Along with the giddy anticipation of visiting great Scandinavian art museums and the fulfillment of a life-long dream of being in the same country that whelped ABBA, the prospect of foreign bookstores and the treasures therein was giving me the vapours weeks before my departure. Different cultural sensibilities, the promise of exciting new European illustrators…sometimes I feel like I’ve picked the shelves of my local bookstores clean, and trolling online can be hit or miss, especially when distraction arrives in the guise of a headline announcing the demise of Demi and Ashton’s marriage.
As expected, the WH Smith in Heathrow did not have any tasty items, but the small bookstore in the Frankfurt airport netted my first score-a Michael Sowa Christmas book, Der Karpfenstreit (The Carp Dispute.) The text was in German, but the illustrations were deliciously odd, more than enough reason to part with my Euros. Sitting in a cafe, drinking a cappuccino and waiting for my connection, I wanted to reach out to the older couple sitting at the same long table with me. “Look what I found!” Instead, I pulled out The Snowman by Jo Nesbø, and proceeded to read about bonhommicide in Oslo. Must remember, not everyone has a passion for picture books.
When I arrived in Gothenburg, my sister, a temporary resident of Sweden’s second largest and most creatively cobble-stoned city, handed me a book she had picked up for my birthday called Gittan Och Gråvargarna (Bridget and the Gray Wolves) by Pija Lindenbaum. The illustrations looked familiar…same author/illustrator as Else-Marie and the Seven Little Daddies. Score! Of course, she didn’t know this at the time of purchase, and in fact bought the book not just for the fantastic illustrations, but because of the fantastic ending; the very last page shows a little girl dancing happily on the roof of a shed, and the single line, “SLUT.” We burst out laughing. Turns out, ‘slut’ is not a comment about the sexual predilections of the young protagonist, but is in fact, the Swedish word for ‘the end’, or so I’ve been led to believe. In the spirit of multiculturalism, I will now be concluding all of my speeches in this fashion.
Previous to my arrival in Gothenburg, my unfailingly kind sister had gone to the trouble of photocopying the English text from a copy at the local bibliotek. A freckle-faced little girl, pathologically careful and afraid of just about everything, gets lost in the woods and promptly runs into a pack of wolves, which in any genre is a nasty bit of luck. After a short standoff, Gittan (named Bridget in the English version for some reason) bravely asks, “Do you want me to play with you?” The wolf replies,”We don’t play…we lurk behind trees and snarl.” Hmmm. But Gittan persists, and frolicking ensues. As evening falls and everyone is sleepy, Bridget gets more directive:
“Off you go to bed!” she says. “Noooo,noooo,” the wolves complain. “If you hurry up I will sing you sad songs.” The wolves agree, because they love sad songs. “But first you have to go to the bathroom.” The wolves obediently go to their pee trees. And soon it sounds as if it’s raining in the forest.”
As I discovered in Else-Marie and the Seven Little Daddies, Pija Lindenbaum is a very funny writer.
But of course, never satisfied with just one of anything, I thumbed through her other books and picked up Bridget and the Muttonheads at the English bookstore in Gothenburg. Lindenbaum has many titles in print, but the skinny-legged ‘muttonheads’ won me over. On holiday with her parents, and bored by all the grown-up activities, Bridget discovers five sheep living on a small island near the beach.
They are in poor shape from heat exhaustion, and ever-resourceful Bridget brings them back to life in a series of clever interventions, some of which involve milking the tiny sheep, and teaching them how to swim. It’s ridiculous, amusing fun, a description applicable to all of her books. It was tough to make a choice, as Lindenbaum is particularly adept at finding humour in the little creatures that populate her stories, like the muttonheads, or the wolves in Gittan Och Gråvargarna. Her bright, incredibly charming and beautiful illustrations are similar to Marie-Louise Gay, a Canadian writer/illustrator who oddly enough, is the only Canuck (I could find) represented amongst the primarily Swedish selections. The vast majority of books favour this style of line and watercolour illustration, so it’s no surprise that Swedish publishers would find an affiliation with the work Ms Gay.
One interesting note: all North American (and possibly British) children’s books have slip covers. None of the Swedish books have covers, except for the translated titles in the English bookstore. Weird.
Sagan Om Den Lilla Farbrorn (Tale of the Little Old Man) by Barbro Lindgren and Eva Eriksson found me about a week into my holiday at yet another bookstore in downtown Gothenburg. No words necessary, the plaintive illustrations tell the entire story. A lonely man meets a stray dog and his life is transformed by the love and companionship provided by the friendly mutt. There is the inevitable heart-wrenching ripple when the owner, a little girl, shows up, but eventually she too becomes his friend. Slut! Er, I mean, The End. It brought a tear to my eye in the bookstore, so of course I bought it on the spot. The subdued watercolour and pencil illustrations are sweet without being cloying, and are altogether lovely. Perfect for this quiet and moving little gem.
The last book I purchased was in Oslo. I only visited one bookstore as I’d been busy getting my mind blown at the Munch Museum and the National Gallery, so I cannot comment on the diversity of Norwegian picture books. However, one title in particular stood out: Når Alle Sover by Nicolai Houm and Rune Markhus. Very striking, graphic imagery, but I haven’t a clue what the story is about, other than the title is When Everyone’s Asleep in English. Apparently, when everyone’s asleep, a giant snowman-like creature roams the streets of Oslo, or some unnamed Norwegian town, wreaking havoc and knocking the Pärlsocker off the kanelbullars at the bakery. The town tries to bury the creature in a giant hole, but he is rescued by a little girl, and taken to the woods where there are no kanelbullars to disturb. Kinda reminded me of the Iron Giant, but with fjords. Very beautiful.
In spite of being mightily impressed by Lindenbaum, Eriksson, and Markus, the overall uniformity of the illustrative styles on display in the bookstores was a bit of a disappointment. I was expecting more variety, more European ‘quirk.’ In my short time in Gothenburg, Stockholm, and Oslo, I was left with the sense that picture books in Swedish bookstores, or at least the bookstores I visited, are strictly for children, and very few straddle that line between illustration and fine art. Many, if not most would argue this is exactly as it should be, but there is a market for edgier titles that appeal to adults and collectors, and aside from a few translations of Shaun Tan, the picture books were unapologetically juvenile. Perhaps it’s a cultural preference for a ‘lighter’ illustrative style, which sure as hell doesn’t explain the movies, but whatever the reason, it’s a minor quibble. The privilege of travelling to a distant land and exploring my passion in another language was pure joy, and I arrived home with a sack of gorgeous picture books and a deep and abiding fondness for Kanelbullars.
Der Karpfenstreit by Daniel Glattauer, illustrations by Michael Sowa, published by Sanssouci, 2010
Gittan Och Gråvargarna by Pija Lindenbaum, published by Raben & Sjogren, 2010
Sagan Om Den Lilla Farbrorn by Barbro Lindgren, illustrations by Eva Eriksson, published by Karneval, 2010
Når Alle Sover by Nicolai Houm, illustrations by Rune Markhus, published by Glydendal, 2011
Read about my short trip to Scandinavia HERE.