- Celebrating the Margins: Families and Gender in the Work of the Swedish Picturebook Artist Pija Lindenbaum
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The picturebook author-illustrator Pija Lindenbaum (b. 1979) rose early to public attention in her native country of Sweden with her first book Else-Marie och småpapporna / Else-Marie and the Seven Small Daddies in 1990, but it was her second book Boken om Bodil / Boodil My Dog which brought attention from the International community and for which she received the New York Times award. Since her first book, Lindenbaum has produced roughly one book a year, many of which have been the recipients of major prizes, including the August prize and the Swedish Astrid Lindgren Prize. She is one of Sweden’s most highly esteemed living children’s book authors. She was also awarded a prize by Riksförbundet för Sexuell Upplysning / The Swedish Association for Sexuality Education (RFSU) for the sensitive way in which her books challenge sexual stereotyping among children, and her ability to leave the reader feeling “I’m OK; I can be precisely the way I am” (RFSU).
Many of her works are available in translation, and reviews of her works in English translations on sites such as Amazon often [End Page 77] draw attention to what is perceived to be the political correctness of her books, even as she challenges the concept by placing difficult issues in the margin and the commonality of children’s experiences in the center. In Sweden, the liberal attitudes Lindenbaum expresses are so highly valued that many of her works carry a stamp of approval from the organization Rättviseförmedlingen / Equalisters, a pro-active equality project aiming “to correct the imbalances of representation in media, culture, business and other contexts” (rattviseformedlingen.se). In conjunction with the publishing house Olika [Different], they award prizes for picturebooks that promote diversity and challenge or broaden gender stereotypes in picturebooks: with an official stamp given to environmental friendly products, kravmärkning (literally, demand stamp), and krammärking (literally, hug stamp) to signal that the books meet the Equalisters’ criteria. The books by Lindenbaum we discuss in detail here carry the “hug stamp” of approval.
The common feature in all Lindenbaum’s books is that she places the child character in the center of the event, and moves outwards to explore that character’s family or other social situation from the child’s point of view. Topics perceived as “issues” in reviews—such as single parenthood, race relations, verbal violence, gay parents and the child’s gender identity—are part of the only world the child character has ever known. In and of themselves, they do not constitute “problems” that need to be solved; readers are simply invited to share the experiences of the child protagonists as their days unfold. The child protagonist is often the narrator. For instance, in Lindenbaum’s first book, Else-Marie och småpapporna, Else-Marie lives in a high rise apartment with her mother and seven small Daddies who play with her, sleep beside her at night and, in the Swedish version, share her bathtub along with her mother. (In the English version, this picture was removed and replaced with a picture of Else-Marie and her mother sitting in an armchair reading together surrounded by the seven small Daddies.) The Daddies are all identical and stereotypical: they wear suits and carry briefcases. For an adult reader, it is clear that the Daddies represent Else-Marie’s longing for her father, and the way she maintains his presence through her imagination. The text is never overt; Else-Marie simply states what her small Daddies do and allows the reader to take pleasure in the impact of the imagined miniature Daddies on the young child’s life. And it is a happy life. The obviously tired but kind-hearted mother and her daughter have a warm and loving relationship. Åsa Warnqvist offers an alternative interpretation; she suggests that it is the first polyamorous picturebook in its depiction of a child raised in a family where there are numerous father figures.
The books we focus on in...