Barbro Lindgren is one of Sweden’s most productive and well-loved authors, counting over one hundred published titles to date and translated into around 30 languages. While far and away most celebrated for her children’s literature, she has since her debut in the mid -60’s proved with flying colours that her writings fall into the category of ”reading for every age” in her multifaceted yet everyday stories.
Not least does this apply to her autobiographical book series of the 1970’s: Jättehemligt (Big Secret, 1971), Världshemligt (Awfully Secret, 1972) and Bladen brinner (Pages on Fire, 1973). The trilogy went on to transcend between the generations, speaking to those who were there and then in the midst of their youth as well as those past it and now looking back in life. More autobiographical material would later materialize in yet another trilogy, the Sparvel (”Sparrow”) books.
Lilla Sparvel (Little Sparrow, 1976), Stora Sparvel (Big Sparrow, 1977), and Bara Sparvel (Just Sparrow, 1979), all tell of a girl called Sparvel and the thoughts and feelings running through her mind between the ages of five and eight: fear of the dark, punishment, war, death, mean ladies, dirty old men, poverty. When first published, the books bore a warning advisory label, recommending that they only be read in the company of a grown-up.
Lindgren’s childhood in the Stockholm suburb of Bromma was relaxed and free of most rules. Her mother and father, who had put all their parenting efforts into raising her older sister Karin, employed a different strategy this time around, letting little sister Barbro more or less roam free to explore the world. In her recounts, Lindgren depicts her childhood in the warmest of ways.
With the aim of becoming a visual artist, Lindgren attended the University of Arts, Crafts and Design (Konstfack) and the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm in the late 50s. Partly because of the death of her younger brother, she gave up her painting plans and found in her writing the best means to give way to her innermost thoughts. In 1963, she submitted a couple of chapters to the Rabén & Sjögren publishing house, whose roster included Astrid Lindgren (no relation), who in turn wrote a personal and encouraging letter, containing a few poignant words of sound practical advice – such as not to get long-winded and to remember to cut out any character that’s anywhere near being utterly uninteresting to the story.
And in 1965, Barbro Lindgren did indeed get her first book, Mattias sommar (Hilding’s Summer), published. Half a century later, she would receive the ALMA, The Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, founded in the name of none other than her one-time amicable advisor. Part of the motivation reads: ”With a perfect pitch, she embodies those bright and happy moments as well as the enigmas of life and the closeness of death.” In 1969, her probably greatest hit, Soda Pop (Loranga, Masarin och Dartanjang), the story about the boy Mazarin, his father Soda Pop and his grandfather Dartanyong came out. Reprinted countless times, it’s both written and illustrated by Barbro Lindgren, and is inspired by her own family life in the countryside together with her rather bohemian husband, painter Bo Lindgren.
In the early 70’s she wrote three poetic novels about people on the fringe in Felipe (1970), Eldvin (1972) and Molnens bröder (The Brothers of the Clouds, 1975) – all three directed more at adult audiences. She has often had to remind us that, in parallel with the immensely popular toddler books about The Wild Baby and Max (Sam in the U.S.), written in the 80’s and 90’s and the books about the charming pig Benny (written in the 2000’s), she actually wrote novels, poetry and books in the borderland between philosophy and prose poetry. Lindgren has illustrated several of her books herself but also employed outside talent. With The Story of the Little Old Man (1979), she began a long-standing collaboration with illustrator Eva Eriksson. Their biggest success is the series about little Max/Sam, a new kind of toddler picture books about the everyday adventures in a small child’s life. With the illustrious tale of The Wild Baby (Mamman och den vilda bebin, 1980), the child’s adventures became anything but mundane.
Lindgren realized that even adults may need their own picture book and wrote Titta Max grav! (Look, Max’s grave!), published in 1991. Here, we get to follow how Max/Sam grows up, becomes a bank clerk, marries and has children. He leads a highly ordinary life until death finally catches up with him.
In 1969, guitarist Georg “Jojje” Wadenius set music to Lindgren’s texts on the classic children’s album Goda’ Goda’. (One of the tunes, Kråkbegravningen, was also recorded as The Crow’s Funeral in 1972 by the American band Wadenius had by then joined: Blood, Sweat & Tears – with Lindgren’s original lyrics retained.) A number of her works have also been dramatized for theatre, radio theatre and opera. In 1975 she published Barbros pjäser för barn och andra (Barbro’s Plays for Children and Others), of which some have been adapted for film. She has also written original scripts, such as the 1974 TV movie Om – Åke “Limpan” Andersson (About – Åke “Limpan” Andersson), directed by Berith Oxelbeck. It’s the story of Limpan (“The Loaf”), who is bad at football and is not invited to play with the other boys, but has his canarie birds and his good friends Fredrik and aunt Elsa.
For Det stora barnkalaset (The Great Children’s Party, 1981), Lindgren wrote the script together with Judith Hollander, who also directed. In this joyously anarchistic short, a children’s party becomes an outright war zone. Told quite drastically from the perspective of the children, it never shies away from neither darkness nor abrasiveness. The idea of having grown-up actors playing the children certainly contributes to the absurd and liberating tone.
The Wild Baby, also performed in a stage version at Dockteatern Tittut/Puppet Theatre Peekaboo in Stockholm, was given a film version through the award-winning animator Johan Hagelbäck in 1983 and also became one of the staples of the Knattebio (“Toddler’s cinema”) concept, launched by the Swedish Film Institute in the 90’s.The Soda Pop stories could already be seen as a children’s show in 1975 in the first puppet film production in animation technology on Swedish television. Sunniva Kellquist directed the five parts with the narration handled by Toivo Pawlo. In 2005, an updated animated version in feature film length saw the light of day, directed by Igor Veichtaguin and scripted by Ulf Stark. This time around, Gösta Ekman did the voice of Dartanyong with Soda Pop interpreted by Dan Ekborg.
The three books about Benny – Benny’s Had Enough! (Nämen Benny, 1998), Benny and the Binky (Jamen Benny, 2001) and Oink, Oink Benny (Nöff, nöff Benny, 2007) are also available in short film format directed by Pelle Ferner, where Olof Landström’s illustrations from the books come to life and Lindgren herself faithfully provides the narrator’s voice.
Lindgren has received many prizes through the years. She has been awarded the Nils Holgersson plaque in 1977, the Gustaf Fröding Society’s Poetry Prize in 2003, the Evert Taube Scholarship in 2004 and the Royal Illis Quorum medal, awarded for outstanding contributions to Swedish culture, science or society, in 2009. In 2020, she received H.M. The Kings Gold Medal of the 12th size for her contribution to Swedish literature.
Freedom is Lindgren’s indispensable lifeblood and she systematically shuns celebrity and any shape of artistic elite. Since settling in Glömminge on the island of Öland in the early 2000s, she has focused her creativity on small collections of written thoughts with an adult address. In these collections, she shares observations from her countryside walks and reflects on her studies of classic philosophers and talks with her friends.
In a review of one of these collections, Jag är som en lövsalsfågel (I am Like a Bowerbird, 2018), Svenska Dagbladet critic Malena Jansson wrote the following: “She is not a fairy tale aunt and has never been one. As a writer, she is as perceptive as she is unsentimental, and with an infinite curiosity to describe a very small part of the world – and thus actually succeeding to say an awful lot about human living conditions.”
Louise Lagerström (2019)
(translated by Jan Lumholdt)
Sources: Värvet #139, VI Läser 2013, Språktidningen 2014.
Main profession: Screenwriter
Mamman och den vilda bebin (1983)
Det stora barnkalaset (1981)
Om – Åke “Limpan” Andersson (1974)
Eva Erikssons tecknade pärlor (1996)
Mamman och den vilda bebin (1983)
Mamman och den vilda bebin (1983)
Mamman och den vilda bebin (Barnbok, 1980)
Alban. Popmuffa för små hundar (Barnbok, 1972)
Loranga, Masarin och Dartanjang (Barnbok, 1969)
Kråkbegravningen (Sång, 1969)