The second Norwegian picture book for our Reading Round Europe adventure is The Race of the Birkebeiners by Lise Lunge-Larsen (born and raised in Norway, but now living in the US), illustrated by Mary Azarian.
Based on a true story from 13th century Norway, The Race of the Birkebeiners tells how a small band of peasant warriors, the Birkebeiners, rescued the heir to the Norwegian throne, the infant Prince Hakon from his enemies by skiing across mountain in blizzard conditions. A tale of courage and faith, this exciting story would make an excellent, unusual choice for a Christmas book; the events not only take place at that time of the year but Christian faith is also a central theme throughout. That said, don’t wait till Christmas to look for this beautiful book as it is also a lovely introduction to several aspects of Norwegian culture, history and geography.
Mary Azarian’s illustrations, woodcuts handtinted with quite intense watercolours, are stunning and a perfect match for the historical setting of the book. Like the modern text based on an ancient saga, Azarian’s work also feels fresh yet full of echoes from the past.
The Birkebeiners, literally translated from the Norwegian as “Birch Leggers”, are so called because their armour consisted of birch bark wrapped around their legs. Thus the journey which began with reading The Race of the Birkebeiners continued with us going on a Birch tree hunt. Fortunately Silver Birch trees are pretty easy to spot, and the girls loved looking out for them, in gardens and in the local park.
We found a dead Silver Birch and this gave the girls the perfect opportunity to strip some bark from it – they loved the silver sheets they were able to peel off.
This bug caused a squeal of delight too!
Once home the girls wanted to be Birkebeiners themselves so shields were made…
… and the birch bark we had collected was used to create armour.
Then our very own Birkebeiners ran riot!
The Race of the Birkebeiners: ** (two out of three stars)
Music that might go well with reading The Race of the Birkebeiners includes:
Other activities which you could do alongside reading The Race of the Birkebeiners include:
As it happens M and I have recently read another book in which birch bark is a major feature – The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich. If you or your children enjoyed the Laura Ingalls Wilder books then please, please read The Birchbark House. It’s set at a very similar time in history but is about the life of a Native American family experiencing some of what Laura and her family also experience. It’s wonderfully written and profoundly moving – I burst into tears when I read the last paragraphs of it to M – and it will enrich your lives, I’m sure of it.
Have you read any other books written by Lise Lunge-Larsen or illustrated by Mary Azarian? I’ll be highlighting some more books by Lunge-Larsen in my next post, a round up of Norwegian picture books, and this is a book illustrated by Azarian I’ve had my eye on for a while, but I’m always interested in hearing your recommendations!