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Swedish children’s literature

About every third book of fiction published in Sweden is a children’s book. Covering a wide variety of themes from dancing cows to single urban fathers, Swedish children’s literature inspires, informs and entertains young readers.

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Photo: Bodil Johansson/Folio

Swedish children’s literature

About every third book of fiction published in Sweden is a children’s book. Covering a wide variety of themes from dancing cows to single urban fathers, Swedish children’s literature inspires, informs and entertains young readers.

Hugely popular

Children’s books are popular in Sweden and there are plenty of them. In the last 20 years, the publication of children’s books has more than doubled. Children’s literature enjoys considerable status and often reflects the trends seen in adult literature. The books are frequently reviewed and discussed in the major media. Sweden has had a professorship in children’s literature since 1982, and the courses in literature for young readers at the country’s universities and university colleges are well-attended.

Every year, prizes are awarded for outstanding books or to organisations that encourage reading among children and young adults. These include the Nordic Children and Young People’s Literature Prize, the August Prize (Best Swedish Children’s Book of the Year) and the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, ALMA. The ALMA prize is the biggest children’s book prize in the world, worth SEK 5 million.

Difficult subjects

So what are Swedish children’s books about and what makes them so popular? There are some that entertain and some that make you think more deeply. Children’s authors in Sweden are not afraid of dealing with subjects that adults might find difficult to talk to children about. The shelves of bookstores and libraries contain children’s literature on such themes as violence, substance abuse, divorce, death and bullying.

A popular book dealing with the end of a life is Goodbye Mr Muffin (Adjö, herr Muffin) by Ulf Nilsson. It tells of Mr Muffin the hamster, who one day realises it is time to look back on his life when he gets a stomach ache and will soon have to say goodbye to the family he lives with.

Vinterviken (not translated), a book for young adults by Mats Wahl, is a love story about a poor immigrant, John-John, and a rich girl, Elisabeth, but is also a story about covert racism and cultural prejudice.

Alfie Atkins is still, after more than 40 years, a favourite among children.

Copyright: Norstedts

Well-known outside Sweden

Swedish children’s authors have achieved considerable success abroad as well.

Gunilla Bergström’s books about Alfie Atkins (Alfons Åberg), a boy who lives in the city with his father, have been translated into 30 languages, for example.

Jujja and Tomas Wieslander’s books about the dancing cow Mamma Moo (Mamma Mu), who wants to try everything that humans do, have also been widely translated.

Another author in demand abroad is Ulf Stark, who has been writing books for more than four decades, including Can You Whistle, Johanna? (Kan du vissla Johanna?).

The popular Pettson and Findus (Pettson och Findus) books by Sven Nordqvist are also much liked beyond Sweden’s borders. The stories about eccentric old Pettsson, who can talk with his cat, are skilfully illustrated, with humorous details in the pictures, while the texts play ingeniously with words in a way that amuses both adults and children at storytelling time.

Crime for children

Today, a wave of crime and thriller books has washed over the Swedish children’s literature field and struck a chord with children of all ages.

Topping the list of books sold and borrowed is the series about The Jerry-Maya Detective Agency (LasseMajas detektivbyrå) by Martin Widmark. He has for many years been one of Sweden’s most popular author in terms of loans from Swedish public and school libraries, several of his books being in the top ten. He and illustrator Helena Willis have produced 29 books about the detective agency, which have been translated into around 20 languages.

Other detectives who have become popular are Kalle Skavank by Petrus Dahlin, and the Petrinis in the books by Mårten Sandén.

Mystery and magic for teenagers

The suspense and mystery genre has become increasingly popular among teenagers. One example is the Engelsfors trilogy, which is about six teenage girls who find out they are witches hunted by an ancient evil. The book by Mats Strandberg and Sara Bergmark Elfgren attracted lots of attention and was nominated for Sweden’s top literary prize, the August Prize. The first part of the trilogy, The Circle (Cirkeln) has also been made into a film by the same name, directed by Levan Akin.

The power of pictures

Picture books enjoy a prominent and important place in Swedish children’s literature. The genre gained a foothold with Elsa Beskow and has since progressed through illustrators and writers such as Stina Wirsén and Pija Lindenbaum. Else-Marie and Her Seven Little Daddies (Else-Marie och småpapporna) was Lindenbaum’s debut book about an unusual family challenging existing norms and perceptions. In the US, some of the illustrations were censored.

Since the early 20th century, the picture-book genre has grown and flourished in Sweden. Among the pioneers were Elsa Beskow, with Peter in Blueberry Land (Puttes äventyr i blåbärsskogen), which has influenced contemporary children’s book illustrators with its artistic, imaginative approach. Beskow often took as her theme the interaction between nature, children and animals.

This is also reflected in the work of contemporary authors such as Lena Anderson, in her books Hedgehog (Kotten) and Anna (Maja).

Humour for all ages

Picture books often have two readers, so they need to be interesting for adults too. This is why many include an element of humour, in both text and the images. Examples include Pernilla Stalfelt’s The Little Worm Book (Lilla maskboken) and The Big Worm Book (Stora maskboken). They offer expressive imagery, and the text is often interpreted literally in the pictures, which makes their reading both unexpected and entertaining.

Olof Landström is a children’s book illustrator who has collaborated with such leading Swedish authors as Ulf Stark and Barbro Lindgren. Together with his wife Lena Landström, he has created the Boo and Baa (Fåren Bu och Bä) books. Barbro Lindgren is, among other things, famous for The Wild Baby (Mamman och den vilda bebin), a picture book about an adventurous baby who keeps hiding from his mum.

Illustrators such as Jan Lööf, Eva Eriksson and Eva Lindström have also collaborated with major Swedish authors. But Lööf is perhaps best known for his books about a boy called Pelle. He has also acquired an international reputation with books such as The Story of the Red Apple (Sagan om det röda äpplet).

One of Sweden’s most popular children’s illustrators is Stina Wirsén. Together with her mother Carin Wirsén, she has produced the books about Rut and Knut (Rut och Knut), which among other things earned them the Elsa Beskow Plaque.

Picture books are here to stay. Among the more recent arrivals on the scene are Sara Lundberg, Jockum Nordström and Emma and Lisen Adbåge.

Award-winning Pija Lindenbaum’s Bridget (Gittan) is a single child with heaps of imagination and her stories bring up emotions such as guilt, shame and fear.

Copyright: Norstedts

From education to entertainment

The history of the modern Swedish children’s novel begins around 1945. One of the pioneers was Astrid Lindgren, with Pippi Longstocking (Pippi Långstrump).

In the early 20th century, children’s books were seen as a separate literary genre. One of the most famous authors from this period was Selma Lagerlöf. Her book The Wonderful Adventures of Nils (Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige) is about a boy who travels through the country on the back of a flying goose, and is an entertaining lesson in Swedish geography. For many years, it was used as a textbook in Swedish compulsory school.

The modern Swedish children’s novel first emerged around 1945 when society began to understand that children had special needs. This resulted in an explosion of books focusing on everything from humour to social issues. The modern children’s book was born. Starting in 1945, some 400 children’s books were published every year for the rest of the decade. The foremost pioneer of the modern genre was Astrid Lindgren. Her book Pippi Longstocking (Pippi Långstrump), published in 1945, made Swedish children’s literature famous around the world. Other pioneers were Gösta Knutsson with his richly illustrated books about Peter-No-Tail (Pelle Svanslös), a much too nice, tailless cat, and Lennart Hellsing, several of whose books in verse have been put to music, including The Banana Book (Bananbok).

The earliest books with their moralising, didactic tone have now been replaced by stories that focus on the inherent curiosity and creativity of children. And where once the books centred on male protagonists, a growing number of the leading characters in recent years have been girls.

Astrid Lindgren.

Photo: Roine Karlsson/Norstedts

Astrid Lindgren

Even today, more than seven decades after she published her first book, Astrid Lindgren remains one of the most widely borrowed authors in Swedish libraries. Her books are loved by both children and adults all over the world.

Some of her best-known characters are Pippi Longstocking (Pippi Långstrump), The Brothers Lionheart (Bröderna Lejonhjärta) and Emil of Lönneberga (Emil i Lönneberga). During her career, she was awarded numerous international prizes, and several awards have been established in her name. Lindgren’s books are distinguished by strong characters and difficult subjects. Many of the books also include accounts of contemporary life and social criticism.

Useful links

Barnboken/Journal of Children’s Literature Research
Swedish Publishers’ Association
Swedish branch of the International Board on Books for Young People
Kulturrådet (Swedish Arts Council)
Swedish Institute for Children’s Books

Last updated: 22 October 2019