Friday, May 25, 2012

Discovering Hilda

When you begin digging for treasure from the “Golden Age of Children’s Literature” you might miss this author, but when her books are unearthed and opened, there is gold. In fact, a friend once confessed that in sorting through piles of old books she had acquired, she gave away a whole batch of Hilda van Stockum’s books and later had to repurchase them at premium prices.

Emily first met van Stockum in the pages of Friendly Gables and was so taken with her she set about procuring other books about the charming Mitchell family. The Mitchells, first in the series, introduces you to a mother and her brood of active, entertaining, and unruly children adjusting to father being off in the war and whose everyday adventures reveal the lessons that shape their awareness of others and developing wisdom.

Since then, she has passionately insisted no child should grow up without reading The Winged Watchman. It took a few years after discovering that book for it to work its way to the top of our family read-aloud pile. To say my young boys sat in rapt attention while we read through it would be a gross understatement. Never was there such loud protest at, “time for bed” as when in the middle of that story of a young boy in a Dutch family during the Nazi occupation of Holland. The courage of this little lad and self-initiation is truly admirable. His whole family is quietly trying to survive World War II, but in that effort become involved in helping many others all secretly working in the resistance movement. For parents who shy away from war stories and gruesome recounts of the Nazi atrosities, I highly recommend The Winged Watchman. It is a story with profound lessons in strength of character. The everyday interactions of the family ring with reality. The simple faith and tough living out of that faith make it an unforgettable book.

Perhaps for children a little older, another valuable World War II book is The Borrowed House. This story is told from the perspective of a young Nazi girl who has known no viewpoint other than the one she has been indoctrinated with as a member of the Hitler Youth. In the course of her family’s relocation to Holland during the war, her eyes are gradually opened to the lies of the Nazi regime’s propaganda. The story is compelling and suspenseful. Beyond the riveting plot, it challenges the reader to consider not just “the other side”, but how unquestioningly any young person believes the worldview of the only government they have known.

Thanks to Bethlehem Books, these gems are in reprint. Hilda van Stockum, born in Rotterdam in 1908 and the daughter of a navy career father, traveled and lived in many countries as she grew up. Among her almost 30 published books, are many much more lighthearted stories from picture books to chapter books about families, pets, and adventures in other countries. The poignancy of her enduring World War II stories no doubt arises from the fact that her beloved brother Willem, a pilot, was killed in the struggle for freedom of that terrible war. Furthermore, bombs completely demolished her own childhood home in Holland.

It was probably in that home that young Hilda produced her first book at five-years-old, which she also illustrated. This desire to write and draw grew and flourished throughout her long life. She attended art school for three years in Dublin, Ireland, and continued at the Academy of Art in Amsterdam for four more years. Her passion was painting, but the Dutch school was very rigid. To combat her boredom drawing and painting antique objects and plaster sculptures, she spent her lunch hours in the chaotic cafeteria painting. In the midst of the raucous atmosphere of students wrestling and throwing food, she painted their portraits. When asked, “How can you work in such din?” she merely stated, “I intend to have ten children, so I’d better get used to it.” Returning to Ireland, she met and married her brother Willem’s friend. Her first daughter, Olga was born there, but she and her husband soon moved to America and lived in Washington, D.C., where her other five children were born. They later settled in Canada.

Her first published book for children was A Day on Skates in 1934 and throughout the following decades she continued to write and illustrate her children’s books. A strong sense of family bonds permeates all her stories, a welcome picture for today’s readers. Many of her own relationships are revealed in her stories: her dearly beloved Grandfather is described in Gerrit and the Organ, her Uncle Jim in The Mitchells.

This remarkable author continues to bless the hearts of readers. Her full life and indomitable character produced by everyday ordinary and extraordinary events will enrich your own life once you have opened the cover of any of her books and entered into the lives of her very real characters.

For the joy of reading,



  1. Oh Liz! Besides Seredy's Chestry Oak, The Winged Watchman is my most recommended book in the library! Every family who has checked it out has come back to say it was the best book they've read. It should definitely be near the top of every read-aloud list. And read it aloud. There are so many wonderful lessons to ponder. Right now I'm reading The Borrowed House. It's so hard to put down!

  2. She is one of my favorite authors. You don't have to be a child to enjoy her writing. Then there is Meindert DeJong!