The evening before he is to be knighted, Tiuri is given a vital mission: to embark on a perilous journey to deliver a crucial letter to the king while keeping both his identity and the contents of the letter secret. Relayed by author Tonke Dragt (who is now in her mid-80s) in The Letter for the King, this brave teen’s story has captivated readers across the world since it was first released in Holland in 1962. A longstanding bestseller in that country, the novel has been published in 16 languages, and will finally appear in the U.S. this month, courtesy of Scholastic’s David Fickling Books.
Translated by Laura Watkinson, the first English-language edition of The Letter for the King was released in the U.K. in fall 2013 by Pushkin Press. True to its history, the novel was an instant hit in Britain. “The book received universal, rave reviews across all major newspapers, blogs and vlogs,” said Pushkin publisher Adam Freudenheim. “It was three times named a Book of the Year, and we had to reprint the initial hardback within weeks of publication. The paperback came out initially in June 2014 and we’re just now waiting for the sixth printing to deliver in two weeks. It’s Pushkin’s most successful children’s book to date!”
The London publisher credits Watkinson for bringing Dragt’s novel to /his attention. Like Freudenheim and Fickling, the three-time Batchelder Award-winning translator is committed to unearthing hidden gems written in other languages and making them available to English-speaking readers. Watkinson, who was born in England and now lives in Amsterdam, contacted Freudenheim in summer 2012 to discuss Dutch children’s books.
“We met, and Laura pitched The Letter for the King to me, and I fell in love with it from her description,” recalled the publisher. “She followed up that same evening with a long sample she’d translated earlier. I was completely gripped by the pace and the writing and the entire premise of the book.”
Freudenheim’s own children, then 10 and 8, quickly confirmed his, and Watkinson’s, intuitions that the novel was something special. “I started reading it to them when I only had a third of the draft translation, and they both loved it,” he recalled. “I kept pestering Laura to send more of the translation, as my kids were desperate to find out what happened next – as was I! I knew then that I was on to a good thing.”
Relaunching a Literary Gem
Watkinson, who also translates from Italian and German, noted that The Letter for the King has long been a favorite book of hers, and Dragt (who was knighted by the Dutch government in 2001 due to the novel’s popularity), a favorite author. And she’s not alone. “So many people in the Netherlands, when you mention The Letter for the King, will get a faraway look in their eyes and then say something like, ‘Oh, I love that book!’ ” she said. “And if you look in the children’s section in any bookshop in the Netherlands you’ll find a copy, usually with stickers on it saying how it’s the best Dutch children’s book ever.”
Watkinson said she was baffled as to why it took so long for the book to be translated into English. “So many books are translated from English, but not so many go the other way, which is a real shame, as readers are missing out on great stories,” she said. “I loved the enthusiastic reaction I got from Adam Freudenheim at Pushkin when I talked to him about Dragt, and it’s delightful that she’s been so well received in the U.K. It felt so unjust that this book, of all Dutch children’s books, hadn’t found its way into English. Her books were crying out to be translated into English. They fit so well with the English canon of children’s literature.”
Clearly Fickling felt likewise when Freudenheim shared Dragt’s novel with him over lunch in London. “Adam mentioned The Letter for the King, and I was fascinated by the premise, and when I read it, I absolutely loved it,” he said. “It is inspiring, simply told, gripping, and tremendously moving. The story focuses on the good qualities of knighthood and teaches the values of courage, honor, duty, and keeping your word. And the protagonist’s dilemmas become the reader’s as well. Readers learn that sometimes you have to fight, sometimes you have to run.”
Fickling observed that Dragt’s books fit neatly with his imprint’s credo. “I particularly want David Fickling Books to be open to wonderful books that haven’t appeared in English,” he said. “We don’t see a lot of the world’s treasures, and I know there are wonderful books out there that we should be doing – and shouldn’t be missed by English speakers. I was so keen and happy to bring Dragt’s work to Scholastic, and be a pass-it-on-er and a help-it-get-out-into-the world-er.” The publisher is in discussions about releasing Dragt’s 1965 sequel, The Secrets of the Wild Wood (also translated by Watkinson and due out from Pushkin next month) on a future David Fickling Books list.
Freudenheim echoes Fickling’s enthusiasm for the author’s work, and predicted that American readers will give her book a warm welcome. “I’m convinced that Tonke Dragt is one of the greatest children’s writers of the 20th century,” he said. “I’m delighted at the North American publication by David Fickling Books, and am sure The Letter for the King – already a firm favorite with booksellers and librarians around the U.K. – will have the same response there.”
The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt. Scholastic/David Fickling Books, $18.99 Aug. ISBN 978-0-545-81978-7