The Lecture of Marit Törnqvist in the first Read with Me Conference
On 11 November 2016, Marit Törnqvist, Dutch-Sweddish dexterous illustrator lectured in Read with Me Conference, at the conference hall of National Library and Archives of I.R. of Iran for people interested in children books and reading promotion. In this lecture, on the subject of “Big Themes for Small People”, she talked about her experience on sharing difficult issues with children through picture books. She also shared her feelings and experiences about her works.
Here, you can read the full Lecture of Marit Törnqvist in Read with Me conference:
Hello to you all.
I’ve visited Iran before, in 2004. I came with a Swedish delegation for a literature festival here in Tehran and gave a talk about my collaboration with Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren. I held workshops for children. It was a busy programme and every evening we met new people. One evening I sat at the same restaurant table as Zohreh Ghaeni. We got talking and that conversation has really never stopped. Rarely have I ever met anyone who was working so passionately with children and children’s culture. Although I’d already been creating children’s books for almost twenty years, after that conversation I understood their importance better than ever.
I got involved with your ‘Read with Me’ project, from a distance. I tried to acquire free rights in good picture books, and I began a dialogue with illustrators in Iran who were illustrating stories for the project. Not long ago, Bigger than a Dream by Flemish writer Jef Aerts was published as part of ‘Read With Me’. I’m delighted to be back in this country and to have the chance to learn a lot more about your project over the coming weeks. This evening I’d like to try to tell you something about my work, my thoughts about it and my working methods, and how children have reacted. But first I’ll tell you a bit more about my own background. Childhood is so crucial, after all, to who you become.
I was born in Uppsala in 1964. Uppsala is a university town in Sweden, where my father came from. I spent the first five years of my life there. My parents lived through literature. My mother, who was Dutch, worked as a translator into Dutch, of Astrid Lindgren’s work among other things. My father taught Scandinavian languages and literature and was also a specialist on the theater. I grew up with books and plays.
My father’s parents had died young, so I didn’t grow up in a house furnished in the modern Swedish style but in dark rooms full of antique furniture that had once belonged to my Swedish grandparents. We spent the light Swedish summers outdoors, however. From the first of May until the end of September we left the dark flat behind and lived in a tiny house in a valley surrounded by forest. My mother translated books there and my brother and I played outside. My father drove out to join us at weekends and we were very happy. We washed in the lake because we didn’t have running water.
When I was five years old my father was offered a professorship in Amsterdam, so suddenly we moved to the Netherlands. There were three of us children by then. I couldn’t speak a word of Dutch and I was bullied in class. But I discovered something. If I wrote just the letters (I could write really beautifully) or drew, children were nicer to me. They’d come and stand by my desk and say, ‘Ooh, she can draw really beautifully! She can write beautifully too!’
No wonder I drew and wrote more and more.
When I was nine my parents bought a farm in Småland. That’s the province the famous writer Astrid Lindgren came from and we spent all our holidays there.
At the farm I was happy. I helped the neighbors with farm work and I built a shack that completely belonged to us three children. I was allowed to be whoever I wanted to be. It was in Småland that the foundations were laid for everything I did later. I painted, sewed, made doll’s houses, created things out of clay, and made landscapes of stones and moss – for days, sometimes weeks at a time. And I wandered through the woods, rode on haycarts and washed clothes in the lake.
Eventually, I went to the art academy in Amsterdam, where I studied illustration for five years. That wasn’t an easy time either since Amsterdam was wild and furious in the 1980s. Many of my fellow students were on drugs and there were fights with the police because almost everyone was living in a squat. It was the punk era. I was a little afraid of my fellow students and I took refuge in my work. Instead of partying I spent many evenings drawing musicians in the conservatorium. It was across from my house and you could go to concerts there free of charge. In short, I lived through drawings and stories. And that has never changed. In both Sweden and the Netherlands.
But after I graduated things happened quickly. I worked for clients in both countries and actually made my debut with a picture book for Astrid Lindgren. I was only twenty-three.
I have studios in both countries, too, because I live in the center of Amsterdam but also in the middle of a forest in Sweden. You can find both those worlds in my work.
When I was little I liked ‘sad’ books. I enjoyed reading about people who were facing difficulties. Books in which people died or were living through wars. Books about people who were very ill. I think that was because life was so easy at home. Everything was always good. We had enough money and a nice house. We were healthy. But I knew I couldn’t take that for granted. My father had lost his mother to cancer when he was twelve and my mother had been reduced to eating tulip bulbs during the war. By reading sad stories I had the feeling I was learning about real life, and perhaps also about aspects of life that frightened me. I had the feeling that I was practicing for the life that would come my way one day.
One of my favorite books was The Red Bird. It’s the story of Mattias and Anna, orphans who come to work on a farm. They have to work very hard, they get only cold potatoes to eat and they’re not allowed to play. They’re deprived of all freedom. But fortunately, there is one ray of hope. In the winter they’ll be allowed to go to school for three weeks. When they finally do go to school, it turns out they have to walk there in the bitter cold, and school is not what they expected. They’re laughed at by the other children and the teacher hits Mattias because he can’t sit still.
They reach their lowest point when Anna stands in the cold winter forest and tells Mattias she wants to die. At precisely the moment she says it, they see a red bird. The red bird takes them to a paradise where everything is just the way they’ve always wanted, with light, freedom, play and food. And above all, a mother.
What makes the book about the red bird so special is that it describes the worst things a child can imagine, or perhaps hardly dares to imagine: the loss of your parents and your freedom; hunger and hopelessness. But at the moment when everything seems hopeless, there is suddenly something that brings light – a bird. Or maybe hope. That’s what makes it a book every child can cope with. Many years later I made a picture book of The Red Bird.
I had two small children myself at the time. When my eldest daughter was three years old we were walking along a forest path in Sweden when we saw a dead snake. It was the first time my daughter had encountered death. She asked me whether all animals could die, and I said yes. We passed a neighbor’s house and she asked whether that meant our neighbor could die too. Yes, I said, when he’s old. She went very quiet. After a while, she asked whether that meant grandma could die. Yes, I said. She could. But grandma is still very fit, so that will probably not be for a long time yet. She thought about that for a long time. Can a child die too? She asked. Yes, I said, but that hardly ever happens. She looked at me and said adamantly: If I die a baby will come into your tummy that’s exactly like me. And if you die I’ll come to a place and there will be a mother, and that mother will be just like you.
It was a very special conversation that I’ll never forget. There were questions she preferred to answer herself. And she gave the same answer as Astrid Lindgren in The Red Bird.
My fascination with stories that have a dark undertone stayed with me. I’m convinced that for children and parents it’s good to read books that don’t deal only with the lighter sides of life. There are many other subjects, things parents don’t find it easy to talk about but that they do want to mention. Using a few examples, I’d like to look in more detail at some of the books I’ve made that deal with big subjects.
In 1993 I started working on a story that was about myself. I wasn’t particularly happy at the time and I was alone a great deal. It was as if I was looking at the world without being part of it. I drew little pictures of my own life and things I experienced. I wasn’t thinking about children when I drew them; it was more a kind of private diary. It was about loneliness, love and desire.
When the story was finished I didn’t really know what to do with it, but I showed it to my publisher. He said he thought it was a beautiful story and he wanted to publish it. ‘But who is it for, then?’ I asked. The story was so simple that a small child could understand it, but it was about some very adult feelings. We’ll publish it for people, he said. For children and adults. Which is what happened. Very soon, reactions began to pour in. Adults seemed to find it downright gloomy, with that girl who sailed away all on her own at the end. But children saw it very differently.
I visited a school in a poor city district in the Netherlands, a school where many of the children came from families in which domestic violence took place, parents were unemployed, and there was poverty. These were families that didn’t connect with society. The children were around twelve years old.
We sat in a circle and I told the story of a girl sitting on a pole in the sea. How she watches life go by and can never connect with it. Until one day someone comes over to her but then disappears again. I told of how she starts to build like crazy because she wants to get the man back. But the house collapses because it’s all standing on just that one pole. And how she eventually sails away on a raft she’s made, towards the light.
The children started talking. They told of friendships that went wrong and how they kept ending up alone. Sitting there on their chairs in a circle it seemed as if each of them was sitting on his or her own pole in the sea. I asked what they thought about the story’s ending. They were wise.
‘Moving is better than sitting still.’
‘You have to steer to be able to live.’
‘If you build a house on one pole you know it’s going to collapse.’
‘Only after your house has fallen down can you make a raft out of the wood.’
We had beautiful conversations about life. And suddenly a bond existed between us all – we were all sitting on that pole and we all wanted to get off it. And without noticing, we were all busily trying.
From that moment I knew that I wanted to make books for people. Big subjects were fine for little people, as long as there was hope at the end. A red bird or a bright horizon.
About ten years after Small Story About Love, my book What Nobody Expected was published in the Netherlands.
Again I had written a very simple story and made a series of small drawings to go with it. From the beginning, I knew this would be a book for people, but for grown-ups, it would be challenging, recognizable and realistic, while for children it would be strange and unreal. I created the book because I was feeling a bit despondent. I was so often the observer. I saw people fall into holes but I couldn’t help them climb out. I wanted to make a book about our society. How we support each other but also let each other down.
The book is about us. We’re busy with everything and all running flat out, almost all the time. But in this story, there’s one girl who happens to run a bit faster and so reaches a hole a bit sooner. She notices it too late and falls in. My book is about how people react to that, what they do, or indeed don’t do. First, a wave of solidarity and empathy breaks out, just as is happening in Europe now in response to the stream of refugees. People try to help, and when they don’t manage to get the girl out, they write letters to her.
But then comes the moment when people decide it is pointless trying to help and many give up. At first, they lie awake at night thinking of her fate but soon they forget her.
Not everyone, fortunately. One man keeps on coming. He gives her his red jumper and plays music at the edge of the hole. A boy discovers her by chance when his ball disappears into the same hole.
Eventually, the girl gets out. She climbs up by herself. But there are other forces that help her. The never-ending support of the man, who has perhaps fallen in love with her. And the boy, who struggles to get his ball back, which in the end proves her salvation.
When she gets up to the top, it turns out that no one recognizes her any longer and she disappears into the crowd.
I visited schools with the book. We talked about the girl and the people who forget after a while that she’s in the hole. A boy of ten started telling me about his uncle, who’d had an accident. At first, all his friends came every day to help, but after a while, no one came anymore, although he was now disabled. I asked the children what they found most difficult about the story. Some children thought it was terrible that no one recognized her when she came up out of the hole. They’d helped her at the start. Had they forgotten her already? We talked about that. Imagine everyone had recognized her. What would that have been like for her? Imagine if everyone said: Look, that’s the girl who was in the hole!
Some children thought it was easier for the girl if no one knew. She could simply start a new life. And the man would search for her – that’s what the end of the story said – so who knows, maybe they’d eventually be happy together.
Before we knew it, we were talking about very important things. How do we help each other? Does it matter that some people start thinking more about themselves again after a while? Why are we so busy, and is that good or bad? Those were very interesting conversations. Young children are often great philosophers.
But what’s even more important is that children, just like adults, need to talk about the difficult things in life. And unfortunately far from all parents do that with their children. Sometimes for lack of time, but just as often because they don’t know where to start. And if the parents don’t have those conversations, children shut themselves away with their own thoughts, because in the playground or the park you don’t talk about death.
One evening in 2013 I found a story by Jef Aerts, Bigger than a Dream, in my mailbox. Perhaps because I thought about death so often when I was a child, I very much wanted to make a book in which someone dies or is dead. Jef’s book was just such a book.
The central character is a little boy, whose sister died before he was born. He knows her only from a photo on the wall, put up there next to a photo of him. He actually grows up in his parents’ grief. He can’t help that. He can’t bring his sister back – he never even knew her. All this is very difficult for him.
When I read the story, I immediately thought: this book isn’t just about the loss of a sister. It’s about growing up in your parents’ history. You can’t change anything at all about it. Every child struggles with that. My father had lost his mother when he was a child; my mother had been through the war and her parents’ divorce during the most difficult year of the war. I grew up in their past. My father mourned all his life for his lost mother. Just like the sister in Bigger than a Dream, her photo was on the wall above our dining table. I’d been given her name, Marit, but I couldn’t replace her no matter what I did.
I was very moved by Jef’s book. Because even if death is perhaps the darkest theme for a children’s book, Jef describes it lightly. What happens in the story is that the sister comes to him one night. She comes to fetch him because she wants them to go on an adventure together. They get their bicycles and set off. They cycle past all the places that were important during her life. The woods, but also the hospital and the graveyard. The little brother asks all the questions he can think of; it’s not every day that you get to speak to a dead person. And his sister is daring. Because she’s ‘already dead, after all,’ she’s not afraid to cycle down a hill with her legs on the handlebars. Nothing can happen to her anymore!
As a reader, you go with them on their adventure, and the little boy in the book asks all the questions you want to ask as a child. First, he asks his mother: ‘What’s dying?’
His mother gives him an abstract answer: dying is a bit like dreaming only bigger. That answer is reassuring in a way. We all know what dreaming is; it can happen in daytime or at night. You’re in a different world. So dying is just like that – we know it already really, only it’s bigger. At the end of the book, the boy comes back to her after meeting his sister. And he repeats what she told him: ‘She was bigger than a dream.’ Which says everything and nothing at the same time. Because even though we know nothing about death, we can talk about it.
The questions to his sister are more concrete: Don’t you need a skeleton when you’re dead? He doesn’t get a real answer to those questions either, but what the young reader feels is that it’s alright to ask. You can ask anything. Even if there aren’t any answers.
In the end, the little boy wakes up relieved. Something has changed. He’s met his sister. He can feel his parents’ grief.
Usually, there’s a moment somewhere in a book that makes me decide to illustrate it. The illustrating of a book often takes more than a year and in all that time I live with the story, so it’s an important choice for me to make. Actually, it’s very simple: the story has to touch my heart. That sounds a bit ethereal, but there has to be something in the story that has to do with me and my own life.
That’s what happened with this story. At a certain point brother and sister come together in a park and there’s a boat. The sister goes and sits in it and unties a rope. It’s as if she wants to leave. That’s when grief comes to the surface.
Suddenly I felt myself growing sad. And it wasn’t ordinary sadness. It was something I’d always felt. It was old dried-out sadness. It covered the walls of our house like wallpaper. Sometimes you found it in Mum’s soup, in the jobs Dad did around the house or in a wooly hat for when it’s cold.
I made this drawing not just gray but misty. You can feel a sort of infinity. Dying is to me rather like sailing off into the fog.
Jef Aerts’ sister died before he was born. Jef is that little boy. And I knew it immediately when I read the story. Why? Because only someone who has had that experience himself could write in such light tones about death. That’s what makes it such a beautiful book. Jef has the courage to look at death.
As soon as I knew this was Jef’s own story, I also knew that the girl had really existed. And the church. And the park. And the lake. What do you do then, as an artist?
I usually want to feel free when I draw. I like to be able to think up my own images to go with a text. They may even be images from my own childhood that have nothing to do with the writer of the story. But it was different in this case. I had to consider Jef’s parents, who had watched their child die. I wanted this book to be a memorial to their daughter.
I emailed Jef and asked if I could see a photo of his sister. He said yes. I put it up on the wall. Then I asked whether I could go and visit him. Whether one day we could take a ride to the church and the park and the lake and the woods and the graveyard. That’s what we did. I walked through the fields for two days with a sketchpad.
Everywhere there were flocks of birds, black over the fields, white over the lake. I imagined they were gliding between heaven and earth. They got into the book, first at the start and the end, then in other places too. Birds are strange creatures; they seem to know what we don’t know. They have something immortal about them, and something comforting. The book took shape around the things I’d seen in Belgium, things from my own memories of Sweden and things in my head.
As an artist, you can literally color in a story. I had to think hard before starting on Bigger than a Dream. The story takes place in one night, but if I made all the pictures dark it would be too gloomy. I decided to paint what I saw in front of me. And like in a dream, colours and atmospheres change. At the beginning the girl shines, almost like an angel. Later in the book she no longer does. By then they know each other and they’ve become equals.
While I was making the illustrations something horrible happened at home. We had a rabbit that spent summer with us in Sweden and winter in the Netherlands. It travelled with us and slept in hotels. One night in Sweden we were woken by screeching. The rabbit, which had never made a sound before, had been bitten to death by a pine marten. The children were very sad and so were we. I gave it a place in the book – to comfort my own children.
Jef’s mother cried when I presented her with the first copy. She cried for the little girl with the ponytails that was her own little girl and the church that was her church.
A lot of my friends were at the book launch in the Netherlands, and afterwards the stories started to come. It turned out that my daughter’s best friend, whose mother I knew well, had a brother who died before she was born. She’d never told anyone, and neither had her mother.
In the weeks after the book came out, one ‘hidden story’ after another emerged. From children and adults, in bookshops, libraries and schools. Children told me about their grief for their dead grandpas and grandmas, cats and dogs, and also, quite regularly, about dead parents or brothers or sisters. Jef’s book brought all those stories up to the surface. In classrooms children found other children who had been through the same thing. Or were moved by each other’s stories. They got to know each other better.
Meanwhile, Bigger than a Dream is exploring the world. It has been published in Sweden, Germany, Denmark, China, Korea, Japan and now in Iran. It’s great to have a success, but best of all is that so many children will have a chance to tell their own hidden stories, after reading this book.