Review: De Zwarte Rugzak by Marja Abbing & Marjet van Cleeff

De Zwarte Rugzak
Marja Abbing & Marjet van Cleeff
(cover art by Roelof van der Schans)
Noordhoff-Wolters 2001
new price not available

Book Review | De Zwarte Rugzak by Abbing & Van Cleef | 3 stars


Synopsis (English translation below)*

Ze staan met z’n vijfen op een perron in Frankrijk. En één ding is zeker: dat vakantiekamp, daar gaan ze dus mooi niet naar toe. Al die stomme regels en gekke petjes, dat is niks voor hen. En nu hebben ze dus twee weken vakantie om precies te doen waar ze zin in hebben. Denken ze. Maar zo is het niet. Want er trekt nog een reiziger langs de rivier, en algauw weten de kinderen meer dan goed voor hen is. Wie zit wie achterna? En wat zit er in de zwarte rugzak?

There are five of them on a train platform in France. One thing is for sure: they’re not going to that summer camp. All those stupid rules and funny hats, that’s not for them. And now, they have two weeks of vacation to do whatever they like. They think. But they’re wrong. Because another traveler is following the river as well, and soon the children know more than is good for them. Who is following whom? And what’s in the black bag pack?


Somehow I’m sure children would love this book, but there’s so much wrong with it. Let’s start with the synopsis. What’s in the bag pack? Well, that’s not really a question, because that’s the first thing that happened; their bag packs were switched, so they know, from the very beginning what’s in there. It’s because they know what’s in there that they get into trouble in the first place. So uhm, that bag pack question is really very odd, that’s definitely not the main question in the book.

The writing itself isn’t horrible, just average though. So, no problems there. However that extra point of view they added in italics is annoying. Yes, it makes it a little scarier, but then there’s also parts that the children in the book never find out about and only the reader knows. Exciting, right? Maybe, but also unnecessary and annoying; it doesn’t add to the story. The mini extra italics plot isn’t a problem in the end, because carelessness and an accident save the day. Odd thing is that no one knew the day even needed saving.

The characters themselves are very strange. Yes, they’re kids, but that doesn’t explain very much. They go on a train to go to a camp in France and then decide when they’re there, to not go to the camp, but hang out together; they hadn’t even met until just about on the platform in France! So, why were they on that train in the first place if they really didn’t want to go? They can follow scary people around in France, in the middle of nowhere, but not tell their parents they don’t want to go to summer camp?

Then we get to all the adults they encounter in the book. None of them, NONE OF THEM(!) thought it was slightly curious to see children walking about the towns by themselves at all times? Hmm, ok, maybe. But when you invite children over to your house, so they can stay with you, you know there’s no parents. Still, no one decides to even ask them about it, let alone call the authorities. It’s definitely implied a bunch of these adults knew they children were all by themselves, but oh well, let them just wander around. (The oldest in the book are 13!)

There’s also some insensitivity to difficult topics; murder, assault, hitch hiking. As well as some bad information about how to deal with hypothermia (don’t make them walk when they’re near dead, and don’t give then alcohol!) as  well as marble (it’s not THAT easy to break).

I gave three stars because all in all, it’s a very adventurous book that kids are going to love, but there’s just so much wrong with it. I wish some of these things had just been addressed better. The three stars are for the kids.

*Freely translated from Dutch

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