HCA laudacio 2004

Presentation of the Hans Christian Andersen Awards 2004

 

5 September 2004, Artscape Opera House, Cape Town

Laudatio by Jeffrey Garrett

President Hans Christian Andersen Award Jury 2004

The ceremonial highpoint of every IBBY Congress of the last 50 years has been the moment when we recognize the winners of our highest award, the medal bearing the name of one of the world’s greatest storytellers, Hans Christian Andersen, presented under the aegis and protection of Margrethe, Queen of Denmark.

This year we confer this award on two new laureates and it is my honor and pleasure to introduce them to you—first, with a few remarks in praise of their achievements; and then almost magically in person, as if some conjurer has made them appear before our eyes at a place so distant from their homes, specifically for the purpose of accepting this award. I have come to know their works well in the course of the last year, culminating in the meeting of the Jury last April in Basel where they were selected from among over 50 outstanding candidates from all over the world.

How to introduce them to you, describe their achievement, place them in a larger context, perhaps, too, in context to one another? As I set about this task, I remembered one of my teachers at the University of Munich many years ago. It was the Romanist and linguist Harald Weinrich, later elected to the Collège de France. He gave me my first lessons in understanding fairy and folk tales. Yes, he said, it is a good principle to begin a child’s experience with literature with a clear distinction between story world and the factual world, because, as when children attend a puppet theater, they at first will see no difference between the two and will try to act to influence the story. Gradually, the difference between what Weinrich called narrated world and described world becomes clear—and story can begin to act upon children in the subtle and indirect ways it does. Similarly, fairy and folk tales introduce good and evil, right and wrong as clear categories at first. Spare children the complexity of world initially, give them the solid foundation of values that fairy tales provide—and then introduce them to the complexities, the contradictions, the cruelties and the paradoxes. These children will then be well prepared to act upon the world, grounded and inspired by the important fictions they have internalized, fictions truer than fact, that give them a matrix to interpret what they see and how they themselves feel, and which form the basis of their ideals, their notions of truth, their visions and plans of action for changing the world.

This year’s winners of the Hans Christian Andersen medals represent pillars on either side of the fairy tale divide. For all that separates them—culturally, linguistically, in their chosen medium of expression—they are joined spiritually by a shared understanding that life and society present challenges to young people, and that to prevail children must stand upon a bedrock of values, of faith in self, at times of skepticism directed at their elders, even while recognizing their own potential and that of their friends and of loved family members, for self-doubt, betrayal, and all other vices. For these temptations reside in everyone.

The 2004 winner of the Hans Christian Andersen Medal for Illustration is Max Velthuijs of the Netherlands. Velthuijs appears to us in the garb of a teller of fables, yet unlike Aesop, his themes are not foolishness, vanity, and the meanness of our fellow man and woman, but the nobility of our native emotions, the power of friendship and love, the uniqueness and inestimable value of the individual and his or her differences, and the triumph of life over death. The stories of Kikker, or Frog, and his diverse group of friends are miniature morality plays for our age, demonstrating in framed vignettes—as if on a stage—that life can be hard but is in the end good, that there will be comfort: do not give up, do not lose faith, for you are stronger than you think, and you are not alone.

Although in his excellent portrait of Velthuijs in the current issue of Bookbird, Toin Duijx emphasizes the humor and, as he puts it, the “safeness” of this year’s Andersen award winner, these qualities apply not for lack of elements of the real world. Velthuijs never denies that life and childhood are fraught with danger, with sadness, with the potential for hatred and violence. This is not Hollywood, Frog is not a superhero, and things are by no means all for the best in the best of all possible worlds! What informs the value of his message is that he shows his young readers the path through the darkness to the light on the other side, and how courage and friendship make this passage possible.

Velthuijs began as a painter, though in the early 1960s he was recruited as an illustrator. Yet he chafed at illustrating stories written by others, and soon became his own storyteller. Like his creator, Frog, too, began in a supporting role, to a human lead, Little Man, during the 1980s, but soon took center stage. Animal heroes appeal to Velthuijs clearly because their characteristics are more visible in their shape and in their bodies, they are more immediately and visibly different from one another. In Frog in Winter, what greater contrast could there be between nearly naked Frog’s utter lack of protection on a cold winter’s day—and the warmth enjoyed by Duck in his feathers or Piglet, wrapped in layers of comfy fat? The parables of Max Velthuijs praise uniqueness but also the need for such different natures to cross the borders between species, which children understand as the need to reach out to others—all immediately visible in his art.

In recognizing Max Velthuijs with this year’s Andersen award for illustration, the jury has recognized a gifted artist and illustrator, yes, but even more so the creator of total experiences for children, a comforter, a creator of the foundations for later life. Max Velthuijs is one of the two great pillars across the divide separating early from later childhood whom we are honoring today.

Martin Waddell, born in 1941 into a Northern Irish family with a history of producing notable writers, is the author of over 150 books. Since writing his first book for children in 1969—it was the ghost story, In a Blue Velvet Dress —he has been moved to write for children by a number of inner forces—one playful, one perhaps obsessive. One is quite simply a joy of writing. Waddell often seems to fly, to be carried on silken wings by his own delight to be able to participate in the “fun and adventure and emotion” of writing. His Napper series of soccer books based on his own past as a goalie, the Little Dracula books about the family life of a young vampire, and perhaps most of all his Harriet books, about a girl who is far more accident-prone that the rest of us—these are books full of play.

Not all of these books are winners, to be sure. His series of Rock River Stories, about the adventures of Little Obie somewhere in the American West, might be placed in this category. Americanisms—such as “I reckon”—seem to pop up with even greater frequency than in deepest Kansas. Yet when he is good, he is superb. Even the heroes of Waddell’s more light-hearted series referred to earlier—the under-talented goalkeeper, the aspiring vampire, the accident-prone heroine—are all outsiders, odd-balls if you will, and with that I believe we have what characterizes this year’s Hans Christian Andersen medal winner for writing—and I would now like to focus on his serious fiction for teenagers. It is children who are the outsiders, forced by the inexorable process of growing up into a world not of their making, where, if they are not prepared, they will be exploited, manipulated, and then cast off by the adults who are—or at least some them—the ultimate insiders. I do not wish to speculate on what impact the bomb blast had in 1972 that almost took his life and silenced him as a writer for six years. Whatever inner demons demanding exorcism those may be that only writing can dispell, they have given him his heroes—these outsiders who are physically or socially disadvantaged, but who see the world clearly, or passionately, but usually both. His heroes and heroines are of a cloth with Cassandra, with the blind seers of Greek myth and the prophets of the Old Testament.

In Waddell’s universe, outsider status confers upon a hero unique powers of perception and emotional sensitivity. In his novel Tango’s Baby, the outsider status of Tango, the big gangly youth who falls in love, hopelessly, with Crystal O'Leary, the beautiful girl who recognizes the sincerity of his emotions and reciprocates them, at least for a while, raises him above his peers, transforming him into a kind of Othello, whose final, irrational, tragic outburst, though misunderstood by most of his contemporaries, comes across to the reader as inevitable, noble, a redeeming act of love.

In The Beat of the Drum, one of the grim novels in his Ulster trilogy, young Brian Hanna’s outsider status is visible to the world, for he has been, since surviving an IRA bombing that killed his parents, bound to a wheelchair. As he says himself in this first-person narrative, his handicap renders him “a kind of king’s fool.” As such, however, he is blessed—or cursed—with an incisive vision, exposing the hypocrisy and blindness, the mindless bigotry of the warring factions, and especially the perfidy and self-destructive hatred that drives the Protestant side and corrupts so many of his friends.

If we regard Max Velthuijs as a teller of moral tales and fables, contributing to a bedrock of values and strength for younger children, Martin Waddell, in his great novels, is an introducer of complexities and an introducer to complexities, an author of the open ending which awaits the hero’s, but also the reader’s engagement and commitment to be resolved. Yet like Max Velthuijs, Martin Waddell also never loses sight and never allows his readers to lose sight of the fact that there is a foundation of good under it all, even if it is buried under the detritus of evil behavior and all the confusion that complexity gives rise to.

Though the adult world is often evil, Waddell holds faith with the adults who hold faith with the young. There is Auntie Mae in The Beat of the Drum, for example, who, as the narrator Brian writes, is “famous for picking losers” because she always puts people first, not ideological causes. Waddell knows that it is not always possible to know what is right and to do what is right. As Brian tells us, “[m]aybe the only hope is to keep on thinking right things, in the middle of it all . . .”

This ultimate faith in the good that is in the world and that is in each of us places this year’s Hans Christian Andersen Award winner for writing more in the philosophical vicinity of the Swedish writer Mats Wahl and the Brazilian writer Lygia Bojunga Nunes than in that of the American Robert Cormier or the German Kirsten Boie, in whose works so often bleakness prevails. That there is hope in a desperate world is the moral of a story which is remarkably not a novel, but perhaps Martin Waddell’s most famous picture book, Farmer Duck, in which a lazy and exploitative farmer is ultimately run off the farm by a rebellion of the animals. This may sound like the beginning of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, but the fact that the animals then work together to make the farm function shows that Waddell does not subscribe to any Orwellian pessimism about our future on this earth.

Martin Waddell, the prober of complexities, is the second pillar across the fairy and folktale divide whom we honor this evening, joining Max Velthuijs, the layer of foundations.

It has been a unique honor for me to preside over the process that has yielded two such worthy prizewinners. May they now go forth from this congress and from this awards ceremony, may their works be spread and prosper, so that their message may be shared with children all over the world and contribute to it becoming, at last, a better and more peaceful place.

Thank you.

©Jeffrey Garrett

Cape Town 2004