On September 16, at Kulturhuset in Stockholm, there was an interesting panel debate on children’s literature. The participants were Lotta Olsson, who reviews books for Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s biggest newspaper; the author Ulf Stark; Karin Salmson, the publisher of Vilda, a publishing company that only puts out books that are politically correct; Jan Hansson, the head of the Swedish Institute for Children’s Books; Kristin Hallberg, who teaches children’s literature; Dag Henried, the publisher of Alfabeta; and Johan Unenge, an author and illustrator. The debate was led by Lillemor Torstensson, who also works at the Swedish Institute for Children’s Books.
Earlier this year, Dagens Nyheter criticized Vilda for the way it marks books as though they were organic or free-range products and for the ideology that runs through them. This set off something of a debate in the Swedish media and among Swedish children’s authors and illustrators of children’s books. So the debate on the 16th focused on art versus ideology, commercialism, and what children’s books are instruments of/for.
Kristin Hallberg felt that children’s books “create a meeting” between text/author and reader. She said they shouldn’t have morals or points or be used for a specific purpose. Others agreed that it should be about the story and if the story happens to teach or comfort or do anything else, that’s fine, too. Obviously, Karin Salmson thought differently. She felt that it was important to have books with gender equality, race quality, etc. Some participants, including some audience members who spoke, agreed that it was important for all children to feel they were “reflected” in books (i.e. that there were books about people like them), but that marking books or having requirements for books might be going a bit far. Then the issue of whether ideology affects quality was raised, but no final points were made regarding this.
Another topic that came up was Dagens Nyheter’s recent list of the 100 most important children’s books. About 1/3 of the books were by Swedish writers, mostly modern ones, and the rest of the books were primarily classics from the western world. Some felt that it was strange that so few Swedish books were on it, while others felt that too many were. Others thought older Swedish books and more modern foreign books were ignored. My own annoyance with the list came from the fact that for foreign books that had been translated to Swedish more than once (which is often the case for classics, such as Alice in Wonderland), the newspaper simply wrote “multiple translations available”. As we translators know, translations can vary wildly in quality, and therefore I think it is important that if one recommends a book in translation, one also recommends which translation is best.
It was an interesting evening and I hope there will be future debates on children’s literature, both in Sweden and elsewhere. Over 100 people were in the audience and it was great to see how many people are actively engaged in and concerned about the field of children’s literature.
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