Reviews 2009

Barnlitteraturanalyser [Analyses of Children’s Literature]

Barnlitteraturanalyser [Analyses of Children’s Literature]. Edited by Maria Andersson and Elina Druker. Lund: Studentlitteratur, 2008. 213 pages. SEK 211 (paperback).

Barnlitteraturanalyser is a collection of a dozen essays by Swedish academics, each focusing primarily on Swedish writers. Interestingly, the papers by the best-known Swedish academics in the field of children’s literature, Boel Westin and Maria Nikolajeva, are the only two to look beyond Sweden. It should be said at the outset that although Sweden is a country with a rich output of children’s books and children’s literature criticism, it is surprising that this anthology is basically only inward-looking. It would have been more appropriate if the book had been called Analyses of Children’s Literature in Sweden. Or, even better, Analyses of Children’s Literature in Sweden in the Twentieth Century. Taken on those terms, however, Barnlitteraturanalyser has a lot to offer.

As Andersson and Druker, who both teach literature at Stockholm University, point out in their introduction, children’s literature is “an arena where concepts such as child and childhood are defined, negotiated and questioned.” But, they wonder, “whose childhood is really portrayed in children’s literature? And from whose perspective is it described?” (7, my translation). The editors attempt to show with this collection how certain key texts in contemporary Sweden define children and childhood, based on gender, ethnicity, and other issues. Mia Franck, for example, explores the title character in Peter Pohl’s two books about Anette and comes to the conclusion that “the silent girl is more provocative than the speaking one” (160, my translation), while Mia Österlund, in her analysis of Pija Lindenbaum’s three picture books about a girl named Gittan, claims that active, energetic boys have long dominated picture books. In contrast, when girls are portrayed, they are shown as “nice, passive, and ordinary” (97, my translation). Österlund warns that trying to show otherwise can result in a seeming parody, because “[g]ender is connected to concrete bodies and these are based on historical and cultural constructions” (107, my translation). Meanwhile, Magnus Öhrn looks at boy characters in Ulf Stark’s work and finds that their sudden outbursts of violence are never explained but taken instead as the norm for males (131).

Many papers focus primarily on one author or on a theme across works by several authors. Kristin Hallberg analyses the highly popular Alfons Åberg picture-book series. The first book was published in 1972, and some titles in the series are also available in English, where the character is renamed Alfie Atkins. Hallberg comes to the conclusion that Gunilla Bergström’s formula for the shape of the books allows her to explore a different issue in each volume, such as “feeling alone, friendship, jealousy, weakness, and much more” (23, my translation). Boel Westin is the author of a recent biography of the Finnish author and artist Tove Jansson, whose work graces the cover of Barnlitteraturanalyser. In her contribution to this volume, Westin discusses dream texts. Among other works, she looks at Selma Lagerlöf’s Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige [The Wonderful Adventures of Nils] and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to understand how dreams “are connected to a longing for change and, in the long term, an individual rebirth – an exploration of the self” (71, my translation). Maria Nikolajeva discusses Beverly Cleary’s Dear Mr. Henshaw and Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole books in her paper about diary-based texts. Neither Westin nor Nikolajeva mentions the fact that she is analysing a translation, even though the references and quotes clearly reveal that this is the case. In the former case, in particular, there have been so many translations of Alice that a researcher ought to discuss why s/he has chosen a specific translation to analyse over the other options. Indeed a prominent absence in this book is the topic of translation. It is a subject of importance and it is gaining traction in studies of children’s literature, not least in Scandinavia, including works by Klingberg and Riitta Oittinen. So much children's literature is translated, especially in Scandinavia, that it is odd not to see it mentioned at all.

What Barnlitteraturanalyser offers is a detailed analysis of mostly Swedish, twentieth-century texts, looking at their role in shaping ideas of children and childhood in contemporary Sweden, with some connections made to literary texts and theory from beyond Sweden’s borders. Despite the few shortcomings mentioned here, this volume should be considered essential reading for anyone researching children’s literature in Sweden.

B.J. Epstein
Swansea University, Wales

Note by the author: Studentlitteratur published a book by me in 2005. I have attempted to view this text objectively, without allowing my former connection to the publisher to affect me.