Kristen Gehrman’s Choice: Anna Woltz and Evelien de Vlieger
Every month, a translator of Dutch into English gives literary tips by answering two questions: which translated book by a Flemish or Dutch author should everyone read? And, which book absolutely deserves an English translation? To get publishers excited, an excerpt has already been translated. This time you will read the choice of Kristen Gehrman. Recent translations by her include The Melting by Lize Spit, The Tree and the Vine by Dola de Jong, The Son and Heir by Alexander Münninghoff and The Boy Between Worlds by Annejet van der Zijl.
I’m always drawn to the kinds of books that I would’ve enjoyed myself as a pre-teen, back when I read under the covers with a flashlight. Never much for fantasy, I preferred books about real life—stories about courageous, emotional, independent kids growing up in complex worlds and figuring things out as they go. My two Dutch picks are exactly that.
Must-read: ‘My Especially Weird Week with Tess’ by Anna Woltz
Delightfully translated by David Colmer, My Especially Weird Week with Tess by Anna Woltz tells the story of 11-year-old Sam, who’s on vacation with his family in Texel (for those who don’t know, Texel is a small Dutch island in the North Sea with rolling sand dunes and a relaxed, wind-swept vibe). There, he meets the 12-year-old Tess, a local girl raised by a single mother who desperately wants to meet her dad. She’s hatched a plan to lure him to the island by convincing him that he’s won a free holiday at her mom’s vacation rental. She enlists her new friend Sam’s help as she tries to get close to her unsuspecting father without revealing her true identity—or her mom finding out.
And that’s when things get weird. Left to his own devices after his brother breaks his ankle, Sam spends most of his holiday following Tess around the island, trying to keep up with her off-the-wall scheme. At one point, Tess needs an excuse to keep her mom at bay, so Sam concocts a story that she’s pregnant! She’s not, of course, and Sam’s not sure how she would even get pregnant (something to do with handholding?) but the whole thing leads to a nerve-racking situation that’s as amusing as it is intriguing in a pre-pubescent kind of way.
I loved how these two well-rounded characters complement each other: a tough, spunky small-town girl who is used to hiding her feelings and a curious, sensitive boy with more existential dread than he knows what to do with. Their short, eventful friendship is as realistic as it is whacky, and Woltz does a beautiful job balancing laughable scenarios with the kind of sensitive, thought-provoking themes that occupy the pre-teen mind. Her fast-paced style and punchy dialogue really shine in Colmer’s translation.
Anna Woltz, My Especially Weird Week with Tess, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer, illustrated by David Dean, Rock the Boat, 176 pages, ages 10-14
To be translated: ‘Toen Raaf linksaf sloeg’ by Evelien de Vlieger
My second pick, and one that has yet to be fully translated, is Toen Raaf linksaf sloeg (The Day I Turned Left) by the brilliant Evelien de Vlieger. Published in November 2022 by Querido, this book tells the story of Raven, a 10-year-old boy from Belgium who is being harassed at school by Benni, a bully you can’t help but hate.
Raven’s mom is a postwoman who—according to Raven—sometimes gets sent off on secret missions and is currently away in Botswana. Meanwhile, Raven is left behind with his loving but absent-minded father who works as a copywriter and spends the day thinking up slogans for things like cat food.
After a tough day at school, which included Benni writing ‘loser’ on the cheese in his sandwich and having to endure a day at the pool in a tiny pair of swim trunks from the lost and found, Raven decides to take the long way home. He turns left at the corner instead of right, and before he knows it, he’s completely lost. As he tries to find his way home, he encounters a motley cast of characters, including a punker, a pizza deliverer, and a lady with a parrot, who help him along the way.
What I particularly love about this book is the sincerity of the narratorial perspective. De Vlieger draws us into the lively mind of a bright 10-year-old boy who doesn’t quite fit into the world around him but absorbs it like a sponge, relishing odd facts and his own musings, which are usually somewhere between fantasy and reality. While reading, I was swept away by Raven’s quirky earnestness and found myself believing every word he said. For me, this book was a total validation of the 10-year-old experience.
Evelien de Vlieger, Toen Raaf Links afsloeg (The Day I Turned Left), illustrated by Karst-Janneke Rogaar, Querido, 136 pages, ages 10+
Excerpt from ‘Toen Raaf linksaf sloeg’, translated by Kristen Gehrman
Mr. Tanguy steps out of the classroom for a minute to get a new sponge, and Benni walks up to my table.
“Raven, what kind of name is that?” he says.
Benni is a head taller than the rest of the class. Maybe he’ll grow up to be the Giant of Walsten one day. The tallest man in the world’s name was Bob, and he grew to be eight feet and eleven inches tall. By the time he was four years old, he was already five foot three. But I doubt Benni will ever become a big friendly giant like Bob. His dad is an escalator salesman and his mom is our school principal.
It is true that a raven is more of a bird than a name, and I don’t even look like one. But at least it’s a clever bird, just as clever as a dolphin or a chimpanzee. Benni sounds more like a dog’s name if you ask me. But since I value my life, I decide it’s better to keep my mouth shut.
“Raven. Isn’t that the big black crow that poops all over the street?” Benni snarls. Everyone knows where this is going, but nobody speaks up. Not even Juna, and she’s the toughest one in the class. Every day, Benni selects someone to pick on. The whole class breathes slowly in and out as he chooses his next victim, as if there’s nothing else we can do. The room goes silent. All you can hear is the chirping of Charlie and Simba (our class parakeets).
“And don’t they eat garbage?” he flicks a dirty tissue onto the floor. “Go on Raven, eat some trash!” Then he empties my pencil sharpener. “Go on, eat it!” I bend down and sweep up the pencil shavings with my hands.
When Mr. Tanguy comes back into the classroom, he nods with satisfaction.
“It’s so nice and quiet in here. The parakeets could learn from your example,” he says.
When nobody’s watching, Benni keeps going. He ties the sleeves of my jacket into tight knots. He writes BIG LOOZER on the cheese in my sandwich. He squeezes the tangerine into my water bottle, peel and all. And that’s not all he did, but I didn’t find out the rest until later.
After lunch, me and Ahmed head over to the grass field next to the school and lie down on our backs.
“There,” Ahmed says, pointing to a cloud. “A dragon letting out a huge fart.”
I see it. If you look closely, the whole sky is full of big farting dragons. Take a deep breath and you can almost smell it.
Then we attempt to gargle Ahmed’s chocolate milk while lying down on our backs. Gargling is completely harmless as long as you remember to keep your epiglottis closed. We try all the vowel sounds, but short A seems to work the best. Don’t even try long A. After all the chocolate milk is gone, we just lie there until the bell rings. We both agree that Benni is a stupid jerk, but unfortunately, I’m not done with him yet.