What Jip en Janneke Can Teach Us About Storytelling

As I mentioned before, I’ve been admiring children’s books lately. Since coming to Holland we’ve been spending a lot of time in the kids’ section of bookstores, looking for books that will help Olivia learn Dutch language and culture. Lots of fun! I’d like to introduce you to one of this country’s favourites.

Jip en Janneke

Holland’s most beloved children’s books would most likely be the Jip en Janneke (pronounced, “Yip en Yanneke”) books by author Annie M.G. Schmidt and illustrator Fiep Westendorp. The pair have become an iconic part of Dutch childhood. Originally written in the 1950s, the books continue to be popular, and images of the Jip and Janneke can be seen on tons of kids clothes and toys. The books’ images are beautiful and invite children to explore the world along with Jip and Janneke.

Though Westendorp’s illustrations often contain intricate details and bright colours (though the first illustrations, printed in a newspaper, were black-and-white), Jip and Janneke have always been portrayed as black-silhouetted characters, which can teach us something that can help our communication as designers, writers and teachers.

It’s All in the {Lack of} Details

A blurb about the book series in one of the books in our house states: “The fact that all children can recognise themselves in the silhouettes of Jip and Janneke, regardless of the colour of their skin, was of paramount importance to Fiep Westendorp.” And, as Scott McCloud would suggest, it’s the very simplicity of the characters’ silhouettes that make Jip and Janneke themselves a doorway through which all children can enter their world.

In his book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, McCloud explains how comics open the door for reader’s imagination, mainly through the detail that they don’t convey. McCloud suggests that a simple comic character reflects more accurately mind’s image of ourselves.

For example, when you look at another person, your eye picks up every detail – hair color, facial features, every detail. But what is your mental picture of yourself? When you think of yourself, the mental image contains far less detail than your image of another person. Less like a photo, more like an “eyes, ears, mouth”, like a sketch drawing.

Since cartoon characters are composed of very simple elements, “eyes, ears, mouth,” they match more closely our mental image of ourselves, giving us a placeholder to stick ourselves into the story, to enter the character’s world in the first person. Think about it the next time you read a comic or watch a cartoon. How do you enter the story or remember it later?

Here’s the takeaway: In your public speaking, teaching, storytelling, writing, designing, do you spell out every detail, or do you give your audience the opportunity to let their imaginations run wild? How can you give your readers and listeners a point of entry into your story?

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