A mossy forest floor sprigged with wild strawberries like tiny garnets leads to a cavity beneath an old pine’s sprawling roots. Jolly red caps with white polka-dots cluster here, looking for all the world like mushrooms. But look again!
They’re really a foursome of wee forest children who live in this enchanted home, adventuring with squirrel companions, riding aloft on the velvet backs of their bat friends…
…harvesting dried seeds and nuts for winter, dancing in the moonlight with forest fairies.
You’ve entered the imaginative world of Elsa Beskow, one of Sweden’s most influential children’s author/illustrators. Actually, you’ve entered just one of her imaginative worlds, for Beskow whisks us to frost palaces and oak tree bungalows…
…introduces us to blueberry boys, rose queens, and grouchy gnomes in more than two dozen lovely, charming, and eminently kind-hearted stories.
This week on Orange Marmalade we’ll be looking at Beskow, her life and extraordinary literary output. There’s an exciting giveaway to take part in as well, including a book and some darling elf hats! Those details are at the end of today’s post.
Of all the authors who belong on Orange Marmalade, Beskow fits particularly well. Her emphases on nature appreciation and care of Earth’s creatures, outdoor play, imagination, kindness and community, and the dignity of ordinary persons and day-to-day work, all accord beautifully with values I love to promote in children’s literature.
So who was this woman, and how did she come to carve out such a prominent place in the culture and bookshops of not only Sweden, but the world? What elements of her own life found their way into her stories which so delight us more than 100 years later?
Today, I’ll look at how Beskow’s childhood influenced one of the key elements of her picture books — the combination of Nordic landscapes and fairy tale figures. Tomorrow we’ll see how her father’s early death, her own upbringing, and her husband’s social conscience also impacted her stories.
Elsa was born in Stockholm on the 11th of February, 1874. She had one older brother and four younger sisters. She describes her childhood as sunny and glad in an autobiographical sketch she wrote:
In summer we led an extremely happy life in our country home, close to a small, idyllic lake surrounded by birch trees and dark pines. The house was old, with a tile roof under whose eaves the swallows built their nests, and was surrounded by a garden with big apple trees. There we children lived a glorious outdoor life, bathing, rowing, picking berries and wild flowers, and inventing all sorts of amusing games. It was a great day of joy, a red-letter day, every spring when we were ready to move to this paradise, and it was very unwillingly we returned to town in the autumn.
Beskow was immensely fond of fairy tales from a very young age, cutting her teeth on the stories of Hans Christian Andersen and Zachris Topelius.
She began making up her own stories to tell her brother by age four and by age seven had determined secretly to be a picture-book maker when she was grown up.
She also spent a great deal of time drawing, “scribbling and painting on every scrap of paper I happened to come across,” she says. This included extensive drawings of the trees and flowers of those beloved summer woods.
This combination of an intimate knowledge and love of Nordic landscapes, an intense joy in freely playing out-of-doors, and a fairy-tale-saturated imagination, richly inform quite a number of Beskow’s books.
I recently read through the entire canon of her books available in English, in chronological order of publication. One of the things that stands out is how immediately she arrived at her signature style. We see that love of woodlands, the accurate details of the natural world, the idyllic, sunny charm of forest ramblings…
…the bright clarity of her watercolor work, the elven folk of Scandinavian fairy lore, and even her graceful palette of natural tints enlivened with splashes of iconic Swedish red. It’s all there, from the start.
After first publishing a small retelling of an old fairy tale (The Tale of the Little, Little Old Woman), Beskow’s breakthrough as a children’s author was her second title, Peter in Blueberry Land, published in 1901.
In this tale, a young boy named Peter wants to pick berries for his mother, but cannot find any good patches. Just when he begins to despair, the Blueberry King appears, “a tiny old man, no bigger than an apple.”
He shrinks Peter down to his same wee size, then guides him to blueberry land, with a side visit to the Cranberry household. Peter delights in his new world where acorn shells make fine helmets and teams of mice pull cartloads of children.
He plays happily there, and then, in a twinkling, he’s whisked back to his own self and own size and own home, with two brimful baskets of berries to prove it was all really true.
Beskow understood the fascination of the small for children. She once remarked:
“With a great deal of planning and bother you can take the children to the zoo and show them the wolves and the bears. Once there they become enthralled by a tiny stone at the side of the road or can talk of nothing but the ladybug creeping along the bars of the wolves’ cage. You might just have stayed home in the garden — there are both stones and ladybugs there.”
Certainly the world of the small is her masterpiece. Her vivid imagination strews fanciful, minute homes, boats, water wheels, garments, and even weapons (you’ve got to keep those snakes under control somehow!) across her many tales to the delight of us all. As Marion Bromley Newton remarks in Horn Book, “It has been said that [Beskow’s] great gift is, without doubt, to be able, even among grown-ups, to waken the child to life.”
These bustling miniature worlds are mesmerizing! You can experience the best of this combination of nature and the fairy tale in titles like Children of the Forest, Woody, Hazel and Little Pip, The Sun Egg, and Ollie’s Ski Trip, as well as Peter in Blueberry Land.
I’d like to add that even with this strong thread of fantasy woven through these stories, the accuracy of not only her drawings, but her vocabulary is undiminished. Beskow names an incredible variety of flora and fauna in these forest homes with precision. Thus we read of hawthorn, dock leaf, snowdrops and anemones; chaffinches, stoats, dormice and vipers. Having just thought about the critical importance of a natural history vocabulary for children due to Robert Macfarlane’s book, The Lost Words, this brilliant aspect of Beskow’s work is striking to me.
At age 15, Beskow’s world was dealt a heavy blow when her father died of pneumonia leaving her mother alone with meager resources to care for six children. Tomorrow we’ll look at how that circumstance in Beskow’s life led to her creation of another, extremely popular series of books, quite unlike her forest fantasies.
Now — here are the giveaway details!
Courtesy of Floris Books in Edinburgh, who publish all the English editions of Beskow’s books, I’ve got a beautiful, full-size edition of Peter in Blueberry Land, Beskow’s break-out book.
And courtesy of my long time friend, Julie Steller of Steller Handcrafted Goods, I’ve got a couple darling Scandinavian elf hats plus some sweet, postcard-size prints of Beskow illustrations.
So here’s the deal. You can enter the drawing multiple times throughout the week. Two prizes will be awarded on Friday morning, February 2nd.
First Prize will be Peter in Blueberry Land, an elf hat (size 6-12 months), and a selection of five Beskow postcards.
Second Prize will be an elf hat (size 0-6 months) and four Beskow postcards.
Apologies, but U.S. shipping addresses only.
You can be entered by:
*newly following the Orange Marmalade Books blog
*newly following Orange Marmalade’s or Steller Handcrafted Goods‘ Facebook pages
*sharing this week’s Facebook posts from Orange Marmalade or Steller Handcrafted Goods (you can do this multiple days)
*newly following Orange Marmalade or Steller Handcrafted Goods on Instagram
*liking the Instagram posts this week from Orange Marmalade or Steller Handcrafted Goods (you can do this multiple days)
The more times you enter, the better your chances 🙂
See you back here tomorrow!