Poet, playwright, novelist and children’s author Jaap Robben is popular with readers of all ages. He began writing for children and has won several awards: the White Raven for the middle-grade picture book De Zuurtjes (‘The Sourpusses’), followed by a Vlag en Wimpel honorable mention in 2013 for his poetry collection Als iemand ooit mĳn botjes vindt (‘Should Anyone Find My Little Bones’), and a place on the Boekenpauw shortlist in 2019 for the picture book Suzie gaat tekenen (‘Suzie Draws’) – all of them illustrated by Benjamin Leroy. While his novels for adults – Birk (‘You Have Me To Love’, 2014) and Zomervacht (‘Summer Brother’, out 2021) – have both been translated into English by David Doherty, Robben’s entertaining, yet sensitive, work for children has yet to make it into English.
Josephina Florence is the grandmother brought to life by Jaap Robben’s sweet young narrator in the story for children, Josephina: Een naam als een piano (‘Josephina: A Name Like a Piano’), a book showcased at the 2020 Dutch KidLit Week, the annual spotlight for YA and children’s literature in the Netherlands.
‘Most grandmas weren’t always a grandma. Before that, they were a mum, a lady, and before that a little girl, a child, a baby, and before that, they were too tiny to see. Not much bigger than nothing at all.’
Grandmas are so old that some of them were even around before the dinosaurs! This young boy knows his grandma wasn’t always a grandma, because he has seen a picture – a photo of a baby in a garden, in black and white, and not a dinosaur in sight. That little baby grew up, became a girl who could float in the sea, a lady who played the piano and married his grandfather, after dreaming of him long before they met. She became a mum, and – later – finally became his grandma.
Merel Eyckerman’s beautiful illustrations show the blond-haired little boy looking in on his grandmother’s life as she grows up and ages. He peeps over the edge of her pram, or listens at her feet, cuddling his dinosaur, as she plays the piano for his grandfather when they first meet. The young Josephina is drawn in black and white, contrasting with the soft pastel colours used around her to illustrate the little boy’s own imagination and precious moments with his ageing grandma.
But the young boy’s grandma forgets things sometimes; she calls a lamp a vase, or the biscuit tin a ‘what-do-you-call-it’. So her grandson helps her find the right words, receiving an extra biscuit as a reward. Josephina sits in her kitchen, dreaming about her childhood, remembering school friends, and wakes up thinking she’s a little girl in a playground. She weeps from time to time, and one day even forgets who the little boy is. She tells him she’ll live in the garden in the painting on her wall one day. Grandmas don’t have a ‘later’, the boy is told, but he doesn’t believe that. His grandma will live in a garden, with a piano, and hopefully his grandpa too.
Josephina is a poignant story about old age, memory loss, and eventually the passing of a grandparent. It is narrated from the innocent – and at times humorous – perspective of a young boy who is curious about his grandma’s life and enjoys spending time with her, looking at old photos, or simply watching her as she nods off. The love between the grandma and grandson is tender and warm. Robben’s language expresses a child’s view of the world. It is simple yet unusual, poetic yet direct, gently combining a childlike sense of innocent amazement with that of his grandma’s gradual bewilderment. Combined with Eyckerman’s enchanting illustrations, Josephina is a heartwarming picture book that offers an opportunity to explore what is often a difficult theme in a sensitive way.
Reviewed by Johanna McCalmont
JOSEPHINA: EEN NAAM ALS EEN PIANO (‘JOSEPHINA: A NAME LIKE A PIANO’)
Written by Jaap Robben
With Illustrations by Merel Eyckerman
Published by De Geus (2010)
Buy this title through the European Literature Network’s The Dutch Riveter bookshop.org page.
Johanna McCalmont is a freelance translator and interpreter from Northern Ireland. She works from French, German, Dutch, and Italian into English. Her translations have previously appeared in the journal No Man’s Land and she is a regular contributor to the WorldKidLit blog.