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.
Sweden has lost a giant. Gunilla Bergström, who wrote and drew the fantastic Alfons Åberg books, passed away. My kid, along with millions of others, loved her stories so much. Hard to think of a more wonderful legacy for any human being. pic.twitter.com/XOvX4oRaXo
— Christian Christensen (@ChrChristensen) August 26, 2021
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.