Philosopher Awee Prins (1957) has written a children’s book. Although he would have preferred this article didn’t open that way. “Because you might as well follow that sentence up with ‘What’s next?’.”

Prins may be joking, but at the same time he’s quite serious. Because De dag dat de zee weg was (‘the day the sea was gone’) is important to him. The story collection is a tribute to his wife, who passed away two years ago. The publication of this children’s book is a ray of light in his mourning process: “This book was written out of love and published out of love. A very happy, festive occasion.”

Awee Prins – Hanna van de Wetering – staand
Image credit: Hanna van de Wetering

In De dag dat de zee weg was, Prins collected five stories that he used to tell his children Dylan and Duider. A rough version of the English edition has already been rounded off, and it will also be published in German and French. The illustrations are by famous children’s book illustrator Thé Tjong-Khing. Prins, who was a student in art school at one point, initially made his own drawings for the book. “But Awee Prins is hardly a household name in children’s books. On top of which: Thé Tjong-Khing is a true artist. He’s in his eighties, so I feel honoured that he agreed to do it straight away.” The result is a funny, absurdist book full of self-deprecating humour and surprising changes of perspective. Or as the illustrator puts it: stories for children aged 6 to 96.

As we sit around the huge table that Prins works behind – stacked with books and with a big bowl of red grapes and a plate of olives for us to pick from – the author talks passionately about his book. When he was a child, his father would occasionally tell him stories too – during bath time. “Occasionally, he would be so caught up in his story that he would keep scrubbing with his washcloth, which – for reasons unknown to me – was made of very rough fabric in those days. By the time I went to bed, my bottom used to be bright red from scrubbing,” Prins says with a smile. But he no longer remembers what those stories were actually about. “Maybe that’s another reason why I wrote down my stories. I didn’t particularly intend to publish them. Rather, I planned to show them again to my children later on.”

No moralising

Prins stresses that he hasn’t written a philosophical children’s book. It is neither a philosophy book for children nor a children’s book with a serious, philosophical message. Although every now and then, the stories do have the hint of a moral. One of the protagonists, ‘Oinky, the piglet who needed a bath’, is addicted to mud. “If children who read my stories start using drugs later on, and at some point realise ‘Jeez, I’m turning into Oinky!’ – I’d be pleased to hear that, to be honest. But I don’t want to moralise: all I want to do is show life in all its dimensions.”

The stories do give a clear nod to philosophy, though, and Prins isn’t afraid to laugh at himself as father and philosopher. For example, in the title story ‘The Day the Sea was gone’, an octopus dives into his bookcase to check whether the sea can actually be gone, while he could have observed as much by simply looking outside. “That’s the philosopher or scientist in the worst sense: a cloistered academic who sticks to reading and glossing on articles – without ever venturing into the real world.” In another story, a ‘wise bear’ holding a lecture acts as if he has all the answers – even though the solution he proposes is both idiotic and completely illogical. It still makes Prins laugh. “I wanted to show my children how out of touch people can be. Because as a philosopher, you don’t necessarily want your children to become philosophers too.” He adds with some pride: “Nevertheless, they both went on to study Philosophy.”


It’s precisely this light-hearted tone that doubles as the stories’ message. And not just for children; also for adults. The moral being? “That youth is a celebration of perspectivism, which in the best scenario, we continue to cherish. For children, ‘all voices count’, and something can be true and false at the same time.” Later on in life, according to Prins, we try to stifle this childlike way of thinking and grow out of it as quickly as possible. “The other day, I read in an academic study that childhood should actually be seen as our ‘Research and Development’ department. I find that disturbing, to be honest. Our childhood is far more than simply preparing for adulthood.”

One example that Prins offers his first-year students is the question ‘What is a landscape?’ “For a farmer, it is where he herds his livestock and grows his crops. For a couple in love, it’s where they can find a pleasant and secluded place to meet. For a hiker, it’s a place of beauty that he can walk through and admire. And for a surveyor, it’s an area that you can measure. All these perspectives are simultaneously true, depending on your premises. “The nice thing about children’s way of thinking is that they adopt all these perspectives – ‘all voices count’.”

Mixed thinking

According to Prins, we need to take care not to lose sight of this perspectivism and all become ‘surveyors’. “At university, we put far too much emphasis on solely training our neocortex. Everyone is learning how to ‘measure’ and is expected to become a critical ‘world citizen’. While criticism – like irony, scepticism and cynicism – is above all a means to detach oneself from a subject. The word ‘criticism’ comes from the Greek ‘krinein’, which means ‘to distinguish’.” In contrast, Prins advocates dedication rather than criticism, and argues for ‘mixed thinking’: the awareness that things are inherently diffuse; that everything is a question of accents and perspective. “Children still have this state of mixed thinking. It’s a quality that we – wrongly – do our utmost to leave behind us when we grow up.”

Awee Prins – Hanna van de Wetering
Image credit: Hanna van de Wetering

Which is not to say that Prins wants us to endlessly protract our childhood, or put it on a pedestal. His main point is that we should realise that time and time again, we try to reduce the world around us to problems and solutions – even though this is by no means the full story. “There’s this nice quote by Peter Sloterdijk: ‘Adulthood is something that comes after desperation.’ I think that at a certain point, children find out that they aren’t able or allowed to persevere in this mixed thinking. They struggle with this during adolescence and the ‘quarter-life crisis’. Adulthood is a crude answer to this question, by suddenly becoming very detached, business-like and critical. But life isn’t as easy as adulthood wants you to believe: it’s far more complicated and vague.”

Happy ending

Virtually anything that can go wrong does go wrong in Prins’s stories. “After reading the book, my youngest son Duider said: ‘Daddy, I don’t remember it being so heavy.’ Indeed, this can be heavy going for a kid: a prawn who dreams that he’s lying on a barbecue, then wakes up to discover that the sea has disappeared.”

And even heavier: in one of the stories, the parents of ‘Clever Hans’ have taken off to become happy themselves – rather than keep focusing on the happiness of their children. “Sure, that’s incredibly hard-hearted, but true nonetheless. Everyone keeps parroting each other about how ‘every parent loves his or her children’ and ‘only wants the best for them’, and that ‘having a child is the most wonderful moment of your life’. But that’s only half the story. All parents have mixed feelings about their children and – no less important – all children have mixed feelings about their parents. As I wrote in ‘Clever Hans’: “In real life, you hardly ever have a happy ending; the only things with an ending are rivers.”

So why do the stories all have a happy ending then? “To be honest, some time ago, I woke up bathing in sweat with that exact worry on my mind. But come on: a children’s book that has some arthouse theme – where the worst is always just around the corner, breaking the beloved protagonist in the process – who would want to inflict that on a kid?” Smiling: “They have to be able to sleep after reading one of these stories! It’s great enough if children enjoy the idea that things can turn out very differently than you would think or expect. And that something can go completely wrong and then occasionally – and sometimes even simultaneously – turn out for the best anyway. That may be my only concession to naïve thinking – to the utopian reasoning of criticism and science. The idea that everything will continue to improve and turn out right. Even I am affected by ‘Hollywooditis’ to some extent.”

de dag dat de zee weg was awee prins cover

De dag dat de zee weg was was published by De Bezige Bij in mid-September. The book presentation will be held on Saturday 7 October at Donner. On Tuesday 10 October, Prins will be a guest on Studio Erasmus to talk about his new book.

Price: € 17,99

EAN: 9789023463313