Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates has thrilled children since its publication in 1865. Sadly, the book may have become a “victim of technology,” writes award-winning children’s author Bruce Coville in a note to readers of his 2007 adaptation of the novel. He explains that Mary Mapes Dodge wrote the book not only to entertain her young readers, but to teach them about Holland through lengthy, descriptive passages whose “information overload” may be too much for today’s readers.
“The Internet now offers so many ways to learn about a place like Holland,” Coville points out. Hans Brinker, retold by Coville and exquisitely illustrated by Laurel Long, is absolutely enchanting, a perfect contemporary adaptation of the classic tale.
“The thing is is, underneath the book’s wealth of social, geographical, and historical data pulses a charming and quite moving story about a family struggling to thrive against great odds. It is this story that Laurel Long and I have tried to bring to the forefront in our adaptation,” Coville says. He and Long have gloriously succeeded in creating a book that allows children (and adults lucky enough to share it with them) to experience the story’s distilled essence: the humble heroism and generous heart of Hans Brinker himself.
Their picture book retelling is worth a search for one of the used copies still available at Amazon and elsewhere. Its mysterious drama can hold the attention of children in a wide age range thanks to Long’s tender, luminous illustrations. More than one child has exclaimed, “Whoa, that looks like heaven!” when I’ve opened the panorama showing Hans in old wooden skates gliding past a line of windmills and into a snow-covered Amsterdam. Author and illustrator are perfectly paired in pacing a plot and subplot that reveal Hans Brinker’s character one twist after another.
Hans and his sister Gretel, both gentle-hearted teenagers, learn of an upcoming race, one for boys and one for girls. The prize: a pair of silver skates. Immediately Carl Schummel, the resident bully, mocks the pair’s chances in wooden skates. But Annie, Gretel’s best friend, diffuses his insults with compassion and savvy. Knowing Hans would never accept charity, she offers to pay him enough for one pair of competitive skates if he’ll carve her a wooden bead necklace like the one he’d made his sister.
Similar open-hearted moments shine throughout the story, inviting great conversations about which character’s generosity has made them a favorite by the story’s end. Hans and Gretel argue about who should get the skates Annie’s money has provided. Hans insists that since he’s the one who earned it, it’s his right to choose. He chooses his sister and sets off to buy new skates for her. Who is happier? It’s a question worth exploring throughout the book. Time and after time Hans Brinker shows us that it is indeed better to give than to receive.
Later, Annie’s friend Peter makes a similar offer so Hans can purchase a pair as well. Carl snarls at the old skates slung over our hero’s shoulder, but Hans is on his way to Amsterdam for the second time. On the way he meets a famous doctor and requests a consultation about his father. The gruff Dr. Boekman softens at the ragged boy’s insistence that he can pay and agrees to see the young man’s father for free.
The next night-blue illustration invites silent wonder at the happiness of the poorest kids in town silently skimming past houses lit with December festivity.
“That night, as children all over Holland prepared for the visit of St. Nicholas, Hans and Gretel frolicked on the moonlit ice. Though they skated past houses that held great feasts, they were happy in their small treasures…”
When the doctor visits the following day, we learn the cause of their poverty: their father had suffered an accident ten years before and has been bedridden ever since. The money he’d set aside for emergencies has disappeared. We learn as well that Dr. Boekman is grieving the disappearance of his own son, who falsely believed he killed one of his father’s patients by giving him the wrong medicine. Back and forth we go between excitement about the race and worry about the family until we arrive at the climactic competition for the silver skates, filled with more unexpected twists and sacrificial grace.
“In our cynical age the boy seems almost too good to be true,” Coville admits. Yet he maintains something deeper is at work here: “The fact is that the hearts of children yearn for such goodness, yearn for role models. In this regard Hans Brinker—both story and character—fill a deep emotional need.” He quotes Bruno Bettelheim in The Uses of Enchantment:
“The question isn’t do I want to be good, but who do I want to be like?”
Stories have the power to shape hearts in ways a lecture never could. That’s why it’s important to be particular about the books and entertainment we offer children. Besides, children aren’t the only ones who need models of virtue in action. I need Hans Brinker’s heroism too.
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