Sunday, September 30, 2007

Elsa Beskow

Elsa Beskow
February 11, 1874 - June 30, 1953 Stockholm, Sweden

If you have never visited Scandinavia and you are casting around for ideas of places to visit, I would suggest that it should be close to the top of your wish-list. Sweden in particular. I was very fortunate to live there in the early 1970's. It was a somewhat unfortunate time to be an American resident given America's involvement in the Vietnam war to which Sweden was strongly opposed.

Ignoring that small bump, though, Sweden has been one of my favorite places that I have ever lived. Physically, it is a relatively inhospitable countryside with lots of granite and, in general, poor soil but it is still strikingly beautiful with its forests, lakes, silver birches, clean air and balanced living. And, if you grew up accustomed to a winter environment, the winters can be spectacular. If you are a sunshine person, it is a different story of course.

Swedes have developed a knack for making the most of the modest endowments of their country, particularly in the arts. As if to compensate for the half of the year in which the sun makes only a perfunctory appearance (and even then is often hidden behind clouds), the Scandinavian style tends towards a simplicity, lightness, and colorfulness which I find immensely attractive. One of the artists whose work you will see scattered around the TTMD site is Carl Larsson who is very much in this tradition of light, colorful painting.

While there is a stereotype of the morose, gloomy Scandinavian, probably based on the dark winters and Ingmar Bergman; in fact, there is a strong tradition of sociability despite varying levels of formality.

Interlude for Scandinavian Joke Playing to Stereotypes

Six Scandinavians are shipwrecked and cast adrift in a lifeboat. After the first day the two Danes have organized a party with singing and carousing. At the end of three months being adrift, the two Norwegians finally figure out how to distill alcohol from seawater and set to drinking their concerns away.

At the end of six months of drifting, the first Swede turns to the second and says, "Hello, my name is Anders".

One of the more amazing cultural coincidences to occur, as they sometimes do, was that two seminal children's writers should have lived basically in the same time and place. Astrid Lindgren (of Pippi Longstocking fame) and Elsa Beskow, both Swedes living in the first half of the 20th century, had a significant impact on children's books far outside the boundaries of their relatively small country. Elsa Beskow (February 11, 1874 - June 30, 1953 ) preceded Lindgren (November 14, 1907 - January 28, 2002) by a generation but there was a period of ten or so years when they overlapped in writing books. I don't know and have never seen anything indicating whether these two giants ever met.

Astrid Lindgren was by far the more prolific of the two and was strictly an author with a wide range of writing styles and themes. Elsa Beskow was by training an artist who illustrated all the books she wrote, of which there were approximately forty. And whereas Lindgren wrote everything from light hearted humorous stories to deeply felt stories addressing death and tragedy, Elsa Beskow's work tends to be somewhat more straightforward.

That is not to say that Beskow's work is insubstantial. She wrote beautifully illustrated ABC books as well as a popular early reader that was used extensively in the 1930's. What she is best known for, though, are a cluster of twenty or so books that depict children, usually in a Swedish summer countryside. Nature is both abundant and central to the story. While the drawings are all done in a realistically beautiful watercolor and ink combination with crisp, but not garish, colors, there is usually some element of fantasy. Typically, the children are either dealing with personifications of the plants, trees and fruits and/or the children have shrunk to the size of those fruits so that they are essentially elf-like.

There are often creatures from Scandinavian mythology lurking around the edges of the stories: elves, gnomes, witches, etc. But usually this is, as it were, local color. These stories are beautiful places where there may be some tension and drama but no-one is ever at real risk of terrible things happening. Tragedy and all the other evils in Pandora's box just don't get much of a look-in.

It is interesting to note that there were three children's book illustrators working across the globe at this time, each of whom worked primarily in watercolor, each of whom used their national flora and fauna as the primary setting of their stories, each of whom used an element of fantasy in their stories, each of whom evoked the best and most positive of their respective national traditions, and each of whose work became iconic for children's stories of their nation, Elsa Beskow (Sweden, February 11, 1874 - June 30, 1953), Beatrix Potter (England, July 28, 1866 - December 22, 1943) , and May Gibbs (Australia January 17, 1877 - November 27, 1969).

As is often the case with positive, cheery stories where the protagonists focus on being kind and doing the right thing, Beskow's books went through a period of criticism in the 1960's and 70's for being too middle-class, not concerned enough with the dark side of life, inappropriately positive, and so on. Fortunately, most children don't have advanced degrees in criticism and victimology and so Beskow's books have gone on being admired and enjoyed from generation to generation.

Picture Books

Around the Year by Elsa Beskow Recommended

Aunt Green, Aunt Brown and Aunt Lavender by Elsa Beskow Suggested

Children of the Forest by Elsa Beskow Recommended

Christopher's Harvest Time by Elsa Beskow Highly Recommended

Peter and Lotta's Adventure by Elsa Beskow Suggested

Peter and Lotta's Christmas by Elsa Beskow Suggested

Peter's Old House by Elsa Beskow Highly Recommended

The Sun Egg by Elsa Beskow Recommended

Woody, Hazel and Little Pip by Elsa Beskow Suggested

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