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[Monday Reading | IYL Finds] Depression, Domestic Violence, and Despair in Norwegian Picturebooks


It's Monday! What Are You Reading

Myra here.

It’s Monday, What are You Reading is a meme hosted by Jen from Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee and Ricki from Unleashing Readers (new host of Monday reading: Kathryn T at Book Date). Since two of our friends, Linda from Teacher Dance and Tara from A Teaching Life have been joining this meme for quite awhile now, we thought of joining this warm and inviting community.

I was going through a catalog at the International Youth Library last year that contained the works of Danish husband and wife tandem Oscar K and Dorte Karrebaek, when I chanced upon another amazing husband and wife tandem, this time, Norwegian author and artist Gro Dahle and Svein Nyhus. I was hooked since then and grabbed all their books that I could possibly find. I am afraid that these picturebooks are not available in English, but regardless I still wish to share them with you, because they are worth finding and exploring. I used Google Translate and typed each and every word for me to understand the stories. While I am sure there are limitations to this, I will take what I can, until I learn to speak the language.

Håret til Mamma (Mamma’s Hair)

Written by: Gro Dahle Illustrated by: Svein Nyhus
Published by: Cappelen, 2007
ISBN-10: 8202269806
ISBN-13: 9788202269807
Borrowed from the International Youth Library Munich. Book photos taken by me.

This book features a young girl named Emma and her mother – “the world’s prettiest mother, the world’s finest mom” – with the golden hair.

And so the story begins innocuously enough with a mother and a child who are evidently devoted to each other. However, as the story progresses, the reader can see that it isn’t such an idyllic portrait. The father was also invisible in the story, there was no mention of him anywhere. And Emma’s mother seems to have not-too-good days, where all she does is lie on the couch and cry endlessly.

Emma vacillates between being angry at her mother and being remorseful for causing her deeper pain. Until she decides to take matter in her own hands and brush the tangled knots free from her mother’s once-golden hair to make the sunshine in her hair come back.

Within the forest that is her Mother’s hair, Emma discovers an old man who is wearing glasses. When Emma asks what he is doing inside the tangled thicket of hair, he says that he is also helping her mother out, holding a rake, to tame the tufts of hair, because as he claims, a brush is not enough.

The presence of an elderly wise person seems to be a recurring theme in most of Dahle and Nyhus’ narratives. There is an allegorical feel to it that takes the story one level deeper, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions as to who the old man could possibly be, or if he even exists at all.

Clearly, Emma’s mother is suffering from depression, but that is never articulated here – just viscerally felt through both Emma’s anguish and the stellar images that tear at one’s insides. I am in awe at how these picturebook creators manage to capture something so raw and so real in such a subtle and symbolic manner.

Bak Mumme bor Moni (Behind Mum, Moni Lives)

Written by: Gro Dahle Illustrated by: Svein Nyhus
Published by: Cappelen, 2000
ISBN: 8202190711
Borrowed from the International Youth Library Munich. Book photos taken by me.

Unlike the first picturebook that starts off a bit sweetly and innocently enough, this one jumps right into things oftentimes being not what they seem. Even while things appear deceptively calm, there is a sense of foreboding that is built into the narrative. As the first paragraph goes:

“Sometimes the Blue Mountain is only the Blue Mountain far away. Other times it is black and too close. Sometimes the White House is only the White House, big and bright and light as of paper, sometimes the White House is ugly and dark.

Sometimes Mom is just Mum. Then Mum is sitting in the grey chair under the window, or Mum is in the Yellow Bed in the room. It’s nice to just be Mum. It’s calm.”

When Mother is not just Mum, Moni comes – and she rides a big black horse with sixteen legs, a black horse that does not stand still. Or sometimes Moni comes in a big truck with a hundred and fifty wheels that cracks and smashes everything in sight.

More than despair, there is unremitting rage here that refuses to be tamed. Moni hides within Mum, and Mum is clearly scared that Moni will come anytime soon. Because Moni is way older than Mum. Moni is a hundred million years old and does not speak because she has no words, just flames and black ash and smoke shooting from her mouth:

When Moni is gone and Mum is spent, she apologizes profusely and is kind and is sad when others are upset. Inside Mum’s head lies a long corridor with a bed that creaks in a six-seater room. It doesn’t say exactly what went on in that room, but soon enough, Moni returns to stamp out everything, with the smell of gas and smoke.

While an old avuncular creature is not found in this story to set things right, Mum has to learn how to tame the wild black horse with sixteen legs and feed it sugar cubes to appease it.

Because in the end, only Mother can tame Moni that lives inside her.

Sinna Mann (Angry Man)

Written by: Gro Dahle Illustrated by: Svein Nyhus
Published by: Cappelen, 2003
ISBN-10: 8202231167
ISBN-13: 9788202231163
Borrowed from the International Youth Library Munich. Book photos taken by me.

This book was my first introduction to the strange power couple that is Gro Dahle and Svein Nyhus – and the book that I hunted down with my friend who lives in Bergen. I just know that I have to have a copy of this book. I wanted to share with my teacher students that there are intense picturebooks such as these that exist somewhere in the world, Norway being one of those places.

While the story begins with the family smiling, one can see hints of darknesses here with the hammer incongruously placed near the fish bowl. See Father’s hands all red, the smudges in his clothing, the shadows in his cheeks, and the grey spectre behind him; while the wisp of a mother holds out an almond cake, and the young boy named Boj looks on.

Soon enough, for some inexplicable reason, Father gets upset. Then he turns into the Sinna Mann, the angry man:

While Google Translate, I am sure, does not fully capture everything, it still managed to convey that sense of terror – and how Boj racks his brain repeatedly whether he has done something wrong to make Dad so angry. See also how the mother covers Boj with her entire body.

This image alone makes me think about whether these picturebooks will be translated at all in English. Clearly, the European market pushes the boundaries way further than the English-speaking market ever could. It also raises questions I am sure among a lot of librarians and gatekeepers of children’s literature such as parents and teachers regarding its “suitability.”

As a clinician, however, I am just grateful that fearless picturebooks like these exist. I am also gratified by how Gro Dahle and Svein Nyhus usually end their stories in such a credible manner: there are no neat resolutions, no clear happy endings, but always always in such a hopeful and believable note …

… a recognition that within each one of us lies multiple fragments of being, and the challenge is how to integrate those parts within ourselves to make us whole again.

8 comments on “[Monday Reading | IYL Finds] Depression, Domestic Violence, and Despair in Norwegian Picturebooks

  1. I really like the illustrations on all these. They’re very expressive for the story they’re trying to convey. Depression, domestic violence, and so on, are tough subjuects to tackle in picture books, but these books seem to do a god job.

    My It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? post.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow! These are some powerful picture books today. I understand why some people might have trouble with their suitability, yet children live these kinds of realities every day.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I absolutely agree with you, I doubt these pictures books would ever be translated into English, which is such a terrible shame. Children need to know that they are not alone, that there’s nothing to be ashamed of, that their parents’ problems are not their fault, and picture books can make a world of difference in a child’s life.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. These books are stunning, Myra – I will never see them on book shelves here, because the American market is definitely not ready for books that show raw emotion and trauma… we aren’t brave here. And more is the pity.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow. I love these topics are being discussed. I hope they find the perfect readers.


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