My friend and fellow bookseller, Loraine, brought back a copy of Else-Marie and Her Seven Little Daddies from Sweden in 1991. The deliciously whacked story of a kid with seven identical (and diminutive) daddies is a blast, especially as no explanation for the multiple fathers is provided. Steaming cups of coffee are visible in several scenes, therefore one can assume this is not a family of feminist polygamist Mormons. However, it is a story about difference, and childhood mortification. The conflict occurs when Else-Marie’s mother has to work overtime and can’t pick up her daughter from school, leaving the seven little daddies to step in and take her place. Else-Marie loves her daddies, and worries they will be teased for their size and quantity. Who hasn’t been embarrassed by their parents at one time or another? I still am. However, the daddies are an affable lot, and both Else-Marie and her daddies make it through unscathed. After a meal of fried fish and cream puffs, the family curls up on the couch together to watch an episode of the Ingmar Bergman Comedy Hour. Home Swedish home.
The watercolour illustrations by Pija Lindebaum are full of charm and humour, but are otherwise unremarkable. The thing that distinguishes this book from others on the shelf is the story, and especially the choice of illustrations: Else-Marie at school, eating breakfast, riding the bus, and…um…enjoying a good old family lather n’ soak in the bathtub. Yes, the entire family. Else-Marie nestled against her mother’s bobbing bosom, and the seven little daddies in various stages of soaped up nudity. Not that you really see anything…it’s just the context. It would be very unusual, actually impossible to publish a book with this communal bathing scene in North America. However, Daddies was published simultaneously in Canada by Douglas & McIntyre, which is the copy I own. How did they get it past our one-person-per-tub sensibilities? Easy. This illustration is not included in the Canadian edition.
It’s not for me to judge this sort of thing. I would be fu&#*! up far beyond my current level of fu&#*!itude had I bathed with my entire family as a child. It was bad enough that we ate together. But this portrait of shared ablutions is brimming with familial warmth and sociability, and is not in the least bit suggestive or creepy. It is a surprising image, yes, but Else-Marie’s family appears to be thoroughly wholesome, if not entirely traditional. Besides, this is the country that gave us Abba and affordable bookcases, so who am I to question what they do behind their prefabricated doors?
Other books have pushed the boundaries of what is and isn’t acceptable in a children’s picture book publishing, and yet have still made it to the shelves intact. In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak includes several illustrations of a kid floating through a dream-time kitchen with his meat and two veg exposed, which did then, and still does stir up controversy. In The Night Kitchen is a lifetime member of the Top Ten Most Banned Books of All Time list, but nevertheless, it doesn’t quite push our North American buttons in the same way a depiction of adults and children sharing a bath does, judging by the informal poll I took amongst friends and family, and the fact that the illustration never made it past the editorial board.
Publishers do ‘correct’ for differences in cultural sensibilities, which is troubling on a number of levels. In the American edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, not only was the title changed to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, certain British idioms like ‘revision’ and ‘jumper’ were were removed and replaced by Americanisms. Not only is this completely unnecessary, it’s offensively paternalistic. One of the ways we learn about other cultures is through literature, idioms and all. And if it wasn’t for my friend bringing back the original edition of Else-Marie and Her Seven Daddies, I would not have known that it’s possible to have seven daddies, and that Swedes, some Swedes, and most likely some Canadians, know how to stretch the bath bubble budget in the most interesting way.
Else-Marie and Her Seven Little Daddies by Pija Lindenbaum, published by Douglas & McIntyre, 1991
In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak, published by HarperCollins, 1970