Anglos have to convert what look like marks out of ten into percentages.

First of all, the two systems don’t align at all, and second, it’s harder to get a basic pass grade in Holland than in the US or UK. Third, it’s actually pretty rare to get the equivalent of an A here. So those of us expat parents who have grown up in a culture of As and A+s are in for a shock. (Incidentally, Dutch kids applying for foreign university places can also suffer from the same mental error when those universities try to convert 6s into Cs, 7s into Bs and 8s into As.)

I’ll try to explain the basics first and if I get this right, you’ll realize that Dutch people famously ‘settling’ for a passing grade (6) isn’t what it looks like at all.  

A 6 is a voldoende – satisfactory. Anything lower is an onvoldoende – unsatisfactory (note the term ‘fail’ isn’t used; also, a 5.5 average can also counts as a pass because of a loophole – anything above a half is rounded up to the next full figure at the end of the year). A 7 is good, and an 8 is very good. Anything higher than an eight is still very good, the highest is a ten, but no distinction is made between an 8, 9 or a 10 since getting an 8 already is considered achievement enough.

Now here’s the catch. A 6 isn’t a 6/10. It doesn’t mean your child got 6 questions right and 4 questions wrong. For tests, the teachers usually deduct points (or half-points) for errors from a starting score of 10, rather than adding up questions answered correctly. Emrys, who teaches English HAVO/VWO at a Rotterdam secondary school explains:

“Dutch grading is a complicated thing. Most teachers tell their pupils how many mistakes equals a point off. How many it is depends on the length of the test. Our English department tries to calculate the grade on smaller tests so that a 6 is equal to about 80% correct. On larger tests we usually strive for 70-75% is equal to a six.

When grading essays or letters or other assignments, we usually work with a correction form adding up to a certain amount of points. On a writing assignment I just corrected, the students could earn 14 points. So 14 points was a 10, 13 a 9, 12 a 8 and so on.”

So 80%, an English or American A, could equal a basic pass in the Dutch grading system. If your child is coming home with 6s, he or she is already doing very well indeed by foreign standards! My son has repeatedly told me how strict the marking system is – you should see my face drop when he gets a 5 or a 6 –  I should really listen to him.dutch-grading-system-2For a bit more information, I talked to a Dutch friend Heidi, who has taught across all the different types of secondary school levels from VMBO to VWO. The first point she made is that there is no national curriculum in the Netherlands and there are no agreements between schools about grading. What they do have is kerndoelen – key objectives which should be taught in the lessons. The same applies to primary and secondary education. Usually there are agreements within a school about standards and norms and how much certain tests count towards a final score. She also explained that different types of tests are differently weighted and the tests where students simply have to reproduce information are marked more stringently than those which require interpretation and application of what they have learned.

 

N.B. Rina and I wrote The Happiest Kids in the World  based on our own experiences of raising our children here. My son’s first couple of months of secondary school are covered in the last chapter, but I didn’t have enough experience to write much about grades (there hadn’t even been any at our primary school).

On Writing, Motherhood and Mentorship

15 November 2016

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“Hi, I’m Michele” said this impossibly gorgeous and tall British woman. “I’m Rina.” I replied.


I found myself bracing the frigid February wind to meet my new co-author. And like on any blind date, I was anxious and self-conscious. Just three months beforehand, another random stranger, Marianne Velmans, had emailed me suggesting I
write a book. After reading my preliminary book proposal, she asked – ever so delicately – if I would consider working with her former colleague Michele Hutchison.   


The story that Marianne had in mind was best written by two mothers – one who could write about pregnancy, babies and toddlers (early motherhood) and another who could write about childhood, schools, and teenagers. I wholeheartedly agreed with her. And so did Michele.


But could we trust Marianne to be the right matchmaker? The chemistry had to be just right.


Michele and I decided to meet in Utrecht – a city conveniently located in the middle of Holland, between her home in Amsterdam and mine in Doorn. I suggested the Japanese restaurant Moto because of my pregnancy cravings for udon and tempura.


I tried my best to come with no expectations and meeting in a public place would give a convenient exit strategy just in case it got awkward. I had a sneaking suspicion that she had similar sentiments too.

 

But when I saw her, I was already smitten and it seemed as I was saying hello to an old friend I hadn’t seen for a very long time.


I don’t remember much of our first meeting to be honest. But there were two particular instances that I can recall which left a lasting impression.


The first one was her gently letting me know how intense our relationship and contact would be. “You do know that we would regularly have to be in contact with each other,” said Michele.

 

“Sure, no problem.” I said. I could always use another real life friend. After all, most of my friends were what I called online friends – people who I regularly connected to on Facebook groups and messenger without ever having met in the real world, or who simply live thousands of miles away. My life was conventionally boring, filled with domestic chores, running after my three year-old son and being pregnant.

What I only understood afterwards, well into writing The Happiest Kids in the World was just how intense our communication had to be. We really had to be the best of friends, or it just wouldn’t work. Only after I co-wrote our book could I fully appreciate Michele’s kindness, openness and willingness to work with me. She also became my mentor, teaching me actually how to write a book. I’m ambitious (both by nature and as a product of Tiger parenting) but suffice to say, I had no idea what writing a book actually entailed until I started  doing it. And I guarantee you, it is not for the faint of heart to write a nonfiction book filled with interviews and an honest account of a foreign culture.


I also remember just how unexpectedly supportive Marianne and Michele were about me being an aspiring author and a mother. I blurted out, “Before agreeing with working with me, I have to tell you something. I’m pregnant.”


“Oh, I know. Marianne told me,” replied Michele.

I smiled. Marianne also had a similar positive reaction when I told her.  “Congratulations! What wonderful news, Rina.”


“You’re still willing to work with me?” I said.


“Of course!  Why should your pregnancy prevent you from writing this book?” Marianne said.


Where I come from, it seems that
motherhood and writing are incompatible. The creative life – if one wants to take it seriously and do well – is often romanticized as demanding all one’s attention, leaving little room and time for distractions. Motherhood – the all-consuming, martyr mother image that my American culture puts on a pedestal – demands so much energy that supposedly, not much is left over for creative endeavors, or even work at all.


Yet Michele and Marianne knew another secret. That one can reconcile one’s identities as both a
mother and a writer. The subject matter, after all, was about parenting the happiest kids in the world. Surely mothers should know a bit about happiness too. And apparently, Michele and Marianne were ready to show me the way.


(Lift Each Other GIF courtesy of illustrator and designer Libby VanderPloeg)

Dutchness and Flemishness at the Frankfurt Book Fair

28 October 2016

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One of the things that worried me from the outset when we were writing THE HAPPIEST KIDS IN THE WORLD was the need to generalize. In order to discuss Dutch parenting culture it was necessary to find things we felt the majority of Dutch parents did, even though there were obvious exceptions. You see, not all Dutch people are happy to let their kids play unsupervised outside from a young age; not all Dutch people are immune to the temptation to push their kids to get high grades. And not all Brits and Americans are helicopter parents trying to teach their coddled toddlers to read and write. There will be plenty of readers who point this out to us, I’m sure. But in order to put together an argument and create discussion, generalisation is a necessary evil. Having studied Comp Lit at university, an approach that picks out key features in national literature and then compares them with others’, comparison is now part of my intellectual make-up and I love trying to make out the big picture.

Last week I was on stage at the Frankfurt Book Fair* discussing the differences between Flemish and Dutch literature with Words Without Borders editor Susan Harris and top Flemish writer, Annelies Verbeke. This was after I’d edited a Flemish feature for the literary magazine and attempted to explain what attracted me to those Belgian-Dutch writers and why the regular Dutch were a bit more boring sometimes. Of course, Annelies Verbeke had her own perfectly valid views – Flemish literature is incredibly diverse and includes writers from many different backgrounds, as does Dutch. In fact it’s important to look at the similarities too, especially given the slogan the Dutch and Flemish had chosen to present themselves under – THIS IS WHAT WE SHARE – as joint guests of honour.

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Being guest of honour at Frankfurt is a pretty big thing in terms of cultural exposure. It meant a delegation of seventy writers (several of whom I have translated or will be translating – yay!). The Dutch and Flemish were super proud since it also meant a massive increase in book translations into German in the run-up to the fair, which will open up access to other languages. There was an opening ceremony with both kings and plenty of press coverage. Holland and Flanders also had an exhibition space in which they could market their culture. They opted for a large wrap-around canvas with a projection of a seascape (the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany share the North Sea coast) and an array of deck chairs. White plastic, sound-insulating, crate-like partitions created smaller spaces which contained a book shop, a comics & graphic novels live production area and a theatre for the lively readings, interviews and performances. So the joint guests of honour presented themselves as quiet, calm, thoughtful, design-oriented, occasionally shouty and with a beating heart of graphic culture. If I’m to be allowed to generalize.

*Frankfurt, a word often on a publisher’s lips, but a difficult concept to grasp for anyone who has never been there. Each year the Messe in Frankfurt opens its doors to the world’s largest book fair and probably the oldest, since it dates back to 500 years ago when Gutenberg developed the printing press in nearby Mainz. With more than 7,000 exhibitors and around 277,000 visitors, it forms a high point in the international publishing calendar in terms of the buying and selling of foreign rights. It is particularly intriguing to writers who are not usually welcome.

** With thanks to the Frankfurt Buchmesse Business Club which invited me to attend as an Ambassador. The Business Club was a chilled out place to take meetings, listen to presentations and get lunch without long queues.

My Dutch Life: Joanne Lew-Vriethoff

27 October 2016

Joanne Lew-Vriethoff is an Asian-American illustrator currently living in Amsterdam with her Dutch husband and two children. Born in Malaysia, Joanne grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from the ArtCenter College of Design. When she’s not illustrating, Joanne loves to travel around the world with her family, exploring and collecting ideas and stories for her inspirations. Awards include the 2015 Mom’s Choice Award (Gold), 2015 IPA Benjamin Franklin Awards (1 Gold & @ Silvers), 2012 Beehive Book Award (CLAU), the 2011 Gryphon Award, Winner Bank Street Child Study Children’s Book Award Juvenile, and many more.

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What originally inspired you to become an illustrator?

I have always loved to draw ever since I was four years old. When I turned twelve, I lived alone with my older sister in a room rented from a family in Los Angeles. I was pretty much left to my own devices to take care of myself. I went to school and worked three jobs. My childhood was pretty tough and lonely and I missed my parents, who, for their own reasons, thought I would have better opportunities in the States. For me, drawing had always been just for fun but the way I felt about making art changed and became something more important and precious was when life got hard. It was the one place I could go where I was able to make my world different from the one I lived in. It was the only way I felt I could express myself freely and be as wild in my imagination as I wanted. It was my safe haven.

 

Who or what has had the biggest single influence on you?

I am not sure if my parents were the biggest influence but they were definitely my biggest supporters next to my husband. Although my mom still thinks I’m a cartoonist after 15 years, they have always being very supportive and encouraging when it came to doing what I love.

My most awesome talented and funny art instructor Dwight Harmon. I was not a good student in art school and definitely not the most talented or ambitious one.  Yet this man took me aside one day and said, “Your artwork has the potential to be really good, what the heck are you doing and what are you planning to do with it?”   I had never really seen him this serious and stern and it was a good kick in the butt.

After having my daughter, I started drawing and painting with her. I realized how much I had missed it. It made me want to go back to making art and telling stories again. For me, it was about capturing the moments and feelings I shared with my children.

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How has living in Holland influenced your views on art or design?

I love the artwork coming out of the Netherlands. There is a total sense of freedom to be completely yourself in the art you make. Design and art in this country challenges the boundaries and dares to go beyond without fear of what others think. It can be shocking but that’s what I love about it. The children’s illustrations are pure, beautiful, quirky, unique and experimental. Holland is a very safe country. I feel  because of that,  kids are generally given the space and freedom to just be kids, get messy, go barefoot exploring in the park, get wet in the fountains without worries of catching a cold,  and make their own adventures. Living here has helped me relive my childhood again but in a more positive way and appreciate a sense of freedom to be an explorer.

 

What is your design process like?

When the publishers send me the manuscript, I usually take a day or two to process the story.  Then I would start with thumbnails/ storyboard sometimes on post-it notes. Other times, it’s a lot of cutting, pasting and playing around with different pieces before I put together what I envisioned each page is going to be. Once it’s approved, I move on to sketches.  This is where I start working out the details, character sketching, the transition from one page to the next. When I move on to final colors, I start laying out all the big stuff first and then build it up from there. None of my final art has ever felt final because while I am working on one piece, I always find myself going back to the earlier pages because I suddenly thought of something that can be added or taken out. This stage can be quite organic. I usually gather my kids to critique my work and my husband who has a great eye and helps me see something I had missed before. The best part is seeing it all come together.

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What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?

The best piece of advice is from my husband. Sometimes you have to say ‘No’. It’s not the end of the world if you can’t do it. Be kind to yourself.

 

What is the best advice you can give to aspiring artists?

Just one. Oh boy. I can’t.

Never take criticism personally.

If you value your work and time, others will as well.

Love what you do or don’t do it at all.

Know how to sell your work because you still need to pay your bills. Believe in yourself but please don’t sit and wait around for something to happen.

Never work for free.

 

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Please tell us about your latest project Beautiful!  

Beautiful is a book about breaking the barrier of what society’s expectations are on what beautiful means for a girl. This book encourages girls of all shapes, sizes, and race to embrace who they are and to realize their endless potentials. It’s showing girls free to be themselves whether it’s playing in mud, conducting science experiments, climbing trees, reading books, or playing sports in a wheelchair. It’s about being free to express yourself without fear of what others think of you. It’s been such a wonderful collaboration and so well-received with enthusiastic praise from parents and children that I’m currently working on two more complementary books to Beautiful called Brave and Love.

 

p.s. My Dutch life is a monthly series featuring inspirational people living in the Netherlands, or who have a very special connection with the country. Would you like to share your story? Connect with us!

How We Became a Writing Duo

26 October 2016

how-we-became-writing-duo

 

I’ve just removed the card from Restaurant Moto in Utrecht from my wallet. I glanced to the right when walking down the Drieharingstraat the other night and noticed with a pang that it had gone. In February 2015, I’d visited the Japanese restaurant for the first time on a blind date with Rina. But my behind-the-scenes story goes way back, to 2002 when I’d just started working as a commissioning editor at Doubleday publishing house in London. It was a job I would keep for just two years, until 2004, when thirty-seven weeks pregnant with my son Benjamin, I moved to Amsterdam.

Working at Doubleday was like stepping into a  warm bath. Tucked away in Ealing, it was far from the buzz of Soho, the Strand and Covent Garden, where many other publishers are based. Transworld – the group Doubleday belongs to – prided itself on its friendly atmosphere. Workers were part of a large family with gentle father figure Larry Finlay at its head. Larry was the kind of person who would give you unsolicited advice on breastfeeding, keenly in touch with his feminine side. Marianne Velmans, my direct boss, was also a nurturing, guiding presence, eager to help her young editors make their way to the top of the business. It was the kind of place people joined and never left, there was very low staff turnover. And unusual for the cut-throat atmosphere of London companies, it was understanding of family commitments; many mothers and fathers were able to juggle parenthood and careers there.

I too imaged myself tucked away in Ealing commissioning and editing wonderful books for a great many years to come. But life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. I married a Dutchman and ended up in Amsterdam on maternity leave. And though I was planning to return to my fabulous job in London, the advantages of bringing up kids in Holland got in the way. I ended up finding a job in Dutch publishing and it wasn’t until a merger had me commuting for 2.5 hours a day that I decided to go freelance. I’d been translating Dutch books on the side for some years and now I made this my sole business. Translation would be my career. It was similar to editing but even more engrossing, since you’d spend not weeks but months working closely on a text.

Until I got a phone call from my old boss Marianne. Might I be interested in co-writing a book on why Dutch children were the happiest in the world? She already had one writer, an American expat with a young son, but she wanted someone to write about older kids and add a British perspective to the mix. She’d thought of me because she knew I’d stayed in Amsterdam precisely because of the advantages of bringing up children here, and I had plenty of experience of working closely with authors in an editorial role. Perhaps I could bring both skills to bear.

 

 

“Behind the Scenes of The Happiest Kids in the World” are blog posts that give readers a sneak peak in the making of our forthcoming book The Happiest Kids in The World.

Next time: Rina’s account of what happened in the Japanese restaurant…

P.S. Can’t wait to get your hands on the book and you currently live in Europe? Pre-order here. If you happen to live in the United States, you can get your copy here.

Behind the Scenes of The Happiest Kids in the World

19 October 2016

“Behind the Scenes of The Happiest Kids in the World” are blog posts that give readers a sneak peak in the making of our forthcoming book The Happiest Kids in The World.

Sneak peak Happiest Kids

As I am writing this blog post in my home office, the soft autumn light from my window filters through. The leaves are beginning to turn shades of yellow, red, orange and brown – and as they fall, neighbours collect them into piles on the street which children will find themselves unable to resist jumping into.  It’s starting to get dark earlier. The crisp air officially signals the beginning of sweater-and-wool-coat-season.

 

For many, October is still fresh with all the back-to-school energy and momentum of work obligations and deadlines.  For me, it’s a special anniversary.  Two years ago, I received an unsolicited email from Marianne Velmans- a publisher in London. The subject heading: ” Book proposal?” A simple but life altering request.


Marianne had been following my blog and loved what she read. She asked me if I would consider turning my writing into why Dutch children are the happiest in the world into a book. She was particularly interested in me divulging the secrets of Dutch parenting.

 

Me? Rina Mae? The stay-at-home American mom who lives in a Dutch village, scribbling down random observations in my blog? Even more so – I didn’t know anyone who had ever written a book. Being intimately familiar with poverty, my parents – like millions of other Filipino parents – preferred their children pursuing professions with more job security and stability – medicine, law, teaching, or engineering. So wanting to be the dutiful daughter, I had my eyes set on one day becoming a doctor. But “life” happened – I fell in love with a Dutch guy and found myself living in Holland to start a family.


But I have always loved to write. Motherhood actually made me a better writer. And I also recognise that living in the Netherlands with a supportive husband, healthy kids and access to great childcare when the need arises gives me the space and freedom to develop my writing. Yet, I never imagined that what was essentially a hobby to connect with other moms on the internet could actually blossom into a real profession.

 

Here was my chance to have a voice as a published author, and to write about what I am passionate about – how to raise kind, self-assured, happy children using an intuitive, relaxed approach, the Dutch way.   

 

I managed to collect my nerves and give her a call. Unsurprising, I was a bumbling nervous idiot, rambling incoherent sentences interspersed with thank yous. But Marianne was gracious enough to see my potential. Not only had I “met” my future publishing editor, but I had gained a mentor with a generous spirit to hold my hand and show me the way.
Sneak Peak

Stay tuned for the next blog post in the series: Michele’s story. How we became a writing duo.
P.S. Can’t wait to get your hands on the book and you currently live in Europe? Pre-order here. If you happen to live in the United States, you can get your copy here.

The Netherlands- One of the Best Places to Grow Up as a Girl

12 October 2016

Holland one of the Best Places to Grow Up as a Girl

 

A report released on the International Day of the Girl has declared that the Netherlands is among the best places in the world to grow up as a girl. I’m not surprised. Unfortunately, the United States, my homeland, ranks in dismal thirty-two place, trailing behind Algeria and Kazkhstan. Apparently, if you are a girl and want to grab life by it’s horns, you have better chances in Holland.

 

The Netherlands ranks fourth place, just behind their Nordic neighbours Sweden, Finland and Norway. The Girls’ Opportunity Index is based on five indicators – rates of child marriage, adolescent fertility, maternal mortality (as an indicator of girls’ access to good-quality healthcare), Women MPs (in relation to male MPs), and lower-secondary school completion. Suffice to say, I am not surprised.

 

Here are my own musings as to why the Netherlands is an incredible place to grow up as a girl (and be a woman):

 

Rates of Child Marriage

This serious human rights violation where more than 15 million girls under the age of 18 are married is unheard in Dutch culture. The Dutch actually don’t care about marriage. As an American from a more traditional Catholic Filipino immigrant upbringing, I was surprised to learn that marriage isn’t one of the milestones that girls aspire to. The popularity of American programs like Say Yes to the Dress reveals, after all, the idea that getting married is culmination of female ambitions and dreams. Marriage, from a modern Dutch perspective, is simply not for everyone. And not marrying is not seen as a failure or a reflection of a female’s shortcomings, and definitely no longer a prerequisite for having children.

 

Adolescent fertility

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not the alluring French that are paragons of comprehensive sexuality education but the pragmatic Dutch. Starting at the age of four, the Dutch begin age-appropriate sex education classes with an emphasis on respecting one’s feelings and others. By the time they are teenagers, Dutch girls (and their male counterparts) have a mature perspective when it comes to their sexuality, establishing boundaries and negotiating terms. They boasts one of the lowest rates of teen pregnancies in the world.

 

Best Place to Grow Up as Girl

 

Maternal mortality- Access to Good-Quality Healthcare

According to 2014 Euro Health Consumer Index ranking thirty-seven countries, the Netherlands has the best healthcare in Europe. With their long standing tradition of home births, a well-integrated hospital and midwifery system and at-home postpartum maternity nurses, giving birth in the Netherlands can be an amazing and safe experience. And as we all know that Europe takes health care seriously, being first place speaks volumes about the quality and access that can be found in Holland.

 

Women MPs

If there is one thing that you will learn about being with the Dutch, it’s that having an opinion is a matter of national importance. Dutch girls are encouraged to speak their minds from the moment they can babble.  Being articulate and opinionated is a trait that Dutch girls learn to aspire to – and they definitely hold their ground on the playgrounds and later in the boardrooms and in state affairs. Whether or not the Dutch actually have any idea of the subject matter is a whole other topic.

 

Lower-Secondary School Completion
The Dutch can proudly boast as ranking third in the world for having the most educated population, just behind Finland and Singapore according to the annual Global Competitiveness Report conducted by the World Economic Forum. And Dutch girls regularly outperform their male counterparts when it comes to high school and higher education.

 

As of now, I am a mother to two American-Dutch boys and intent on raising them to be men I can be proud of. But if I should ever have a daughter, I’d be celebrating being able to raise her in the Netherlands!

 

 

First photo courtesy of Peter Eiking

P.s. Did you know that we wrote a book exploring why all these Dutch children are so happy around us?