Harriet van Reek


Harriet van Reek

Harriet van Reek made her book debut in 1986 with ‘De Avonturen van Lena Lena’. Since then, she’s worked on a wide variety of art projects, often in collaboration with Geerten Ten Bosch. Harriet has received many awards for her work over the years, including the Gouden Griffel, the Gouden Penseel and Zilveren Penseel awards.

In this post, Harriet talks about several of her books, including her latest publication ‘Het dierenboekje Mie’ (The animal booklet Mie), and her stunning picturebooks which focus on letters and handwriting. She also shares fascinating insights into her creation process.

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Harriet: Let me tell you something about the book that I just handed in to the publishing house Querido: ‘Het dierenboekje Mie’ (The animal booklet Mie). It’s a gentle book; there’s a lot of lazing around. A bit of lying down, a bit of stroking, licking, and caressing. Nothing special. It’s like a counter-reaction to the rush and constant requirements. I wanted to draw attention to the senses and the adventure of touching, feeling, hearing, and looking closely. Presenting ordinary things in a different way, allowing you to actually see them again, with a surprised look.

Artwork by Harriet van Reek

I had also been looking for a more ecocentric approach, based on empathy and respect for animals and nature.

Artwork by Harriet van Reek

Before I knew exactly where I wanted to be, in language and image, I went on a search. It’s kind of like peeling until you get to the pit. It started with two different leporellos, the first of which I got rid of because I thought it was all nonsense, and the second I got rid of because I thought it was too boring, too romantic, too soft.

Artwork by Harriet van Reek Artwork by Harriet van Reek

During the first lockdown, in April 2020, I found the right approach. I first wrote the text and then drew the book on a drawing tablet, a Cintiq. I had never done that before. Until that point, I worked on paper, with watercolour, coloured pencil, a drawing pen, and ink.

Artwork by Harriet van Reek Artwork by Harriet van Reek Artwork by Harriet van Reek Artwork by Harriet van Reek Artwork by Harriet van Reek Artwork by Harriet van Reek Artwork by Harriet van Reek Artwork by Harriet van Reek

The most difficult thing for me is to be free. To find freedom. Finding openings to the imagination, to language. The wheel has to be reinvented over and over again. This also makes creating a new book challenging. It’s like a complicated game, having to find the secret rules of the game to solve the riddle.

Artwork by Harriet van Reek

The idea must be good and the text must be good. The subject of the book must have a certain urgency and meaning. So it’s always a matter of waiting for something like this to arise. I don’t want to just make something up.

Another topic I’ve worked on before is letters and handwriting. Handwriting seems to be lost in our keyboard society. I created two books on this subject. First, there was ‘Letterdromen met Do’ (Letterdreams with Do). I turned the letters into living beings. They come to life by themselves, if you write by hand.

Artwork by Harriet van Reek Artwork by Harriet van Reek Artwork by Harriet van Reek

The letters challenge you to create stories with them, simply because of their shape. This way, I hoped to lure the reader towards the letter and to be carried away by it myself as well.

Artwork by Harriet van Reek Artwork by Harriet van Reek Artwork by Harriet van Reek Artwork by Harriet van Reek

After Letterdreams with Do, I made another book about letters. This time, there was a strong emphasis on writing and the personal expression which is possible through handwriting: ‘Lettersoep’ (Letter Soup).

Artwork by Harriet van Reek

The main character is an L, he lives in a T, together with a P, a cat. There are all kinds of puns in the text and the images, which makes the book, just like ‘Letter Dreams with Do’, difficult or perhaps impossible to translate. The book also covers various professions that are either dying out or are a craft.

Artwork by Harriet van Reek

I actually like the sketches more than the final work. I often think, “why did I go this far, I was already there.”

Artwork by Harriet van Reek Artwork by Harriet van Reek Artwork by Harriet van Reek

It usually takes several years between one book and the other. In the meantime, I do other things. I sometimes spend my time creating ceramics, freehand drawing, or weaving.

Artwork by Harriet van Reek

Along with Geerten Ten Bosch, I create visual theatre and performance. In this photo, we’re performing actions on a few spectators. The aim of our work is always to stimulate the viewer’s imagination in an associative way.

Artwork by Harriet van Reek

We also created an experimental picturebook together.

‘Ei! Ei!’ (Egg! Egg!) was made by cutting out drawings and merging them into new images through collage. It’s very nice to alternate solitary work with working on projects together.

Artwork by Harriet van Reek and Geerten Ten Bosch

I like antique Japanese ghost stories drawn on book scrolls, the Yokai-ga, Jockum Nordström’s ‘children’s’ picturebooks about Sailor and Pekka, and I love 19th century picturebooks.

Furthermore, I wish the studio Fotokino in Marseille was located in Rotterdam, my home town, because of the exhibitions and the attention they have for illustration and art.

Walking along coasts and through fields helps me to think about a book, and I am always looking for a place where I can work in peace for a few months, somewhere outside, far from the hectic city. (If you know any places, I’d love to hear about them.)

I hope I was able to inspire you with my contribution and thanks for reading!

Artwork by Harriet van Reek and Geerten Ten Bosch Artwork by Harriet van Reek and Geerten Ten Bosch

Illustrations © Harriet van Reek. Post translated by Gengo and edited by dPICTUS.

Het dierenboekje Mie /
The animal booklet Mie

Harriet van Reek
Querido, Netherlands, 2021

Sixteen stories about Mie, a girl who spends every day with the animals. She takes the cow to the sea, or she keeps an eye on the hen, which has just given birth to chicks. She tickles the pig, brushes the cow, and pets the cat while it is raining outside. When the pony does pony things, Mie tries to imitate it all. And at the end of such a tiring day, Mie falls asleep in the grass.

A disarmingly simple and soft picturebook to calm you down, completely.

Letterdromen met Do /
Letterdreams with Do

Harriet van Reek
Querido, Netherlands, 2008

Do is busy making letters all day long. She gets so into it that the letters come to life for her. In her dreams, Do even experiences the most fantastic adventures with them! A picturebook for children who are starting to discover letters themselves, but also for anyone who likes letter adventures.

Lettersoep / Letter Soup

Harriet van Reek
Querido, Netherlands, 2015

I’m going to make nothing of anything. I’m going to make a BIKE out of NOTHING, says Letterel. How are you going to do that? Lettercat asks. Very simple, says Letterel. Cut the N into three pieces and lay it out a little differently, and if I cut ANYTHING into 6 long sticks, 4 short and two curves, I can make a lot more. Letterel lives with a Letter cat in a letter house. He loves letters. Cut letters, look at letters, dream letters, and write letters! He conjures a beautiful colourful world where the imagination has no limits.

Ei! Ei! / Egg! Egg!

Harriet van Reek & Geerten Ten Bosch
Uitgeverij Philip Elchers, Netherlands, 2018

An experimental picturebook by Harriet van Reek and Geerten Ten Bosch. Together they present a crazy and far from traditionally designed story about two eggs and a puppet show. A book about friendship and courage, a feast for the eyes and the heart, in which you are challenged to read and look carefully.

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