Born in 1874 Elsa Beskow published 40 odd books in her lifetime, many featuring children exploring fairy tale worlds where respect for nature plays a major role. She is credited with having been the first author to bring Swedish children’s literature to an international readership and her books are nowadays particularly popular with followers of Steiner and Waldorf education methods.
Two of Elskow’s books feature in 1001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before you Grow Up, Peter in Blueberry Land and Children of the Forest (Tomtebobarnen in Swedish, a word I just love the look and sound of!) and it is the latter I bring you a review of today.
A family of forest people live under the curling roots of an old pine tree, deep in a forest. They go about their lives playing, exploring, observing nature and overcoming danger and the book follows their simple and happy lives through the course of the four seasons. They make friends with frogs, fight (and kill) a snake, collect mushrooms, harvest cotton grass and feed their animal friends when the snow comes. Their life is almost carefree and idyllic, in harmony with nature and their surroundings.
The original Swedish text was written in rhyme, but this has not been retained in the English version. Perhaps this was a wise decision, for the text certainly never feels like it is a translation. One of my favourite quotes is “They paddled and splashed in the stream, damming it to build a water mill. No one card how wet or muddy they were for no child of the forest can catch cold“. This made me think of the forest kindergarten movement, a type of preschool education which is held almost exclusively outdoors.
The illustrations will delight you if you like Beatrix Potter or Jill Barklem. They are the perfect mix of reality (in so many details, such as the mottling on the silver birch bark used as a shield by the father of the family) and fantasy (pint sized people, trolls and fairies). There is nothing modern, avant garde or unsettling about them, which may make them seem quite quaint after a diet of 21st century illustration. But if you can let go of your modern sensibilities Beskow illustrates a magical world that I think many of us would enjoy entering in to.
Children of the Forest ends with the lines:
A new year was beginning in the forest and this is where we must leave the children. But if you like, think about them and their forest friends, and that way, their story will never end.
And for us this was certainly a story which didn’t end when we closed the cover of the book: M and J couldn’t wait to act out their own version of Children of the Forest!
First we set about making mushroom hats like those the children of the forest wear. A balloon, flour and water mix, lots of strips of paper and waterproof gloves (M in particular hates having “gloopy” things on her skin) all went into the mix to create hats with just the right shape.
After 3 or 4 layers of papier mache were dry the girls painted the hats to look like fly agaric mushrooms. Once the paint was dry and the balloons popped I cut out the bottoms of the hats taking care to make the holes the same size as the girls’ heads. To hold the hats in place I just added elastic straps.
In one scene in Children of the Forest the kids can be found sheltering under a large mushroom.
We made ours out of a giant cardboard roll (liberated from a carpet shop) and an umbrella!
Children of the Forest: *** (3 out of 3 stars) – Elsa Beskow is a classic and if you don’t know her work you should definitely track down some of it.
Music we listened to whilst making our hats and playing under our mushroom included:
Alongside reading Children of the Forest you could also…
Drool over this lovely felted forest family from Etsy maker Nushkie, this set of crockery from Bella Luna Toys or these forest people folk from Myriad (scroll to the bottom of the page).
What Elsa Beskow books have your read? What would you recommend we look for next?