Max Velthuijs

Toin Duijx

Max Velthuijs was born in The Hague in 1923. As a toddler already he loved to draw and make up his own stories. At school he was not a particularly brilliant pupil. After finishing school he was ‘a jack-of-all-trades and master of none’. During World War II the family had to move to Arnhem, where Velthuijs studied painting and graphic design at the Academie voor Beeldende Kunsten (Academy of the Visual Arts). He enjoyed these lessons very much, but they came to an untimely end in 1944 when the city had to be evacuated. Once the war was over he moved back to The Hague and began making political prints and received commissions for posters, postage stamps, book jackets, animated films, advertising and T.V. spots. During this time Velthuijs discovered what he wanted to do professionally: illustrate and design books! He became one of the most famous illustrators for children in The Netherlands and received many awards. To celebrate his 80th birthday a retrospective about his work was organized in 2003 and the following year he received the Hans Christian Andersen Award 2004 for illustrators. Receiving the Award was the pinnacle of his life's work. After a short illness he passed away on 25 January 2005.

Velthuijs, an illustrator who became also an author

Velthuijs' career as children's book illustrator and author started in 1962 when a Dutch publisher asked him to illustrate a famous book with rhymes for young children (Versjes die wij nooit vergeten / Rhymes we will never forget). Several very well known illustrators preceded him, but the tenth edition of this book with illustrations of Velthuijs was special: thanks to the cheerful freshness of the colourful illustrations and the beautiful design of the book. The book was so successful that two years later he also illustrated another book of children’s rhymes (A is een aapje / A is for Monkey). This was the book that made his international breakthrough. Publisher Nord-Süd Verlag bought the book and from that time on many of Velthuijs’ picture books appeared in co-production, not only books illustrated by Velthuijs, but also books written by him.

Velthuijs quickly developed into a successful picture-book artist with his exuberant bright colours and bold outlines, already perfect in Het goedige Monster (Das gutherzige Ungeheuer; 1973, Nord-Süd Verlag) and Het goedige Monster en de Rovers (Das gutherzige Ungeheuer und die Räuber, 1976, Nord-Süd Verlag). In these illustrations, the heavily outlined figures are given their unmistakeable Velthuijs character. Many of his book’s title pages show Velthuijs' skill as a graphic designer as well as a pen-and-ink illustrator, they demonstrate his ability to integrate his hand-drawn letters into his books in a playful way.

Velthuijs and Frog is the same person?

The Frog books of Velthuijs show a love of nature, animals and people. Frog started as a secondary character in the books about ‘Klein-Mannetje’ (Klein-Männchen), but beginning with Kikker is verliefd (Frog in Love, 1989 Andersen Press, London) he became a character of his own, with his own feelings and thoughts. The stories about Frog and his friends (the Dutch editions of the Frog books are published by Leopold) contain elements of fairy tale and fable. Just like in a traditional fable there is a message in his books, but presented as a general and universal truth. Not a finger raised in warning. Velthuijs doesn’t warn his readers he shows them how the world is organized and how people react. Without closing his eyes to how people can treat others unjustly, he always comes with a positive solution for the dilemmas of Frog and his friends.

In his Frog books Velthuijs brings existential themes/subjects in words and pictures back to their essence. Kikker en het vogeltje (Frog and the Birdsong) is a beautifully simple account of the mystery of death and the need to celebrate the joys of being alive. This complex and challenging idea is presented with strong, dramatic pictures. Kikker en de Vreemdeling (Frog and the Stranger) deserves a special mention for the way this story deals with prejudice and fear for outsiders, racism and mutual understanding. Lovesickness is the central theme in Kikker is verliefd (Frog in love); solidarity in Kikker in de kou (Frog in Winter); and fear in Kikker is bang (Frog is frightened).

The animals in the picture books are, as Velthuijs said, ‘a kind of children of me, they have their own personality in which there is always a part of myself.’ Frog is childlike wide-eyed, Pig is home-loving, Dug is sweet but at the same time sensation-loving, Hare is the intellectual one who always has a thoughtful judgement and Rat is an adventurer, perhaps the most enterprising animal in the Frog books. All Velthuijs’ stories are suffused with a sense of security, and the moral of each story is presented with gentle humour. It is this humour and security – in words and pictures, which the Frog books show to perfection.