Internationally-Minded Miffy: Nijntje News
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Internationally-Minded Miffy: Nijntje News

Miffy is no ordinary bunny. She takes her place firmly and furrily on the world stage as a much-loved icon and is possibly the world’s most famous rabbit (sorry Peter!). Adored by adults and children alike, she holds an impressive employment record, having taken the protagonist role in more than 30 books (selling over 85 million copies), starring in her own film and television series, and appearing on merchandise from Tilburg to Tokyo. She is a celebrity UNICEF ambassador and one of the Netherlands’ biggest exports, beating flowers and beer: paws down.

By Helen Absalom, English Language Acquisition specialist and classroom teacher KG White

Originally known as Nijntje, our mascot actually comes from our very own city of Utrecht, where her illustrator-creator, Dick Bruna was born. Her name comes from the shortened version of the Dutch diminutive, ‘konijntje’ which means, ‘little rabbit’. She also has a surname and that’s ‘Pluis’ which translates as ‘Fluffy’. And while we are on the subject of translation, Nijntje has been translated into over 50 different languages. So; with this broad linguistic and cultural span, Miffy is the perfect local and global role-model for ISUtrecht reflecting our own special character and demographic. All the more reason to celebrate the important 65th birthday on June 21stwith her.

But just a Miffy minute!

The original Miffy drawn in 1955 and one of the entries to the design competition in the Nijntje museum

Before we continue with ISUtrecht’s celebration of Miffy’s birthday, let us take a hop back to look at her humble beginnings…

Nijntje was born in 1953 and hailed from simple pencil drawings which Dick Bruna had made to entertain his young children. The drawings were inspired by a little white rabbit which they would see in the dunes near their holiday house near Egmond aan Zee. Nijntje looked quite different back then. She had short, fat ears and very small, circular eyes, and a thin face. She was also rather shorter and with floppier ears and less well-defined facial features. She was also not a ‘she’ and remained genderless from the first book in 1955 until the book, ‘Miffy’s Birthday’ in 1970, when Dick Bruna gave Miffy a dress with flowers on it. ‘Yes, I think she’s a girl now’, he said.

Despite her current iconic status, Miffy’s journey to fame and fortune was no easy one: critics initially thought her too simple and the colours too bright and she was not popular with parents of little children. This did not deter Dick Bruna, however. He always maintained that he wanted to make everything as simple as possible to give children lots of room for their own imagination. He continued with his bold primary hues and the signature red Miffy outfit on pristine white. These images have now become the transcultural, translinguistic Miffy trademark.

In others ways, too, Dick Bruna did not deviate from his beliefs: since the very beginning and, regardless of the language in which the books are published, they are always square for little hands to handle, sixteen pages long, so little minds can digest them, and have one picture page and one facing text-page with four lines for little readers to enjoy.

As we reflect on Miffy Week, we remember Dick Bruna, her creator, who became known in his later years as the Grandfather of Miffy and who sadly passed away in 2017.

The text is written in poetry so it is audially appealing with a musical quality. A little known fact is that when Dick Bruna would be previewing a translation of his book from Dutch to another language, he would listen over and over to, for example, the Korean translation and, even though he did not speak the language, would detect meter and rhyme that needed editing. The translator and he would work then together until it sounded ‘like Miffy’.

Miffy at ISUtrecht

Students and staff congratulated Miffy in their home language

As we know, all effective learning starts with a question and ours was: Where do you begin when you want to find a celebration befitting such a global phenomenon as Miffy without compromising her local importance? Well, just like all inquirers, you can look at the community… and what better place to start than her home in Utrecht: the Nijntje Museum? So, off we set, and thus, Rabbit Research began.

Imagine the excitement at the discovery that the Nijntje Museum was opening a ‘Design Challenge’ competition for fashion design students world-wide to commemorate her 65th birthday! No fewer than a hundred fashion students from universities around the world had been invited to design a unique costume for a Miffy doll. What is more, the winners would have their designs reproduced and sold around the world adding to Miffy’s international appeal and biography. We could not believe our luck… especially as in Kindergarten our unit is art-focused. That’s a red Miffy dress to a primary-school teacher!

A few hours in the museum (accompanied with appropriate permission and judicious use of camera), yielded films and stills of the costume designs of the little dolls. The following day in school, Miffy week began and the ISUtrecht Design Challenge materialized. Kindergarten and Grade 1 children were introduced to the character of Miffy through the videos and stills gleaned from the museum. We looked at Miffy’s form and discussed the concept of change over 65 years. We then looked at models of the entries from the competition trying to ascertain what had influenced the various artists. We discovered that the artists had been inspired by, patterns and colours from the Miffy books, traditional clothing from the artist’s country of origin, world events, travel, storytelling, materials, our environment and even space travel.

The Miffy ‘rabbit’ walk ‘Design Challenge’, Nijntje Museum Utrecht 2020

Our children proceeded to discuss what might influence them in their design choices. They then embarked upon the design of their own unique 2D costumes for their Miffy. Children talked about what had inspired them: some were inspired to draw a traditional dress from their home countries, others put a super-hero spin (and how appropriate for Miffy!) on their designs… there were futuristic Miffys, and unicorn Miffys, Miffys in hot weather, Miffys in cold weather, Miffys with a religion, and Miffys with a profession. The Miffys were then displayed in the school aula where we continue to enjoy our very own ISUtrecht Miffy Design Challenge Exhibition.

Multilingual Miffy

As well as our Design Challenge, we also launched a new collection of Miffy books procured by the library as part of the 65th birthday celebrations. We bought all the languages we could find available in Utrecht and will continue to build our collection over time adding languages and titles as and when we can. This is a community collection and in the future, we look forward to having parents and staff and students pair-read bilingually in a variety of languages. Lovingly displayed by Ms. Noa Hilevitz, the collection has already begun to turn heads and stimulate questions and wonderings from students: ‘What language do you think this is? It looks a bit like Dutch but it isn’t Dutch! Who can we get to help us read the Miffy book in Japanese’?

The inauguration of the parallel bilingual reading sessions saw the inimitable Mr. Louis and Ms. Erin read respectively in Utregs (the local Utrecht dialect) and English. The children were enthralled and back in class, discussed translinguistic connections. Similarly, the Dutch department and Early Years class teachers read bilingually in Dutch and English and other languages and discussed the connections between all those languages. This led to children coming forward and offering to read in their Home Languages. What a marvelous language-learning time! And so Miffy Week comes to a close. But just for this year!

Dick Bruna and Miffy

Let us spend a minute in quiet reflection of Dick Bruna’s important message on Miffy’s 60th birthday: ‘I have been drawing Miffy for years, but I still look at my drawing and want to just try and draw her better’.

World-wide artists inspired to create designs, teachers inspired to celebrate local and global, children inspired to create something unique, and Dick Bruna inspired to ‘do better’.

Let us all be inspired to ‘do better’.

The Design Challenge Exhibition will be displayed throughout 2020 at the Nijntje Museum.