The Children’s Consul of Belgium: Gerda Dendooven in support of children’s creativity and literature

From a Q&A in Dublin, Ireland

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 did not 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 enabled a bigger idea: I would take care of and speak for children in an adult world. The position officially lasted two years but I have never actually stopped. They told me that it was a lifetime achievement, so I have continued to function as Children’s Consul.

I aim to make things wider than just focussing on reading and focussing on just 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 about the importance of supporting children’s creativity and literature in a Belgian newspaper. I then had two meetings with the Minister for Education putting 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 do not need to persuade those happy few adults who believe that it is 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, politicians, librarians, authors, and parents to promote the power of education and the importance of the arts for children to offer hope and 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:

Because reading is so important. Not just technical reading, but reading for pleasure, to have fun with stories.

So, the first rule:

 1)      Children and adults live in the same world. Children see the same things as adults do, 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 saltshaker, 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.

4)      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.

5)      Reading is a habit. The things that you learn, do and enjoy when you are young will give you joy for the rest of your life. Bringing children regularly to museums, libraries, and theatres and building these cultural, regular habits are all part of helping young people 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 is important for me that I can put my own philosophy and view on the world in my work, whether I am creating illustration or theatre for children. When I want to make a play, I want to enjoy myself as a maker but also as an adult watcher of the play and as a young member of the audience. So, I must think of multiple levels: as artist, as person and as child. That is why I am overly critical of my work. I am my own worst critic, much more than I am for other people. I have to be. Other people will not see what needs to be improved or else they don’t want to be so honest. I am lucky and have exceptionally 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 picture books very effectively but very few editors have given me good advice about how to solve problems in the illustrations.

Here is 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 finish the story as a family. Children often prefer this very illustration, 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 is a very dark story, but I wanted to keep the anger of the woman against a non-living thing without a name. If parents adopt a child and there is 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. It is important for children’s literature to feel complex and real but to have a happy ending and offer hope, like Roald Dahl’s books.

 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 how to bring 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 do not 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 must think about the techniques you might use as well as the idea for and behind the sculpture.

Life and times of writers: Gerda Dendooven and Nele Van den Broeck at Surfers Corner, Muizenberg

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Gerda Dendooven (1962) was born in Kortrijk, Belgium. She studied Free Graphics at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent. At the beginning of her career, she supervised children’s art studios in museums for several years. She currently teaches Illustration at LUCA School of Arts in Ghent. She makes drawings for stories by other writers, but also for her own stories. Many of her stories became theatre plays and she is sometimes on stage herself. For several years now she has regularly made live images at concerts or literary performances. In 2020 she made live images for the Brussels Philharmonic during the full performance of Peer Gynt and together with Mauro Pawlowski and Fikry El Azzouzi she forms Trio El Azzouzi. In 2007 she was appointed the first (and only) Children’s Consul on behalf of the Belgian Reading Foundation. Their focus is on art, culture and especially literature.

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