Before the year was out, Mr. Kempers would create a series of visually striking images that captured the moment of liberation for a children’s book, hi ha canada, published in 1945 by Rotterdam publishing house Luctor.
Now, after a two-year quest likened to a “treasure hunt,” Library and Archives Canada has acquired one of the few surviving copies for its 160,000-strong children’s literature collection. It will formally announce the prized acquisition Wednesday, International Children’s Books Day.
“It falls completely into what we’re doing — the connection with the past, the connection with Canada,” enthuses Josiane Polidori, head of Library and Public Archives Canada’s children’s literature service. “Also visually, it’s a fantastic book.”
It was Ms. Polidori who tracked the book down after meeting a Dutch expert in children’s literature at a conference in Macau two years ago.
She later e-mailed a question about a Dutch illustrator, asking almost as an afterthought if the expert knew of any other interesting picture books.
The expert referred her to the children’s librarian at the Netherlands’ Royal Library in The Hague, who alerted her to the existence of hi ha canada.
“I looked at the information and said, ‘Wow, this is fantastic. I’ve never heard of that book,’ ” Ms. Polidori recalls.
She set about trying to find a copy. It wasn’t easy. “It’s almost a treasure hunt,” she says.
The publisher, Luctor, had folded in the early 1950s. When the book was published, wartime restrictions on paper remained in place, meaning the press run likely would have been a few hundred copies at most. Even the Royal Museum in The Hague had only a single copy.
Eventually, Ms. Polidori found a Dutch antiquarian book store, Antiquariatt Gemilang, that had a single copy of the 16-page soft-cover book in good but fragile condition.
In early March, she bought it for $380, an astonishing bargain for a book of such cultural significance. “But I didn’t tell the bookseller that,” she laughs. Five days later, on March 18, the treasure was in her hands.
“According to the librarian at the Royal Library, it’s quite a find,” Ms. Polidori says. “She was really happy for us.”
The book survived intact, she observes in wonder. “It was put into little hands. They looked at it and read it. It’s not torn, anything of that sort. Just that is almost miraculous.”
It’s also unusual, says Ms. Polidori, to find a children’s book about war that is celebratory. “There are books about the war for children, but a book about happiness about the war? Really, I haven’t seen many.”
The book, whose story is told in rhyming Dutch text, features a large Maple Leaf on the black front cover, along with some military jeeps.
No ISBN number or publishing date appears. A paper number on the back cover — K2185 — is the only evidence that it was published in 1945.
The Nazis assigned three-digit numbers to each authorized allotment of paper. But after liberation, four-digit numbers were used. “So they can really date just from that,” Ms. Polidori says.
Mr. Kempers used a limited colour palate in his illustrations — green, orange, ochre and black. “But he really used the colours to do the maximum he could do,” says Ms. Polidori, adding that the use of orange symbolizes the Dutch royal family.
As an artist, Mr. Kempers was interested in modernism, favouring a stylized approach influenced by Russian constructivism. That too was unusual.
“When you look at other picture books from the same time,” Ms. Polidori says, “everything is very traditional. You don’t find striking design with bold splashes of colour the way it’s presented here.”
Mr. Kempers went on to forge a distinguished career as a painter, graphic artist and illustrator. Material prepared by Library and Archives Canada describes him as “a master in the art of omission and simplicity.” He died in 1993.
The first two pages show joyous children celebrating their liberation at a festival, with sack races, an organ grinder and a puppet theatre. “It’s really capturing this moment of happiness, and children regaining their childhood,” she says.
The next two pages show cheering citizens lining roads to greet their liberators, backed by the characteristic narrow houses and gabled roofs of Dutch cities. “For me, this is a page for boys,” Ms. Polidori says, pointing to images of rolling tanks and Canadian soldiers. “I’m sure little boys would love that.”
Two more pages show Canadian soldiers enjoying tea in a garden, then leaving behind gifts of chocolate, biscuits and milk. “It’s a really subtle way of saying these are friends,” Ms. Polidori says. “I’m sure that a little Dutch kid who hadn’t had chocolate for his whole childhood will pick that up.”
Other pages show troops setting up camp and at leisure — frying eggs, shaving, reading books, smoking pipes.
The book concludes with an image of two Dutch citizens thanking the “Canadezen” for restoring pride in the House of Orange — the Dutch royal family.
Members of the public can look at the book in a special reading room at Library and Archives Canada if they abide by the rules, which include wearing special gloves to protect its yellowing pages from natural oils on our fingers.
Library and Archives Canada will feature hi ha canada on its website Wednesday as part of a new program to better publicized new acquisitions and treasures in its immense collection of books, maps, newspapers, portraits and music.
“We’ve got these things sitting here, but people don’t know about it,” says spokeswoman Pauline Portelance.
From Wednesday, more information about hi ha canada will be posted on the the website of Library and Archives Canada,www.collectionscanada.gc.ca.
The Company Photobooks / Bedrijfsfotoboeken by Mart Kempers Graphic Design :