Two-Year U.S. Tour of Norwegian Children's Books

By Lone, Cecilie; Evans, Bob | Scandinavian Review, Autumn 1998 | Go to article overview

Two-Year U.S. Tour of Norwegian Children's Books


Lone, Cecilie, Evans, Bob, Scandinavian Review


This year marks the 200th anniversary of Norway's first native literary work for children, Lommebog for born (Pocketbook for Children), published in Christiania (Oslo) in 1798. The book was authored by Willum Stephanson, a relocated Dane, who published it in Norwegian. The text was intended to promote moral education by teaching children good behavior and ethics; yet the reader also offered its young audience stories and poems.

To celebrate this occasion, the Capital Children's Museum in Washington, D.C. has developed a traveling exhibition that makes it possible for viewers nationwide to "walk through" an illustrated history of Norway's contributions to children's literature as summarized on nine large-scale graphic panels set up as different stations.

Entitled "Trolls, Mrs. Pepperpot, and Beyond-Celebrating Norwegian Children's Books," the exhibition introduces childhood favorites (in chronological order) as presented on paper by some of Norway's most creative writers and illustrators. The title refers to the grotesque fantasy figures (trolls) of Scandinavian folk culture mentioned in so many children's stories, and to the series of Mrs. Pepperpot books by Alf Proysen, which have been known abroad in English translation since 1959.

Enormous color photographs of Norway show the geographic context of the children's books, while fact lists, time lines, maps, and brief texts provide a historic framework for the evolution of children's literature from teaching tool to mode of entertainment, from folklore and fantasy to the exploration of social reality that has occurred over the last two centuries. As the visitor takes a turn, the journey through Norwegian history continues into the 1800s. In this era of burgeoning nationalism, the first effort was made to compile a truly Norwegian literature. Peter Christen Asbjornsen and Jorgen Moe traveled around the countryside gathering stories of folklife directly at the source. Hearing these tales had long been a source of pleasure for people of all ages, and now Asbjornsen and Moe set them down in a written language that captured the storytellers' idiom. Their first volume of Norwegian folk tales appeared in 1841.

By the mid-19th century women writers entered the field of children's literature, where their contributions were especially welcomed: Women's experiences of family life and observations of childhood enabled them to write realistically about the domestic sphere and the child's place within it. By the 1870s children's literature was dividing into girls' books and boys' books, as writers found that the same subject matter did not appeal to both sexes.

The Golden Age of Norwegian Arts and Literature (1890-1910) was a period of creativity that witnessed a corresponding upswing in the production of illustrated children's books.

Supported by advances in printing technology, picture books for young children could now offer multi-colored and finely detailed illustrations of Scandinavian nature and family life.

In 1905-after union with Denmark (1536-1814) a Ed then Sweden (1814-1905)- Norway became an independent country. Only 35 years later, Norway's autonomy was again threatened, this time by the invading forces of Nazi Germany. The occupation of Norway lasted until 1945, when the Allied Forces finally brought World War II to an end. It was during this period of wartime oppression that Norway produced some of its most imaginative children's literature, books that raised morale by ridiculing the occupying Nazis.

The postwar era witnessed the production of a new series of classics as three great children's authors emerged in the 1950s and early 60s: Anne Catharina Vestly, Thorbjornn Egner, and Alf Prsysen. These three novelists dealt with realistic themes and introduced a new element of psychology into stories of family life (above).

The overwhelming popularity of this trio of writers was not entirely due to the circulation of their books. …

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