I’m sitting in my friend Julie’s cheery kitchen. It’s a couple of days after a snowstorm dumped 10 inches of snow on the Twin Cities, so the sun reflecting off of all that white floods the room with clear light.
We’ve been catching up over a cup of coffee and now we’ll try to get down to business and have, somehow, a linear conversation about Elsa Beskow, elf hats, children’s literature, and imagination.
Ha! I don’t think a linear conversation is really possible with us. Tangents and sidewalks to elsewhere sprout up continually. I’ll do my best to convey something of it all, though, and say I wish many of you could sit with us and take part in a lively dialogue about all of this!
Besides being my dear friend for over 30 years now, Julie has more recently become owner, maker, and designer at Steller Handcrafted Goods.
She began making beautiful mittens from upcycled sweaters about 8 or 9 years ago and has expanded as new ideas are sparked. Now she and her local team of craftswomen make vests, coats, purses, woolen Dala horses…
…and mini mitten garlands for Christmas decorating, as well as the charming elf hats we’re giving away in the drawing later this week.
You can see all her products at her website here.
Jill: When did you start making the elf hats?
Julie: I started out with the mittens and as I began making them from Nordic sweaters we’d find at Minnesota thrift stores, I began learning more and more about Nordic traditions, which took me into the hats. It’s the influence of those nisse and tomte’s! Elf hats with Swedish braid were an obvious choice.
Jill: You have really dived into the Scandinavian pool.
Julie: I am German by heritage but I have been grafted in! I do love the handcrafts that come from the Nordic regions, the weaving and carving and felting, though my way to Elsa Beskow came through the books of Sybille Adolphi who is German. I found her book about flower dolls and started making those, maybe in 2005. I’ve always loved making tiny things. And that introduced me to Waldorf and their emphasis on handcrafts.
Jill: The same Scottish publisher (Floris Books) who has all of Beskow’s books, publishes Adolphi’s books as well.
Julie: Right, so that’s how I discovered Elsa Beskow. The first book of hers that I bought was Pelle’s New Suit. I have one son who has all sisters and I loved that here was a boy in the story. And all the interactions between the child and the adults are wonderful. He had to work for that suit, but all the adults in his life were there to help him.
Jill: And such real jobs, Pelle does.
Julie: Exactly. Real work. And he is not begrudging at all to do it.
Jill: I’ve read that Elsa grew up loving fairy tales which later inspired her stories. Were there any books you read as a child or with your kids that now, looking back, you realize sparked a love or interest in your handcraft work, or your elf hats in particular?
Julie: I remember loving Twig. It was on my grandmother’s bookshelf. It’s a wonderful book for children and adults. I re-read it recently and loved seeing how all of her imaginative things are connected to real things in her life. You read Beskow and you think, “To live in the country! Oh, how nice!” But Twig lives in a tenement and she has the same love of these small imaginative worlds. Her flower is a dandelion. I don’t think this really landed on me as a child. But to me, it’s heartening, as a person who raised her children in the city, that this kind of love of beauty and tiny things is simply a part of childhood, anywhere.
Jill: Yes, I have read about Carl Larsson, too, that he grew up in the filthy slums of Stockholm. Really a dreadfully difficult life with an abusive, alcoholic father. And then here we have his ravishingly beautiful paintings of home and family! That seed of artistry and love of beauty flourished in his soul despite his growing up in a completely not-beautiful place. When I was raising my children in a dusty, bleak, town in West Africa… rubbish everywhere… that helped me, too. Just to know that the love of beauty need not be crushed by our outer circumstances. No one’s life looks like the sunny images in Beskow’s books. They are glimpses of the rural idyll, but that longing for beauty can be fulfilled and nurtured in smaller, imaginative ways, like Twig does.
Jill: By the way, what do your customers think about these elf hats? Any curious comments?
Julie: They just love the pointy hats. They think “whimsical.” Not necessarily “elf.” Although the people who are Scandinavian get it. And you know, I started out just making them for children but now adults have been wanting them so I’ve added adult sizes! I just sold one to a very tall man from Turkey!
Jill: I think many adults feel it’s somehow too juvenile to go back, say, and read Elsa Beskow’s little fantasies or Andersen’s fairy tales, that very imaginative branch of children’s literature. Unless they happen to read them with a child. What do you say to that?
Julie: I would say the current fascination with fairy gardens shows that there’s something in people that loves the idea of tiny people and creatures. There’s something there that resonates even with adults. C.S. Lewis understood this. One of his earliest memories is of a little fairy garden made in a biscuit tin, and they created a whole world around it. And one of G.K. Chesterton’s earliest memories was of a king and a golden key…and it turns out that it was a puppet theater his father built.
Why do these memories stick? There’s something about a magical world that isn’t an ordinary world that stirs up a longing for the real world we’re made for, I think. You can’t really put it into words. Like a dream that is so lovely and you wake up and can’t quite remember it, but you remember the sense of it. There’s a German word for that — sehnsucht. That wistful longing. Make believe and mythology all tap into this. I think we all long for something more than the concrete world we see around us. In our hearts we know there’s more than just our everyday brick and mortar world.
Jill: I have read some criticisms of Beskow for portraying too sunny of a world. Too ideal. But magical worlds always have elements of that feeling of oh, if only it could be so! That’s the magic of them. And since Beskow’s imaginative worlds were all miniature, I think the problems are to scale. The troubles encountered are large for the tiny people or even the children but not overwhelming to even small children who read them. And it wasn’t as though Elsa herself had not experienced great sorrows in her life, but she chose to draw on the good for the most part, to meet the darkness with a huge splash of light rather than poking around in it. Just different approaches.
Julie: Right. We don’t need to sanitize children’s literature and of course fairy tales have a lot of really grim elements! But the good generally conquers in the end and that is a hopeful sort of story to read.
Okay – our time is up. I hope you’ve enjoyed meeting Julie and listening in to two friends chatting about books!
I’ll be back tomorrow with a list of read-alikes for Elsa Beskow’s books. Who else has delved into the world of miniature people? Anthropomorphic plants? Gnomes and elves? I’ll give you a few suggestions.
Remember to enter the giveaway or enter again if you like!
Here are the details, with a big thank you for helping spread the word on the delightful world of children’s literature!
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!