Losing my marbles (or the day I visited the Miffy Museum in Utrecht)

For those of you who don’t know of her, Miffy is a joy. She is a small white rabbit created by Dick Bruna and I love her greatly. Dear Grandma Bunny, for example, is one of the best picture books that have ever been made and The Little Bird isn’t far off. Miffy is one of the points that I include on my 54 places to begin when thinking about children’s and young adult literature, and I hope that by now you’re starting to realise how important Dick Bruna was. His art was precise, beautiful and incredibly eloquent. We are a poorer world without him, but we are so, so lucky to have had him.

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Born in Utrecht, and beloved by the city, Bruna and his work are now memorialised in every inch of the town. From a pair of familiar ears peeking out from a shop window, through to traffic lights that offer red bunnies for stop and green for go, Utrecht is rightfully proud of its artistic son.

I took a day out from a week in Amsterdam to go over and visit; and oh, it was glorious. This blog is a safe space to confess such things and so I confess this to you: I lost my marbles and I loved it. There is something madly joyful about being unabashed in your loves, and when I sat in the reconstruction of Bruna’s studio in the top floor of the Centraal Museum, I cried.

bruna miffyThere is something very religious about this sort of thing for me; this travel to pay tribute to somebody, and it’s not a sensation that I can easily verbalise, but I can recognise. It comes when I love something and I do, frankly, love what Dick Bruna did for the world. He drew sensitively and smartly and warmly and to be a part of that story, even at this late and painful moment when you know it can’t continue, is a gift.

If you’d like to visit Utrecht on a similar pilgrimage, here’s some useful information for you. It is very easily accessible from Amsterdam station (literally half an hour train ride and then about twenty minutes walk from the sation). There are two points you’ll want to go to, the Miffy Museum and the Centraal Museum where Dick Bruna’s studio is in situ until 2025. You can buy a combined ticket for the two. The Miffy Museum itself is, I’ll grant, somewhat scant on the museum aspects but it’s oddly joyous to see a horde of little children racing around and enjoying themselves in that intense, whole-body, way that little children do. It’s a beautiful tribute and one that, in its way, left me as moved as visiting the recreation of Bruna’s studio did.

Here’s to you Dick Bruna, and thank you for your work. You made my heart break, you made it whole, and you made that happen with such unconscious finesse. You were – you are – you always will be – a gift. Thank you.

The Little Bird : Dick Bruna


DCIM101MEDIAThe Little Bird by Dick Bruna

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So. Dick Bruna. My beloved god of felt-tip pen bluntness, and vivid colour. Is it too hyperbolic to say that this moved me to tears at the end of it? I think maybe, it is, and yet, it did. So it stands.

Bruna is probably best known, and justly so, for his work with Miffy. But Miffy isn’t the entirety of his creative output. The Little Bird is a stand alone story of 24 page. Every verso (left) page has four simple lines of text, being accompanied on the recto (right) page with an illustration.

The little bird is on a journey, looking for somewhere to build her nest. She engages in a question and answer dialogue with a variety of characters – a puppy, the farmer, the farmer’s wife, a cow, a sunflower and so on. Ultimately after she searches the entire farm, the little bird ends up “building her nest in a secret place / where nobody would ever find it.”

It’s a simple, bordering on tragic story. Truly. It’s got echoes of the nativity at points (no room at the inn), and I found the ending, when the bird eventually flies away, an incredibly sad moment. The thing about books like this is that they sing, they sing much greater than their apparent ‘smallness’. Bruna’s a master at this, addressing world-shifting themes in the smallest of books. His Dear grandma bunny is perhaps the best rumination on grief that I have ever read.

And what of the noted Bruna style? It is present, so very present in this book. The simple, and yet exuberant images rest comfortably in their one page frame. But there’s, as always, something very clever in his work. The opening spread shows the bird with her beak pointing towards the centre of the book. The final image is of the bird flying away, her beak pointing at the outer edge of the top right hand page. The bird maps the story visually, without even viewing the text.

I often think that the younger you go in picture books, the more complex and clever you have to be. And sometimes it is the moments that look the simplest that are the ones that are the fullest of clever, brave, and good writing. I love you Dick Bruna, I really really do.

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An esoteric and distinctly biased list of 50 children’s books you probably really should read (part two)

The Jolly Postman – Janet & Allan Ahlberg

This book is one of those that rewards persistence. Every double page spread has a *something* that can be pulled out of the envelope,  and be read. I love the layers that are at work here and how, very subtly and cleverly, the concept of story is played with and expressed to the utmost.

Similar to : The Jolly Christmas Postman

When The Wind Blows – Raymond Briggs

Possibly one of the finest and most heart-breaking graphic novels produced this century, Where The Wind Blows is full of rage and hopeless anger. Superbly, and subtly constructed, it is the story – and the painful conclusion – of a husband and wife dealing with the impact of nuclear war.

Similar to : Maus

Dear Grandma Bunny – Dick Bruna

The brilliance of the Miffy books is undoubted, but Dear Grandma Bunny is one of the finest. Dealing with the death of Grandma Bunny in quiet, clear imagery, it is superb and reaches much deeper than it appears to. Worth hunting out.

Similar to : Nothing.

Cloudland – John Burningham

A picture book made of magic, Cloudland is the story of the children up in the clouds and the games they play. Albert, out walking with his parents in the mountains, falls off the edge of a cliff and instead of falling to his doom is caught by the cloud children. Stylistically this book is incredible, told in a mixture of cut-outs overlaid on the most beautiful of images. It’s very beautiful.

Similar to : Helen Oxenbury (hee)

Stanley’s Stick – John Hegley / Neal Layton

A vivid, screaming to be read out loud, tribute to imagination and the sheer joy of play, Stanley’s Stick is a delight. Stanley goes through the book discovering everything his stick can be. A charming, beautifully constructed book.

Similar to : E Nesbit (I know there’s an age difference but hey, esoteric remember? 😉 )

Rosie’s Walk – Pat Hutchins

Don’t let the front cover fool you, this book is superb and not at all dated . Witty and sparky with a constant hive of activity in the background, it’s one which pays off the reader in slapstick by the barrel load. Brilliant.

Similar to : Laurel and Hardy

A Ball for Daisy – Chris Raschka

Poetic, wordless, lush imagery tells the story of Daisy and her ball. Raschka’s use of line is bold and thick and vivid, and Daisy herself is a gorgeously vivid creation. One of the books that makes you think words aren’t always necessary.

Similar to : The Chicken Thief

The Five Senses – Herve Tullet

I have a lot of love for Tullet’s work primarily because of the sheer, irrepressible exuberance of it. Nominally an exploration of the five senses, this book provides a journey into the act of reading (can you tell I love an interactive, active engagement with a text?!). This book’s awesome, passionate and full of joy.

Similar to : Press Here

Pride – Brian K Vaughan

A deceptively simple alternative look at the invasion of Iraq. It’s told through the eyes of a pride of lions accidentally freed from Baghdad Zoo. This book is alternatively terrifying, heartbreaking, and laugh out loud funny. It’s a visual tour-de-force.

Similar to : Persepolis

Runaways (Volume One) – Brian K Vaughan

This book  revolutionised my perception of graphic novels and the first couple of volumes in the series are stunning. Based on the simple premise, what if your parents are really evil, Runaways is awesome. Want strong female heroines? Want them to mention things like puberty? Want a dinosaur? Done.

Similar to : Famous Five meets the X-Men