The Cow Who Fell In the Canal


The Cow Who Fell in the Canal by Phyllis Krasilovsky


Illustrated by Peter Spier

The Cow Who Fell in the Canal is a quintessentially Dutch book, but like Hans Brinker, its quintessentially Dutch predecessor, it was not written by a Hollander. It was illustrated by one, and that is what confers its authentically Dutch flavor.


The protagonist is Hendrika, a cow who grows restless, bored by her bucolic life with its monotonous cycle of chewing grass and making milk. The perpetual turning of the windmill makes her dizzy. She has the wanderlust – relieved one day when she falls into the canal, mounts an old raft, and floats her way to the city. Disembarking to the wonder of the inhabitants, she runs through the streets, savoring the novelties, until she happens upon the cheese market. There she encounters Mr. Hofstra, her farmer, who takes her back home. She returns to her pasture wearing a straw hat with streamers as a souvenir and is now content, enriched by her memories. It is a day-in-the-life story, albeit an unusual day, and it is delightfully free of morals.


Peter Spier’s illustrations are what make this tale come alive. Like Richard Scarry, he fabricates richly detailed drawings that create a visual chorus to enliven the simple text. He conveys essence of Netherlands with a herring cart, bicycles leaning against a wall, wooden shoes, canals, and stair-cased roofs. For a child, there is much to absorb on every page.


Spier has illustrated over 150 books and was honored with both the Caldecott Medal and the National Book Award for Noah’s Ark, a textless story perfectly suited to his delicate pen and ink watercolors. His most ambitious undertaking was People, an encyclopedic celebration of human diversity. The cover illustration includes some 500 humans and each one, even the tiny figures in the back row who are conveyed with only a few strokes, is an individual with a recognizable culture. He has a playful sense of humor, evident in the display of noses or hairstyles. He touches briefly on intolerance, inequality, and bullying and he shows a shanty town as well as a suburban neighborhood with the mansion on the hill, but the overwhelming sense is one of wonder at the splendorous variety of it all. On a single spread, he imagines how deadly life would be with soulless uniformity – army green buses, brown clothed humans, and identical boxy buildings. What a relief to turn the page and return to the colorful and exhilarating confusion of humanity. Here is a generous spirited artist who shares through his drawings his belief in the fundamental goodness of people, a characteristically Dutch attribute. All the more remarkable since Peter Spier spent several of his teenage years in Theresienstadt concentration camp.



Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates



Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates by Mary Mapes Dodge


Illustrated by Cyrus Leroy Baldridge

For a book that few people in the 21st century have actually read, Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates is surprisingly well-known. Mention the title and indistinct recollections of wooden shoes, an exhilarating race, and the boy with his finger in the dyke will surface. The book was an immediate success when it was published in 1865 and the story continues to inspire tourism in Holland a century and a half later. All of which is a testament to the excitement of the tale.

 Hans and Gretel Brinker, virtuous children who remain plucky in the face of hardship, live with their parents in a humble cottage on the banks of a frozen canal. Their father suffered a head injury while working on the dykes a decade earlier which left him witless. Locked within his inaccessible memory are the whereabouts of their 1,000 guilder savings and the secret of a mysterious watch entrusted to his care. While the children struggle to obtain help for their father from the gruff Dr. Boekman, their spirits are buoyed by their anticipation of the upcoming race, the prize for which will be silver skates. The plot is unabashedly melodramatic and the cast of supporting characters unabashedly stereotypic: the nasty, bitter Carl Schummel who gets his comeuppance in the end, the fat, good-natured, prone-to-napping Jacob Poot, the generous burgomaster’s daughter, Hilda van Gleck, the empty-headed coquettish Katrinka Flack, the English Benjamin Dobbs who provides an opportunity for comic relief (otherwise rare) when others speak to him in heavily accented English (“Penchamin, I no likes be called Tutch – dat ish no goot. I bees a Hollander.”) All of which is appealing to children.DSC01181

 What is less appealing is the encyclopedia of trivia about Holland, ranging from the carvings on Dutch pipes to catalogues of museum contents. Mary Mapes Dodge wanted to present an instructional travelogue, a somewhat audacious goal, given that she had never been to Holland. The book is flawed by an irrelevant subplot which accompanies a group of boys on a 100 mile sightseeing tour. But while some of the descriptions are insufferably dry (e.g., bits of obscure Dutch history, descriptions of gallery paintings), Dodge manages to pack a remarkable amount of information into the pages, all of which paints a detailed portrait of mid-nineteenth century Dutch life. As our world warms, images of ice skating Hollanders, once such a defining symbol of Dutch culture, are becoming a thing of the past, and it is worth having a text that captures a vanishing way of life.

 The Dutch are somewhat disparaging of Dodge, the self-styled cultural historian, particularly when it comes to the boy with his finger in the dyke. The fictional story of “the hero of Haarlem” appeared in various guises in France, England, and the U.S. during the 1850’s, but it was Hans Brinker that transformed the boy into a popular icon as well as the personification of “the pluckiest little country on earth”.