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CULTURE

Why one of Sweden’s most famous children’s book series is still so relevant

Gunilla Bergström's beautiful children's books about Alfons Åberg send a powerful message that even adults would do well to heed, writes journalism professor Christian Christensen.

Why one of Sweden's most famous children's book series is still so relevant
Gunilla Bergström, the author who wrote the children's book series about Alfons Åberg, or Alfie Atkins as he is known in English. Photo: Lars Pehrson/SvD/TT

Few pieces of art sear themselves into our minds quite like books for small children. Anyone who has read the same story over and over to a child at bedtime knows how deep and profound can be the relationship between the characters and a young person.

And, of course, between the characters and the parent reading the story. The books, the words, the pictures, the stories, the worn and folded covers all become woven into the tapestry of your life. The security your child gets from hearing a beloved story, and the beauty the parent witnesses as the child drifts off to sleep in the company of a well-known literary friend.

So, it was with immense sadness that I heard of the death of Swedish children’s author Gunilla Bergström, the author and illustrator of 26 wonderful Alfons Åberg books (or, as he is known in English-language versions, Alfie Atkins). In the 50 years since the first Alfons/Alfie book came out, the series has been translated into 30 languages and sold 10 million copies worldwide, including 5.5 million in Sweden alone (no small number in a country of just 10 million). He is a Swedish icon.

Bergström’s genius was her ability to capture the joy, sadness, tension and wonder of childhood. Alfons/Alfie lived alone with his father, yet no explanation was ever given about what had happened to his mother. In real life, many things go unspoken and unexplained, and it was for the children who loved Alfons/Alfie to complete that part of his story.

Bergström herself said that she refused to tell children “sweet lies” in her books, and that she wanted to present “true stories about real people, just the way we are in daily life. Mini-drama at the psychological level”. When some readers criticised the fact that the father in the Alfons/Alfie stories smoked a pipe, thus sending a bad message to children, Bergström responded: “Pappa Åberg is no role model. He’s a p-e-r-s-o-n. I think it’s nice to present people with flaws. Why should all adults be perfect in children’s books when they aren’t in real life?”

The tone and feeling of Bergström’s work always reminded me of the “Peanuts” strip created by the legendary cartoonist Charles Schulz. In his lead character Charlie Brown, Schulz found meaning and depth in the small details and events of everyday life, and never shied away from highlighting the fact that children could have complex, melancholy internal lives.

This didn’t alienate young readers, rather it told those young readers that Bergström and Schulz understood them, and refused to talk down to them. That they would be told the truth, no matter what. Bergström, like Schulz, never hesitated to treat the young characters in her work, and the children who were reading or hearing her books, with respect. To present them as equals. To see them as members of a society.

The Alfons/Alfie stories also send a powerful message about the current era of disinformation, conspiracy theories and politics of hate and exclusion. Those corrosive elements of contemporary society are utterly dependent upon cynicism, alienation, dishonesty and mythology: things not only missing from the message of Alfons/Alfie, but actively combatted through Bergström’s reinforcement of the inherent value and dignity of every person and of the preciousness and value of truth.

It’s human to be scared or confused, Bergström told kids, but with knowledge and effort some of that fear and confusion will subside. Many adults would do well to hear that message.

Yes, these are books meant for children, but the fact that we see art produced for our younger citizens as somehow less serious or meaningful than art created for adults is exactly the type of self-centered, myopic worldview Bergström’s work attempted to shatter. Creating stories, loved by millions of children, about the simple act of being human is a wonderful legacy.

Christian Christensen is a professor of journalism at Stockholm University in Sweden.

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SWEDEN AND INDIA

IndiskFika: The Indian dance group taking Sweden by storm

IndiskFika are a group of Indians in Sweden with a shared passion: dance. Two of the group's leaders tell The Local how they came to be finalists in Talang, one of Sweden's top TV talent shows.

IndiskFika: The Indian dance group taking Sweden by storm

“We’ve been very passionate about dance from childhood,” says co-founder Ranjithkumar Govindan, who shortens his name to Ranjith. “I’ve been dancing from childhood, like first grade. So once we got into our professional lives and career, I wanted to continue my passion.”

“Like Ranjith, I have been dancing since the age of three, ” adds Aradhana Varma, who joined the group in 2020. She’s been competing in and winning dance competitions back in her hometown of Mumbai ever since. 

With just a handful of members back in 2019, the group now numbers over 50, including dancers, videographers, choreographers, editors, and production crew, and they are still growing.

Listen to Aradhana Varna from IndiskFika on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

Govindan says started by dancing at various events in Stockholm alongside fellow Indian dance enthusiasts before the idea came to form the troupe. “Then, one fine day, me and one of my friends, Vijay [Veeramanivanna], said ‘why don’t we do a cover song?'” he remembers. 

“He’s very passionate about camera work, cinematography. I’m very passionate about dance,” Govindan says of the collaboration. 

Their initial idea was to take advantage of their location in to shoot dance routines out in Swedish nature, in the same way that Bollywood movies sometimes shoot routines against European scenes such as Swiss mountainsides or Italian plazas. 

“Indians are very famous for movies, like Bollywood, so we wanted to do a cover video of a particular song from a movie which was going to be released. Since we are living in Sweden, we have plenty of opportunities to cover good locations and nature, so that was an idea,” he explains.

The name ‘IndiskFika’, (“Indian fika”, a fika being a Swedish term for a coffee break in the middle of the day) came from Govindan and Veeramanivanna’s wish to combine Swedish and Indian cultures. 

IndiskFika performing in the Talang talent show. Photo: TV4

“We started with five to seven people in 2019, that was the first thing we did, and we did a shoot and edited everything, then we realised that if we wanted to release it, we should have a name,” Govindan says.

“So we started thinking ‘what name should we pick for this team?’. We came up with the idea IndiskFika. Everyone knows about fika in Swedish, right?” 

Their videos, some of which have over a million views, became popular both among Indians at home and among members of the Indian community in Sweden, whose interest helped the group grow further.

More and more Indians living in Stockholm started asking to join, and soon they were doing live performances:  one at the Chalmers University in Gothenburg, and another at the Diwali celebrations held by the Västerås Indian Association. 

When the pandemic hit, IndiskFika didn’t let it stop them. They started planning a digital one-year anniversary for the group, and began looking for other groups to collaborate with. 

That was how Govindan began collaborating with Varma, who had been performing with a different dance team. “I had been performing at various events like Namaste Stockholm with a different dance team based in Stockholm since 2017, but during pandemic, everything had come to a halt since it was a tough time for all of us,” she explains.

When new people joined IndiskFika, it gave the group a new impetus. “That’s when the boost started,” Govindan remembers. “We became stronger and stronger. So, so many things happened.”

IndiskFika first came to the attention of ordinary Swedes with an article in Ingenjörenthe members’ magazine for engineering union Sveriges Ingenjörer. Many of the group’s members are IT engineers or students at KTH, the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. “They did an article about us, about the engineers continuing their passion for dance, so that reached a more Swedish audience,” Govindan says. 

This led to more in-person performances, which in turn caught the eye of the producers responsible for Talang at Sweden’s broadcaster TV4.

“The Talang people said ‘we read about you and we’ve gone through all your YouTube videos, why don’t you come and participate in Talang 2022?’. The rest of the story you know. We participated in Talang, and we got a golden buzzer from David Batra in the prelims, so we went direct to the finals.”

David Batra, a Swedish comedian with an Indian father, is known for comedy series such as Kvarteret Skatan and Räkfrossa, as well as Världens sämsta indier (“World’s Worst Indian”), a series where he visits India, alongside public broadcaster SVT’s India correspondent Malin Mendel, and tries his hand at living and working in the country.

Batra is also one of four judges on Talang, whose golden buzzer meant that the dance team were awarded one of eight places in the final – four are chosen by votes and four are chosen by the Talang judges.

The group were among the top eight teams in the finals on March 18th, but for Indians in Sweden, reaching the final was a win in itself. They were invited for a fika with India’s ambassador to Sweden, where they were treated to both traditional Indian and Swedish treats.

The IndiskFika troupe on stage at TV4’s studios. Photo: TV4

Many of the group’s members work full-time alongside dancing, which can be difficult at times.

“It’s not easy to be so dedicated by spending extra effort after office hours, with hectic weekend schedules for rehearsals especially when everyone in the team has a full-time job,” Varma says. “There’s a lot of things that take place in the background from logistics to costumes, hall bookings, co-ordinating everyone’s availability, social media activities and so on.”

Like many foreigners, though, Govindan and Varma have taken their time adapting to life in Sweden. 

“All I knew about Sweden was that it was one of the cold and dark countries,” Varma says. “Eventually you start liking it, and you know, everything is worth it for the summers that you get here. The fika tradition, the amazing work/life balance, the nature, that’s the best part that we have here.”

“I didn’t have much of an idea about Sweden,” Govindan agrees. “The temperature, where I come from, throughout the year is between 25 to 40 degrees. In terms of temperature, nature, the people, everything is different.”

“India is very rich in culture, right?” Varma says when asked about the differences between Swedish and Indian culture. “We have a lot of colours and a lot of different flavours and you know, that’s the kind of performance we gave. That was the plan: to give a very energetic, powerful, and colourful performance.”

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