‘What a mess Marie!’
Marie looks at the jam stain on her dress.
‘I don’t mean that stain,’ sighs Miss Bird. ‘I mean your drawing. Canaries are yellow and have little pink beaks. They’ve got claws, not wheels. And you’re colouring outside the lines again.’
Marie’s purple canary with wheels gets her sent to a grim boarding school for children who need to learn how to draw ‘properly’. Thankfully Marie soon meets Kris, a girl who would rather live in the boys’ dormitories. One night, Kris takes Marie through a wardrobe full of pinstripe suits and up to a secret attic where she introduces her to Bram, a man in a messy overall who hands her a brush and tells her to paint whatever she likes. Marie is in her element as she paints canaries with wheels, swans on skates, and giant multi-coloured woodpeckers.
The tension suddenly builds in the middle of the book when the principal receives a letter announcing an inspection. The children are forced to spend the rest of the week drawing apples, pears, and dead pheasants – still life. The only exceptions are Marie, who has to colour in simple outlines and Kris who is made to draw even white lines on dark backgrounds. The curious young artists and their secret teachers Bram and Corry, however, are quick to come up with a plan to bring the hidden artwork out into the world.
A special night-time operation is launched to replace the identical still-life pictures with the children’s own creative CoBrA-inspired pieces. Naturally the Principal and drawing teacher are anxious when the schools’ inspector arrives, but as soon as the inspector spots Marie’s daisies on wheels and Herman’s angry pink forest he can’t help but exclaim, ‘Wow, wow, and wow again! This is priceless.’ At the end of his visit, the inspector insists that the school be opened to the public so everyone can enjoy the delightful artwork.
The book ends with a five-page postscript explaining what happened next to both the boarding school and the various characters. A nice touch encouraging readers to imagine the characters’ lives beyond the initial story.
This is not a cobra, however, is not just a story about children being allowed free rein to draw and paint outside the lines. Additional text and drawings in the sections at the bottom and along the sides of the pages provide a wealth of fascinating facts that readers – children and adults alike – can dip in and out of in any order. These sections include tips on how to remove blackberry jam stains, depictions of a range of emotions, analyses of idiomatic expressions, lists of subsidies (including corporate tax breaks), and of course brief overviews of different types of art, placing the 1948-1951 CoBrA movement and its artists, hinted at in the title, into a broader context. Readers also have to turn the book – sideways, up and down, left and right – to follow the story, adding an element of adventure to the physical experience of holding and reading the book.
The illustrations include a stunning array of styles, from black and white line drawings, to brightly coloured soft brush strokes when the children paint freely, to two-tone simple line drawings of pears, apples, and dead pheasants as the school inspection looms. The characters’ faces are expressive and resemble drawings by young children with over-proportioned heads, eyes that are either large or tiny, and pointy noses on the unkind teachers. Bette Westera and Sylvia Weve clearly felt at home exploring the styles of the CoBrA artists who were also often inspired by children’s drawings. New details are bound to leap out at readers every time they return to the book.
Successful writer and illustrator duo Bette Westera and Sylvia Weve have worked together seamlessly once again. Like the CoBrA artists, they explored each other’s disciplines, contributing both text and drawings. Their teamwork was rewarded with a Zilveren Griffel (Silver Pencil) during the Dutch KidLit week at the end of September. The jury highlighted the many layers in This is not a cobra, describing it as challenging book, one that does not open doors, but rather tears down walls.
This is not a cobra is definitely a book that will appeal to a wide audience outside the Netherlands and it is easy to see why the International Youth Library also included it in The White Ravens 2020 catalogue of top children’s and YA books from across the world.
As Corry the art teacher says, ‘Magnificent, this really is something, children. The whole world simply has to see it!’
Bette Westera is a versatile writer who creates modern fairytales, poems, picture books and realistic stories for children up to the age of around ten. She has written more than 40 books, including Sleep Tight, Baboon Bear translated into English by Suzanne Diederen, Allen & Unwin (2002). Read more about her in Dutch here.
Sylvia Weve has illustrated over 100 books. Weve’s expressive and energetic illustrations are the perfect match for Westera’s writing. The poetry collection Ik leer je liedjes van verlangen, en aan je apenstaartje hangen (I’ll Teach You Songs of Longing and How to Swing By Your Monkey Tail, 2010), which won a Silver Pencil, is evidence of her successful partnership with Bette Westera. Read more about her in Dutch and English here.
Johanna McCalmont is freelance translator and conference interpreter from Northern Ireland who is currently based in Brussels, Belgium. She works from French, German, Dutch and Italian into English. She was selected for the 2018 New Books in German Emerging Translators programme and she received a bursary from the Dutch Foundation for Literature to attend the BCLT 2020 Literary Summer School. Her work has also been featured in No Man’s Land and Lunch Ticket. You can follow her on Twitter @jo_mccalmont