Inspiring Young Readers
Harmsen Van Der Beek (a.k.a Beek)
I know that Enid Blyton’s Noddy stories divide opinion – there are those who think of the books fondly and as an integral part of their childhood but there are also those who think they were loaded with unacceptable racial, gender and class stereotypes that are now offensive to 21st century sensibilities. I personally think both of these positions are true; it’s hard to see Noddy, Big Ears and Policeman Plod without smiling but I also find the depiction of the Gollies unpleasant.
It’s not just Blyton’s storylines that create the Noddy universe but the illustrations of Harmsen Van Der Beek – or Beek as he always signed himself – that are central to the series. Beek wasn’t the only illustrator of the Noddy books but he was probably the most immediately recognisable and the best loved – he was the key artist from the latter part of the 1940s until his death in 1953. His assistant, another Dutch artist called Peter Wienk, had worked with Beek until his death and so was perfectly placed to take over from him and continue with a recognisable style.
Noddy wasn’t Beek’s first creation and he had been a successful newspaper cartoonist and commercial artist in Amsterdam during the First World War and he went on to create his own comic strip, Flipje. But he was commissioned by the British publishing house, Sampson Low to take on the Noddy project and developed a view that he might be able to create an iconic character, recognisable enough to be a European Mickey Mouse.
Beek’s style is deceptively simple relying on the use of bold, saturated colours and uncomplicated characterisation – Noddy’s world is effectively peopled by animated toys and there is no attempt to create them as in any sense ‘real’. This allows children to enter into the world without having to deal with complex emotions or ambiguous morality. This is, of course, also the problem with characters like the Gollies who simply reproduce all the dreadful ethnic stereotypes inherent in the toy (and the history of that toy).
None of this should detract from just how brilliantly successful Beek’s drawings are and just how much they have entered into the psyche of generations of children who grew up imagining themselves, however briefly, to be honorary citizens of Toytown.