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Hans Wilhelm, distinguished children's author: I wish children were our teachers!
by K. Ziabari & A. Tavassoli
2009-01-22 10:09:13
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The world of children is disparately different with ours. Their world is happy, colorful, immaculate and flawless while ours is inextricably blended with crimes, brutality, wars and conflicts. They don't think about hitting, harming or betraying each other in treacherous ways; just planning to be cheerful with together, sharing whatever they obtain and "smiling".


Regardless to what is going around in the tumultuous world and to what the blatant seniors do, they just make friendly efforts to find the ways of laughing and relishing, enjoying their life in a pure, decent and innocent way.


The literature of children is inarguably a sensitive field of literature which should be dealt professionally with dexterity, wit and astuteness as you cope with the emotions and feelings of stainless children whose world is mingled with vivacity and hope. Once you write or draw something that is out of their borders and bounds, you violate their rights and offend them.


On the other hand, as an artist or writer of children, if you are perspicacious and committed enough to recognize the intuitions, interests and tendencies of your young audiences, then you can create masterpieces and artworks that can make you eternal and indefinite for them. Hans Wilhelm is one of them.


Hans Wilhelm was born in 1945, Bremen of Germany, where he grew up until moved to South Africa and the United States afterwards. He is a world-renowned author and illustrator of children books whose works have been published and circulated worldwide. It is interesting to know that Scholastic Publications solely sold 35 million copies of his books so far and many of his works have been translated into 20 world languages up to now.


Among the world-renowned books of Hans Wilhelm, one could mention The Bremen Town Musicians, Tyrone the Horrible, Bunny Trouble, the "Noodles" book series, What Does God Do and the "Waldo" series.


Some of his artworks and illustrations are being kept and preserved for public display in Dodd Center of University of Connecticut, De Grummond Children's Literature Collection of University of Southern Mississippi and many other museums, collections worldwide.


The publications and artworks of Mr. Wilhelm are popular in countries of four continents such as Canada, US, Greece, Germany, Netherlands, France, Italy, Belgium, Bulgaria, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Australia, Egypt, Iraq and Iran. He has published close to 200 books for which he has been both writer and illustrator.


In our interview, we discussed a variety of children-related subjects including the role of children in the amelioration of our world's situation, the delicacies of children literature and his personal experiences as well.


We suggest you to accompany us and go through the corridors of knowledge, conscience and ethics with a man who has dedicated at least 25 years of his life to work for children and their unique world.


Dear Master Wilhelm, as you may admit, the emotional and beautiful world of children is collectively sensitive, and working for them demands a lot of delicacy and proficiency, as well. Isn't it a hard-to-do job to relate with their world, especially when you are not at the same age of them and it becomes more complex to feel their concerns and interests?


When I make a book I rarely think only of the children who may read it. I believe a good story must appeal to any age. In all of us, whether we are young or old, there is something that we may call our 'soul' that is very precious and craves for encouragement, enrichment, and hope. We all share these desires because on a deep level we all want to make sense out of our lives and the world around us. For thousands of years stories have been the 'food for our souls'.  But to reach the soul of others I have to be willing to share my soul and myself. I cannot hide behind my writing or my illustrations. So, by opening up my soul I may be able to touch the soul of others, whether they are young or old.


Every year I visit many schools and colleges in America and around the world. That is my opportunity to meet my young readers in person. During these hours I don't just share my own stories with them but I encourage my listeners to come up with their own stories that I illustrate right in front of them on large sheets of paper. It is always a very joyful and exciting experience, which opens the children up to their own creativity and to the joy of books.


I guess that your books and substantial works have inspired bunches of TV series and cartoons worldwide. Have you any examples in hand to let us know in which forms and receptacles your works have been appeared?


Yes, actually, many of my books have been made in TV animated movies. By far the most popular one is called WALDO'S WAY which has been shown all over the world. Waldo is a big fluffy white dog with black ears and a heart of gold. To any problem that he and his friend Michael may encounter he has a win-win solution, even for the 'bad guy'.


Writing for television is very different than writing books because television requires only dialog. I usually work with a great team of experts in this field and gladly accept their suggestions and guidance.


Which are the languages that your books have been translated into? Is Persian language among them? If not, what your idea would be about a series of Persian versions of your books?


My books have been translated in more than 20 languages and are enjoyed all over the world. Unfortunately none of my books are translated in Persian yet. Over the past months I have received some emails from people who wish to publish my books in Iran, so there is some interest. For instance, Leila Daiani is translating and using my books in her classrooms in Iran.


 I would love to see some of my books printed in Persian and hope that this will be possible in the near future. I have a special website where people can read many of my classics in the English language for free. Teachers can show them in their classroom and even download them and print them out for their students. The site is called: www.ChildrensBooksForever.com.


Your series of Valentine Cats, Thanksgiving Cats, Halloween Cats and Christmas Cats are delightfully a simple, easy-to-understand description of western ancient ceremonies to make them acquainted with their spiritual backgrounds. How effective was this effort to make children familiar with such valuable, precious cultural prototypes and symbols worldwide?


Actually I did not write these books and only illustrated them. The author of these books is Jean Marzollo. I think children are always very interested how other children live in other parts of the world. I remember when I was a young kid growing up in Germany where my favorite comic books were Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse. Through Mickey and his friends I was introduced to America with its culture and holidays - little did I know that one day I would be living in America and being part of that culture!


Can we imagine children's books without image-making and illustrations? What's the majestic effect of illustration that gives soul, spirituality, relish and greatness to books, enchanting children to soldier up a new book until they finished it?


I don't think that every book should be illustrated. I believe that some stories should not be illustrated because they are far more powerful when we use our own imagination as we listen to them without any visual help.


In the past people gathered around the storyteller and listened to the folk tales or fairy tales. I am sure that Persia has many wonderful fairy tales, too. These stories are filled with archetypal characters like princesses, warriors, priests, witches or demons.


They are all part of our psyche and fully identifying with any of them can be extremely therapeutic and helpful to our soul and us. Therefore I call these fairy tales "soul food".  In our inner imagination we have to become the princess or the prince and the witch or devil are the representations of our very personal fears. No illustrator can do justice to such individual interpretation. I remember sharing my views on this matter at a large teacher's conference and one of the participants stood up and said, "Oh, I know exactly what you mean. When I was a kid the teacher was reading the story of Cinderella and in my mind I could see the whole castle, all the people in the story and most of all myself as Cinderella. But at the end the teacher turned the book around and showed the illustration of the book to the class. And suddenly I realized that I was all wrong!"


 This is a typical response of a young personShe thought that her own personal interpretation was wrong where as in truth that was the only one that mattered to her and her soul. So I would suggest to any teacher to share your fairy tales only verbally and then let the children make their very own and personal illustrations or drawings. Then these stories can work their full magic.


Do you believe that a change of language, the translation of original books into other dialects could hinder the transformation of initial message and erode the core of prose or make it misinterpreted? I am not talking about mistakes of translation, but the process of language change which may not allow the transmission of feeling behind the equivalent and replaced words, phrases.


Words are only symbols of meaning. Even in our own language our capacity to express ourselves in words alone is limited. Often the visual has to take over where the words fail. Many of us know the old proverb: A picture is worth a thousand words. I believe that there are no accidents in life and everything happens for our best and our growths. Therefore, I put my full faith into the translations of my book as I can't read them anyway. Furthermore, every reader of a book is responding in a very personal and unique way and I leave it up to him or her to take from the story whatever they wish.


Dear Master, for the last question, I am asking you to answer this with all of your heart. Our chaotic, unstable and quarrelsome world in which the fire of war and conflict is inflamed belligerently, is hiding the human values of peace, friendship, commitment, sacrifice, patronage and courage; actually the last one is the name of your book. What should we do in order to return to the sweet, genuine and pure world of children again? What to do in order to remain stainless, free of pains and sins in this tumultuous world? 


Your last question is a very important question because I believe that it is only the children who know the way back to peace and harmony. Have you ever observed young children as they play together on a playground? They don't see skin color or even care if the other person speaks another language or has a different religion. This only happens later. They also never try to be better than another. They don't compete seriously. If they have a race or game what really matters to them is "last one is a sissy or an old maid". They don't care who will be first. Only grown-ups are competitive. Here in America we have a famous musical, called South Pacific by Rodgers and Hammerstein and a song in this musical tells it all:


You ought to be taught to hate

before the age of six, or seven, or eight.

You ought to be carefully taught to hate

the people your relatives hate.

You ought to be carefully taught

before it's too late.


Young children are much closer to joy, peace and harmony. But as they mimic and adopt the behavior patterns of the adults around them they lose these qualities sooner or later. Most of them become just like us.


That is why I sometimes questions if it is all right for us to teach our children. Shouldn't it be the other way around? Shouldn't the children rather teach us? They are closer to wisdom than we ever will be again with all our opinions and beliefs that keep us from love and others.


The children in the playground playing together are teaching us the only important lesson that we have forgotten as we grew older: To love everybody – no exceptions; and to love them without limits nor conditions or exclusions.


I have personally seen what children can do to show us the way. In apartheid South Africa it was the children of Soweto who refused to go to school and learn the language of the oppressor. This movement initiated the change to a democratic South Africa. Children achieved what sanctions, bombs and threats could not do.


Therefore I strongly believe in the vision of the peaceable kingdom by Isaiah (11:6-9):


When the wolf dwells with the lamb, the leopard with the goat and the calf with the lion, a little child will lead them.


Visit his website for more information:


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