Lampie and the Children of the Sea is a poetic fairytale adventure written by Dutch author and illustrator Annet Schaap (English edition: Pushkin Press, 2019. Translated by Laura Watkinson). It is a story of a lighthouse keeper’s daughter, of mermaids and pirates, of fathers and sons, and of those we tend to see and treat as monsters. The book reads like a classic European children’s novel and its narrative style is captivating and descriptive. Lampie and the Children of the Sea won the Golden Stylus, the highest award for children’s literature in the Netherlands, while in Britain the book was shortlisted for the prestigious Carnegie Medal.
In an interview with Papmambook’s Daria Dotsuk, Annet Schaap tells our readers how she manages being an artist and a writer at the same time and what helped her finish the book despite all her doubts. She compares contemporary children’s books with those she enjoyed reading as a child and discusses what parents are afraid of in children’s books and why children like reading about scary things. Schaap believes fairytales help us discuss difficult issues and comfort us in times of trouble.
– Annet, Lampie and the Children of the Sea reminded me of classic stories and fairytales I read as a child, such as The Little Mermaid, Jane Eyre, and others. I found Lampie and the Children of the Sea captivating, poetic, and profound. It made me feel like a child again. Why did you choose this form and setting for your book?
– I have been an illustrator for a long time, for over 25 years now. I’ve also always wanted to be a writer,but I didn’t have courage to go through with it. My parents also discouraged me, saying that there is not much money in writing and that I should get a proper job. I could draw, so I have always had work as an illustrator. I’ve done about 200 books now. But deep down I still had that desire to write. And I did write, little pieces, but I was very insecure about them.
When I was older, I met my husband, a Canadian man. We met in the United States. We had a son, and we started travelling in a camper. All those things were new experiences for me. I have always had a very small life: just working and being at home in Holland. Becoming a wife, a mother, a traveler opened me up. Travelling through such a big country, especially near the ocean, was so wonderful that I forgot all my objections and the idea that I wasn’t good enough. And the story came to me. It was very easy to write, I just followed it. I saw a lighthouse somewhere, and some months later it all came to my head, and I just wrote it down.
Book cover image: pushkinpress.com
I was still insecure, because most of the stories I’ve illustrated were different from mine and I thought: that’s how you do children’s books, that’s what sells. But as a child I read all those wonderful fairytale-like books, where really bad things happened to children. And I always longed for that. I wanted to make a story like that. I hoped that someone else would like it too. You said it made you feel like a child again, and I’ve heard that from a lot of people. This is exactly what I was looking for—for myself—and I am very happy that it worked for so many other people as well.
– You have dedicated Lampie and the Children of the Sea to your younger sister and a childhood summer when you two “read and read.” I would love to hear more about that summer. Why was it special to you? And what did you read back then?
– Oh, we read everything! I think I was eleven and my sister was nine. Our parents dropped us off at our aunt and uncle’s house. They had a farm. We didn’t like it there, but we had to stay for two weeks. My uncle wanted us to play outside and work in the garden, but we didn’t want to do that. So we found a library and went there every day. We got four books each and read them in a little shed in the hay. We didn’t want to go out and work in the garden. I distinctly remember reading The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren and some other books that I will always remember. My sister and I emerged into the stories we read. We didn’t like the place where we were, so we “crawled” into books. That was very important.
– It sounds like the beginning of a fairytale.
– It kind of was. We were used to living in the village and having lots of things to do, and we weren’t happy about it, but looking back it was a very happy time. I always quarreled with my sister, but not then. That summer we were together.
– You made beautiful illustrations for Lampie and the Children of the Sea. Do you think your experience as an illustrator helped you with writing the book?
– Yes and no. Some parts of the story came to me that I could see very clearly, and I just had to write them down. But I also heard the language, the rhythm. So, you could say the eyes and ears worked together. And they made the language. Some people think more in language, others more in pictures. I guess I have a bit of both.
– The illustrations came after you were finished with the book?
– Yes. And that was very strange. Because I have always wanted to be a writer, I thought I could do a project of my own. There are Dutch writers who are also illustrators, and they create graphic novels. They draw and write at the same time. I could never do that. When I draw, I draw, when I write, I write. So, I had to write the whole book and then take a commission as an illustrator. I started thinking about what I should do with it. And I ended up doing something different from what I usually do. I mostly make contemporary funny pictures. And it was really nice not to be funny and create serious dramatic illustrations.
– What is your favorite thing about Lampie as a character? How would you describe her?
– Well, she was pretty much there. I never thought about her. I’ve been thinking about the other characters for a long time. Edward, for example. I had to write a lot of pieces about him that were not quite right. I had to do it again and again. And Lampie was just there. A bright, clear little girl who does what she does. This is also what I felt like writing about her. I just followed her.
– Did she appear with the name Lampie?
‒ Yes, I wrote the first lines and there she was. It’s funny, in the Donald Duck comic strip there is a character, an inventor also called Lampje. [In Dutch editions, both Schaap’s character and the inventor from Donald Duck are called Lampje; in English the latter is Little Helper or Lil’ Bulb.] At first, I thought I couldn’t use that name, because everyone would say, oh, Lampje from Donald Duck! But I did anyway. I thought maybe she would be bigger. The name was just right.
– You said you thought a lot about Edward. I love the transformation we see in him throughout the book. From being frustrated and treated as a monster to being perfectly capable in the water. Even his name changes: at first, he hates that Lampie calls him Fish, but then he accepts his nature and his name. And from then on the narrator also calls him Fish. How did you come up with this character and his story?
– It took a long time before I got him right and before I knew what he sounded like and why he was so angry at first. But when I started writing from his thoughts, I found him. Although I made him very mean, the reader could still understand his pain and where it was coming from. That was very important. From the beginning I had the idea of a boy under the bed. I didn’t know why he was there. Then came his fish tail. Halfway through the book the revelation came as to why he had that tail and the story behind it. I hadn’t thought about this story before, it came out of the book. And I thought: this is great, this is exactly what I wanted!
When I’m writing really well, which doesn’t always, it seems like I tune into something that is already there, something I can see and follow. And then I think: yes, this is right. I’m not thinking about it myself, I just follow the story.
– Lampie and Edward have a lot in common. Their mothers are gone, their fathers are not very good at parenting. They are both lonely and abandoned children, and their friendship is what helps them survive. Why did you decide to parallel their stories? And what do you think brings these characters together?
– I like things to parallel—when it’s not just random things happening in a book, but one thing is connected to another, another character having the same experience, but a little different. For some reason I’m looking for these connections. The stories of these two characters started differently, but I soon discovered they are the same. I really liked that and I followed it. To me both their stories are about freeing yourself from your past—even as a child. I think it is important to write about, because it is important to every human being. We are born into a certain family, and we have to find our own way. Especially if it is not the same way as our parents had. I think it is true for a lot of people.
– Let’s talk about another parallel. Edward is treated as a monster. The theme of being different and the way we treat those who are different is very important in the book. It echoes the story of Lenny, who has serious difficulties with learning, and the story of the circus freaks, who are treated badly. I think this issue is very relevant for our society, both for children and adults.
– Yes, the theme is very much present in today’s society, but I think it will always be there. It was there in the Middle Ages, and in the forties, and in the sixties… People tend to see those who are different and treat them as objects. That is what people do. And it hurts.
– You once said in an interview that while writing Lampie and the Children of the Sea you weren’t sure if anyone would like what you do in the book. Yet readers in many countries fell in love with Lampie and the Children of the Sea. I think it takes courage to stick to your creative instinct. Could you tell us about the things you liked in your book and had concerns about at the same time?
– For instance, the violence at the beginning, when Lampie’s father hits her in the face with his stick, which is quite rough and terrible. As a child I was never beaten or treated badly, but I loved to read about it—I don’t know why. I read children’s books, where things got really bad, like a book about little chimney sweeps. The boys were pushed down the chimneys, they had to work hard, they were beaten. And it was wonderful to read about it in my neat little room with my boring geography homework. Books allow us to have these experiences, while staying safe. You are into the book, but you are still yourself.
However, now there is a lot of cushioning of children. They should not read about this, and they should not be told about that, and books have to tell all the right things. I’m very much in the world of children’s books and I find a lot of them very boring. So, I hope people wouldn’t fall over that violence in Lampie and the Children of the Sea. But in America, for instance, they do. A lot of people there say, oh no, this is all really wrong! They think Lampie’s father is not punished enough for what he has done. They want him to suffer more or lose his parental rights.
And there is another thing. A lot of grownups in the book are not very nice. That happens in children’s books. But often such characters are portrayed as extra mean, like witches who say: “I hate children!” I always thought that was rubbish. Nobody hates children, they just ignore them, and think about themselves.
I thought a lot about it. I wanted every character to have their own story. I think everybody tries their best, even if they do things that are horrible. But this is not something every reader likes. A lot of people like to have villains and heroes, and they want it to be perfectly clear that good guys are good and bad guys are bad. And it is not like that, and I didn’t want it to be. Of course, in Lampie and the Children of the Sea, the children are heroes, but it is not like villains are being burned. Everyone has their own story. I think children are very capable of understanding that. That was very important to me.
– I think having such profound characters is what makes your book so appealing, especially for adult readers.
– I personally best like when a book is a crossover, when it suits both children and adults. It’s no secret that all grownups were children, and many of them closed that door and think they are nothing like that anymore. But everybody is. I know that for sure. So, we can read the same books now and then.
– You mentioned you had doubts whether readers would like your book. What kept you going and finishing the book despite all those doubts?
– It took me a long time to write it, and even more time to even dare to write it. I was already in my fifties when I started. And the strange thing is, when Lampie and the Children of the Sea was done you would say all the gates were open. Now I have my courage, right? But it’s the same thing all over again! I have been struggling like crazy reading what I have written and thinking it’s not good enough and worrying that everybody would say: “It’s not as good as Lampie and the Children of the Sea!” I spend my days trying to convince myself that I should go on. Sometimes I can, sometimes I can’t. But what really helps is when I feel that what I’m working on is the right thing. It may sound too spiritual but I believe it works like that. When I’m in a balanced place I can hear the story and it is easy to follow it. But it’s not there all the time. I wish it was, but it’s not. With Lampie and the Children of the Sea it worked. When I was halfway, I asked the publisher to take a look. And my editor, a wonderful woman, helped me a lot. Their trust helped too. If they hadn’t liked it, I’m not sure if I could have finished it. I would have been too scared to be the only one in the world who believes in this story.
– We spoke about difficult themes raised in your book. Do you think the fairytale genre helps to discuss these issues? Does it make them easier to perceive?
‒ For me it does. Hopefully, for others it does too. When you want to convey a message, you can say: “People, you should love each other”. And they say: “Yeah, okay, we’ll do that”. But poetry and fairytales can change us from the inside. They touch our feelings, and we want to do the right thing, because we feel it is the right thing to do. Stories can do that. Lots of stories I have read in my childhood, and later, changed me. They made me aware of the world, aware of love and grief, and all of the important things. Fairytales can go very deep, because anything can happen in a fairytale, even something that doesn’t exist in the real world. I really like fairytales.
– I feel like fairytales and fantasy stories are something we turn to in times of trouble. Why do you think they are so important and comforting to us?
‒ Because, with all due respect, they go beyond our own little lives. I think many lives have a lot of parallels: death and grief, and happiness, and all those things. Fairytales are always about those things. It’s not the same as novels set in this day and age with cellphones and other devices we use every day. These things are not the point, the important things go deeper. Symbols help, if used in the right way. For me fairytales are important, because they go deeper than our own lives, our own psychology, our own experiences. That is what’s important.
– Another parallel: the book starts with a storm that brings trouble to Lampie. And it ends with a storm, again, but this time it brings hope and reconciliation. Do you think a happy ending is a must for a children’s book? Classic fairytales such as [Hans Christian Andersen’s] The Little Mermaid and The Little Match Girl, which also comes to mind when reading Lampie and the Children of the Sea, both have a very sad ending. What was important for you as an author in the way the book ends?
‒ Good question. Andersen’s fairytales in particular don’t always end well. I think he was a very romantic man. Dramatic even. I like that too, but I think books written for children, or for children as well as adults, should not end badly. Or we would really let the readers down. I like reading adult books about children. Authors of such books can do that. I have just read a book by a young Dutch writer, who left her main character in a freezing cell. That is hopeless and terrible. I was really shocked and I thought, I could never do that. I think it is wrong—to finish a book like that, especially if it is a book for children.
I have an eleven-year-old son, and I recently read him The Witches by Roald Dahl. This book doesn’t end very well. The main character is saved, but he has been transformed into a mouse, and he will stay that way. I don’t think that’s too bad, as endings go. It’s okay. But Jonas, my son, was furious! He said, I never want to read anything by this guy again! And he has a point. When a reader, especially a young reader, invests in travelling with the characters through all their difficulties, roots for them, you can’t just let them down in the end. You just can’t. So, I think a book should end well. And it doesn’t have to be completely unrealistic. Well, maybe getting on a boat with a couple of pirates is not very realistic…
– Why not? I have always dreamt about something like that.
‒ Yes, me too. (Laughs) I guess everybody has their own view of a happy ending. I think Lampie and the Children of the Sea has a fitting end. For Lampie and Fish it ends well. They have reached a new balance. But we don’t know what happens afterwards. I don't. Maybe someday I will, and I will write on, but at this moment I have no idea what happens after the last page.
Interview by Daria Dotsuk
The author thanks Samokat Publishing House for the opportunity to interview Annet Schaap as part of the Samokat Dutch Children’s Literature Festival
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