More Notes from the Other North: Guest post by Ann Dixon

Since the last time I was in Stockholm a new museum has opened. Actually, the word “museum” doesn’t quite fit; let’s add the phrase “cultural activity center.” It’s called Junibacken, and here’s the thing: it’s based entirely on Swedish children’s literature.

You’ve heard of Pippi Longstocking, right? Well, Pippi is just the tip of Astrid Lindgren’s creative iceberg, which is itself just a chunk — though a sizeable one — off the floe of Swedish children‘s lit. The Brothers Lionheart, Emil in the Soup Tureen, Ronia the Robber’s Daughter, The Children of Noisy Village are only some of Lindgren’s titles that have been translated into English and dozens of other languages. You may also have seen books by Swedish authors and illustrators such as John Bauer, Elsa Beskow, Tove Jansson, Christina Björk, Lena Anderson, Barbro Lindgren, Gunilla Bergström, Sven Nordqvist, and Inger and Lasse Sandberg in the U.S.

Junibacken began as an idea from Staffan Götestam, an actor who played numerous roles from Lindgren’s stories for Swedish films. He proposed a museum centered around a train ride through Lindgren’s fiction, but also including a playground, displays, bookstore, and café. Lindgren’s response: great idea, but only if other Swedish children’s authors and illustrators were well-represented. And no naming it after her!

Thus Junibacken was born, its name taken from the setting of Madicken, another Lindgren story. It opened in 1996, inaugurated by Sweden’s Royal Family. Now 400,000 visitors each year step into this story-world.

Recently, I was one of them.

In the Storybook Square, I watched dozens of children at play in various story settings. They clambered up Alfie Atkin’s tower, cooked in Moominmama’s kitchen, climbed into Mulle Meck the inventor’s homebuilt airplane, visited Pettson and his cat Findus, and milked a cow with Mama Moo and the Crow.

I rode the Story Train, moving through sets from Lindgren’s tales, each complete with characters, detailed scenery, lighting, dialogue, music, and narrative recorded by Lindgren.(I chose the English telling so as not to miss anything, but could also have requested Chinese, Russian, or numerous other languages.)

In the Gallery I studied exhibits, drawings, paintings, photos and facts about Lindgren and the illustrators who worked on her books. When I walked — carefully, to avoid bumping my head — through Villa Villakulla, Pippi’s crooked yellow house, kids all around me climbed, slid, jumped, and played Pippi games like “Don’t Touch the Floor!”

I was too big to take the slide into the Elsa Beskow fairy tale room, so I resigned myself to the adult entrance, a wide but otherwise ordinary doorway. Beneath blueberry bushes as tall as trees, kids rode a pony-sized mouse, poked a giant orange (a.k.a. the Sun Egg), and sat beneath overgrown toadstools. Upstairs, in Sweden’s largest children’s theater, actors and musicians were performing to raucous laughter and applause.

I spent about an hour in the large, well-stocked children’s bookstore, which includes American children’s books translated into English and Swedish books translated in English, German, French, and other languages. Finally, I headed for the café, which serves several classic Swedish meals (children’s plates available, of course) plus an irresistible smorgasbord of pastries. I highly recommend the apple cake, accompanied by vanilla sauce and strong coffee. The outdoor, waterside patio off the café is another plus.

Why do I describe all this? Because I want something like it in Alaska! And I want to lift your writerly spirits with a vision. Just imagine how lovely it feels to be surrounded by dozens — hundreds — of children and adults interacting on multiple levels with stories! To paraphrase Tor Svea, who builds the exhibitions at Junibacken, visitors to Junibacken are living in the books.

And I might add — playing. What more could a writer wish for?

by Ann Dixon

3 thoughts on “More Notes from the Other North: Guest post by Ann Dixon”

  1. Real interaction with stories! And play. Nothing online could ever compare. I still remember visiting something called Colleen Moore's Fairy Castle in Chicago when I was young. It made a bigger impression than Disneyland. Rides are fun, but they don't let you interact.

  2. What really impressed me about Junibacken, besides what a fun place it is, was the way that Swedish children's books are recognized as part of their collective culture. The closest parallels I can think of in the U.S. might be Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are and Dr. Seuss. Still, those books/authors don't permeate U.S. culture in the same way. I hate to say it, but Disney is probably the best comparison.

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