Max Velthuijs

Author and illustrator who created the 'Frog' series of children's picture books
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The Independent Online

A key figure in pushing children's picture books towards greater emotional openness and an increased freedom of line, Max Velthuijs only began his full-time career as an author and illustrator for the young when he was aged 60. Producing 14 of his inimitable "Frog" picture books since then, he saw his work become known all over the world and win many international prizes, including the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 2004. He was particularly well loved in Britain, with his last title, the jigsaw book This is Frog, coming out last year.

Max Velthuijs, graphic designer, writer and illustrator: born The Hague 22 May 1923; married Charlotte van Zadelhoff (one son; marriage dissolved); died The Hague 25 January 2005.

A key figure in pushing children's picture books towards greater emotional openness and an increased freedom of line, Max Velthuijs only began his full-time career as an author and illustrator for the young when he was aged 60. Producing 14 of his inimitable "Frog" picture books since then, he saw his work become known all over the world and win many international prizes, including the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 2004. He was particularly well loved in Britain, with his last title, the jigsaw book This is Frog, coming out last year.

Velthuijs was born in The Hague in 1923, and his love of the Dutch countryside shows in the way it constantly crops up as a backdrop in his stories. A keen artist from early on, he was brought up by parents devoted to the idea of international peace, sometimes to the point of eccentricity. One morning the children of the house were told to speak nothing but Esperanto. Later, when Velthuijs was unhappy at senior school, his father consulted a clairvoyant before allowing his son to leave. Eventually going to Art School in Arnhem, Velthuijs survived the Second World War to become a successful graphic artist.

He started to illustrate texts for other writers in the 1960s, but the first of his famous "Frog" series, Frog in Love (1989), written and illustrated by himself, was turned down by his regular publisher. It was picked up instead by Klaus Flugge of the Andersen Press, who saw the pathos as well as the humour in this simple story of a frog who could not understand why his heart was suddenly beating so fast.

Looking for help from what was to become his regular group of friends, Pig, Duck and Hare, all drawn the same size, Frog is advised to show his feelings by performing his biggest jump ever. But marriage would not have fitted into these stories about comradeship free of domestic ties, so it was no surprise when Frog remained a bachelor in his stories to come.

The artwork was both colourful and gentle, making good use of gouache and in the later books adding a painted border to each illustration. Main characters are drawn in simple outline, each one always dressed the same: Frog in his striped, baggy pants, Pig in yellow shirt and blue shorts, Hare in a red top and blue, cut-away trousers and Duck wearing no clothes at all.

Velthuijs's use of detail was also telling. In Frog and the Stranger (1993), details of the visiting rat's untidy camp - a bottle leaning against his makeshift tent, other objects scattered about - show clearly why most of the slightly smug riversiders view this new arrival with suspicion. But Frog, like his illustrator also believing in reconciliation whenever possible, sees that the rat has a good heart, and gradually brings his friends round.

With only one jagged line for a mouth, Frog still manages to look so expressive that important thoughts and feelings soon become clear to readers. This is just as well, given that emotions often run high in his stories. Frog and the Birdsong (1991) shows the animal friends discovering a dead blackbird and having to decide what to do with the body.

In Frog is Frightened (1994), Hare tries unsuccessfully to quell an outbreak of groundless fear, and, in Frog is Sad (2003), our hero's overwrought feelings are finally given an outlet when he hears the playing of a violin. He still cannot work out why he was feeling so miserable, given that nobody had upset him and nothing in particular had gone wrong. But the sadness goes as quickly as it comes after one of his friends makes him laugh. This is a wise as well as a touching story, beautifully illustrated by the artist just before his 80th birthday.

Whatever the occasional upsets, the pervading mood in these stories is still one of pastoral peace and bounty, with characters often finishing off their adventures having a tea party with the sun shining outside on the greenest of grass and the leafiest of trees.

Still living in The Hague, Velthuijs loved reliving in these books his early childhood pleasures of fishing, skating and picnics.

Nicholas Tucker



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