The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

May 20, 2016

May 20, 1911

Annie M. G. Schmidt (May 20, 1911 to May 21, 1995) was a Dutch writer whose books for children made her very famous in her homeland. She for example received the Hans Christian Andersen Award ‘for her contribution to children's literature’ in 1988. But her literary output includes satirical works for public theater. Although her work is widely translated it has not been much into English.  We start therefore with some biographical notes we edited from a Dutch site. It was nicely translated when I found it.

Over the last few years, since the eve of her eightieth birthday, Annie Schmidt has been honoured by Queen Beatrix and praise and awards have been heaped upon her. She has received one prize after another - and has accepted them all with the slightly mocking amusement which has become her trademark. She is as Dutch as anyone can be, no great lover of fuss and hullabaloo, .... While almost all the Netherlands adored her work, the literary world largely ignored it because it was merely entertainment - and for a long time now the literary world has attached little importance to entertainment. However, once Annie Schmidt was unmistakably a part of Dutch cultural history her work could no longer be ignored......

All her childrens' books are... a plea for imagination and freedom of  thought and action, though she is never the least bit solemn about it. And she still runs her life on these principles, as she has made clear in the interviews to which she has submitted on various festive occasions. One chat show host wanted to know how anyone can live to such an age and still remain so young in spirit. ‘Plenty of drinking and plenty of smoking,’ she answered mischievously, lighting another cigarette to make her point. ....

Anna Maria Geertruida Schmidt was born in Zeeland, in the south-western part of the Netherlands, the daughter of a parson. This seems to be the ideal background for a satirist, for she is by no means the only parson's child to have found a place in the flourishing world of Dutch satire. ....

As a girl, what Annie Schmidt liked best was to bury herself in books. She dreamed herself into a make-believe world which was much more beautiful then the real one; just as later, when she had her own family, her husband and child would often find it impossible to talk to her because she would be walking round with yet another story in her head. ‘Mother's got her head in the clouds again,’ they said then.

At first it was not clear what her future would be. She began by studying to be a solicitor, because that's what her brother had done, but dropped it halfway through to take courses in shorthand and typing. For two years she worked as an au pair for three aristocratic sisters in Germany, where she became acquainted with the work of satirists such as Kurt Tucholsky and Erich K√§stner, writers whom she has continued to admire all her life. ‘That's where it all came from, from them,’ she said recently, discussing her own sources of inspiration. ‘People simply don't realise that this culture is one more thing that Adolf Hitler destroyed.’

Back in the Netherlands again in 1932, Annie Schmidt became a librarian - an enthusiastic young woman, who enjoyed reading good books out loud to rooms full of children. During the Second World War she came into contact with journalists from the underground newspaper Het Parool, and after the Liberation she became head of its documentation department. One of her colleagues discovered by chance that Miss Schmidt wrote the odd poem in her spare time. Perhaps she could write a few things for a staff party as well?

Her work caused little short of a sensation with its airy, laconic tone. Professional comedians promptly started fighting for material by her, and Het Parool published her children's stories, poems and columns in rapid succession. Annie Schmidt was already thirty-six when all this began. ‘Writing was a release,’ she said. ‘It was as if I had always had to hold it in and then suddenly I could let it all out.’ .... The stories and poems and columns were collected into innumerable books and her song lyrics were heard in theatres and on the radio. In 1952 she was approached by a radio producer who wanted to make an American-style soap opera about a family, using a whole team of scriptwriters. Her reaction was: ‘Can't I do it on my own?’ And for seven years Annie Schmidt wrote the script for Mr and Mrs Average (De familie Doorsnee), Dutch radio's most popular series ever. For it she created a distinctive style, with the dialogue regularly interrupted by songs; a sort of ongoing radio musical. ....

Annie Schmidt created a whole new brand of radio and television entertainment - totally Dutch in its warmth and homeliness, but with enough of an edge to stop it becoming saccharine. Progressive, but not blinkered by revolutionary dogma. Playful and teasing, but not fanatical. She took Dutch domesticity and flung its windows wide to let the fresh air in; but the pot plants on the windowsills remained neat and undisturbed. In 1963 a producer asked her if she would translate a musical for the theatre. She had only a vague idea of what a musical actually was, but said: ‘While I've got so many ideas of my own, I'll write my own musical.’ And so she did. And in her musicals, too, she created her own form: comedies with songs - and a bit sharper than had been possible on radio and television, because there was no censorship in the theatre. Typical of the exchanges in that first musical is this:

First woman: ‘My thirteen-year-old daughter carries condoms in her handbag.’

Second woman: ‘Gosh. So young and already she's got a handbag!’

Since then Annie Schmidt has written many more tv series, children's books and stage plays. .

One of her books is titled Minoes (1970). 
Minoes "is the story of a cat who turns into a young lady, and by spreading gossip from the cat world helps a young journalist keep his job at the newspaper." The movie version won first prize at the 2002 Chicago International Children's Film Festival.

This book review gives an idea of the charm and originality of the story; we quote Karin Snelson, an editor at the book blog "Shelf Awareness."

Tibble, a shy newspaperman, prefers cats to people. He is an excellent writer for theKillenthorn Courier, but his editor calls him into his office one day. "Your articles are always about cats," he says.

It's true. Tibble is a "real cat lover" and knows all the local cats. He points out to the editor that there's already plenty of news in the newspaper. "I thought people would like to read about cats and leaves for a change," says Tibble. His editor firmly disagrees and gives him one last chance to write an article containing real news, and he wants it by morning.

The discouraged reporter heads out into the city looking for something interesting to cover until he's so tired he sits down on a bench in Green Square. Suddenly, a big German shepherd, barking furiously, goes racing after--what? A cat? A stork? The dog chases it into a tall elm tree. Tibble and his accidental benchmate, Mr. Smith, look up into the tree and see "A leg. A leg in a stylish stocking with a shiny, high-heeled shoe on the foot." " 'Heavens,' " said Mr. Smith. 'It's a lady.' " Tibble helps the frightened young woman down from the tree--she is "tremendously agile"--and wonders whether this outlandish scenario is perhaps newsworthy, but he feels too shy to ask her any questions.

So begins
The Cat Who Came in off the Roof, originally published in the Netherlands in 1970 and written by the late Annie M. G. Schmidt, .... The young lady chased by a dog up a tree is named Minou, and the reason she seems so very "cattish" is that she used to be a cat, until she ate out of a mysterious rubbish bin at the Institute for Biochemical Research and turned into a human. "Turned into a human! What a horrific punishment," says Minou's feline Aunt Sooty. It's a difficult transition for Minou. "It's all so half and half," she tells the Tatter Cat, "a stray who swiped her meat scraps from all layers of society." Minou looks 100% red-haired, green-eyed human on the outside, but she still feels "one hundred percent cat" inside, and she still purrs and hisses and rubs up against people. (The rubbing-up part of Minou's felinity makes poor Tibble particularly uncomfortable.)

Tibble takes Minou in, allows her to sleep in a box on the floor of his attic apartment, and tells any nosy people that she is his secretary. In return, Minou uses her abundant cat contacts to become an excellent source for all the city's breaking news, much to the delight of Tibble's editor. Not only does Minou make herself invaluable in the "Cat Press Agency," she also purrs her way into the gentle, nervous Tibble's heart. The genuinely funny story of how these two shy beings make room for each other in their lives is as irresistible as kittens. Schmidt raises questions about what it is to be human, what it is to be a cat,
[and] what it is to be something in between ....

Here's the book cover used in 2016, for the edition translated by David Colmer:

We do understand why the site we first quoted said: 

....You won't find anyone in the Netherlands who doesn't know at least a few lines of hers by heart.

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