The Nordic Council Children and Young People’s Literature Prize has been awarded since 2013. This year, many of the nominated works are picture books. Text and images address everything from tradition and the forces of nature to more difficult topics such as illness, grief, poverty, exclusion, and loneliness. The books weave the difficult with play, fantasy, and a touch of hopeful humour.
The best picture book reading experience is when you can read the text, look at the pictures, and understand the interaction between the two. At the same time, I want to open up the picture book to conversations and demonstrate its potential for those who maybe haven’t yet honed their language skills. Books should not be judged by their format. Whether you’re a parent, early-years educator, primary school teacher, or university lecturer, picture books can open up a world of interesting discussions.
In Loftar tú mær? by Rakel Helmsdal, we meet three siblings whose great-grandmother has died. Little Brother, Sister, and Big Brother are in the garden. We share in their thoughts and feelings about how death affects them. The youngest doesn’t cry but lives in the moment. Sister is flying a kite, and Big Brother, who should be taking care of his siblings, is mourning and remembering his great-grandmother.
For those of you who can understand Faroese and want a different reading experience, I recommend reading the book aloud twice. The first time without showing the cover or the pictures, and the second showing the fantastic images. Think about the two reading experiences – they’re probably very different from one another. It can also be interesting to look at the structure of the text, how it has been constructed, and the patterns you can find.
If you can’t speak Faroese and know only the gist of the story, you can instead focus on the illustrations and your conversations can be about the expressionless figures versus the nameless siblings. Or why not discuss Rakel Helmsdal’s technique and interesting perspectives? Does the bird’s eye view convey anything? Also consider the roles that the crows, the white dove, and the old tree play. If you want to include a linguistic element, you can research what’s typical of the Faroese language and learn some Faroese words.
Ud af det blå by Rebecca Bach-Lauritsen and Anna Margrethe Kjaergaard is about a boy whose best friend is a cactus. The boy’s life is very structured. There’s a place for everything, and for everything a place. One morning when he wakes up, he notices someone has been there. Instead of being scared or frozen with fear, he is brave and curious and finds out that there’s a bear in the house. When he finds the bear, his life changes. The boy seems to be filled with life. All order goes out the window what with all the play and hullaballoo with the bear. But the boy is happy.
Ud af det blå is a picture book of few words, which makes it easily accessible even for those who can’t speak Danish. Before reading aloud, take a look at the cover and the title and think about what the book is about. Look at the pictures together. What happens when the bear arrives? With slightly older children, you can look at the structure of the text. What does the text look like before and after the bear makes its entrance? Discuss themes such as loneliness and friendship, as well as reality and fantasy based on these. Some elements, such as the picture in the boy’s bedroom and the cactus, are important in the book. What happens to these over the course of the story? Think about the colours and the shapes that are used. Do they serve a purpose? Is someone linking the story to another book, perhaps?
Finally, I want to look at the picture book Guovssu guovssahasat by Karen Anne Buljo and Inga-Wiktoria Påwe. Here we have a traditional oral story about the frightening northern lights that steal colours. The children test the limits of the northern lights, summoning the forces of nature with rhymes, and learn to take responsibility when they encounter danger.
This is a good example of a story that can be difficult to access because of the language, but which offers a lot to talk about. What different Sami characteristics can you see in the pictures? Who do you think the beings are who are summoned to play? Have you seen the northern lights? Are there any natural phenomena that you find scary? Where is Sápmi? There are lots of picture books that you can talk about, even if you can’t speak the language!
Mikaela Wickström, Special librarian, Nordic Culture Point
All books can be borrowed at the Nordic Culture Point Library