Today I’m thrilled to be bringing you a guest post by award-winning British writer and educator Matthew Finch.
Matthew is currently based in New York and blogs on literacy, education and storytelling at booksadventures.blogspot.com. When he saw my Reading Round Europe adventures through the Nordic countries he offered to visit the storybook installation at Scandinavia House in NYC on my behalf. I was delighted! I had already highlighted the installation, A Child’s Adventure in the Swedish Countryside in my post about Kidlit destinations in Sweden and had dreamed of visiting it. Short of offering to fly me over Matt did the next best thing and visited the installation and interviewed those involved with it at Scandinavia House for Playing by the book. I’m very grateful to Matt, so let me now, without further ado, hand you over to his words!
New York’s Park Avenue isn’t the first place you might look for trolls, fairies and talking fennel bulbs, but right now, it’s the place to be for Manhattanites seeking a touch of Nordic magic, thanks to the American-Scandinavian Foundation.
Families who visit the children’s centre on the fourth floor of Scandinavia House find themselves transported across the waters from the USA to a magical Swedish country landscape. British artist and set designer Sarah Edkins’ installation, A Child’s Adventure in the Swedish Countryside, leads young explorers through a warren of plush, cushioned skyscrapers via a seascape mural into a fabulous rural fantasia.
‘I’ve been working with Scandinavia House since 2003, when I created the first Swedish Children’s exhibit, celebrating Pippi Longstocking and the work of Astrid Lindgren. It was meant to run for six weeks but it was so popular that the members asked to extend it, and it ended up staying for more than four months! The exhibit was followed with more from each of the Scandinavian countries, and each one stayed up longer. The Iceland installation was up for two years.’
Sarah’s original plan for A Child’s Adventure focused on the work of Elsa Beskow, the pioneering Swedish author-illustrator who published some forty books over the first half of the 20th century (take a peek here for Playing by the book’s recent Beskow inspired play).
‘Beskow’s stories are often nature-based and inspire delightful make-believe adventures, from a child’s perspective,’ Sarah told Playing by the Book, ‘but the Swedish Consulate wanted to explore the work of living author-illustrators, too. I flew out to Stockholm for a week, met children’s publishers, saw an afterschool programme and museum play areas, wonderful children’s libraries and Junibaken, an impressive permanent children’s installation.‘
‘It was a lot of work to bring together, and I needed a thematic structure to unify the variety of authors, with widely ranging styles. I looked for writers who were bold in style and content, whose work reflected children having adventures or going out into the countryside. I like naughty, mischievous characters and playful humour. Many of the stories were influenced by Beskow, or Tove Jansson. (Although Jansson was Finnish, she wrote her Moomin books in Swedish first!)’
Swedish artists and businesses alike got behind the project. Sarah met the renowned author Stefan Casta , the children’s clothes store Polarn O. Pyret made custom bean bag furnishings for the exhibit, and Maria Jonsson sent her own model of Astrid the Fly.
Sarah’s finished installation plays with perspective and the child’s-eye view to lead young children from what she calls a ‘Brio building block fantasy of New York City’ into a poetically evoked countryside.
Children can explore a penthouse balcony in the make-believe Manhattan, scurry into a traditional hut, or curl up with a book in a blueberry-basket sofa. At the time of Matthew’s visit on a Saturday morning, Scandinavian ex-pats and native New Yorkers alike were clambering over the exhibits, gathering armfuls of books and drawing their parents into the magical world which Sarah has evoked.
Sarah’s plans for the exhibit don’t stop there. ‘In an ideal world, I would have liked to go much deeper into the forest – branches with foliage, giant mushrooms, and oak leaves to “sail” down the stream on. Lots of insects to be discovered under stones – in the children’s science museum I saw many tactile ways to discover and explore the details of life in the forest – and I’m a great believer in using puppet shows or small-cast plays in these settings. Imagine if we could have an actor as a giant ant, like the one in Stefan Casta’s forest fact books! He could take the kids on a learning adventure.’
Sarah’s installation is the eighth in the American Scandinavian Foundation’s annual celebrations of children’s literature, but there’s a bigger anniversary to be noted as well: Scandinavia House celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, whilst the American-Scandinavian Foundation is 100 years old. From its New York base, the Foundation serves America’s Nordic expatriate community alongside a mission to promote the culture of Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland.
From contemporary Finland’s soaring education scores to books like the Moomins and Pippi Longstocking, Scandinavia has long been recognized as pioneering an innovative and nurturing approach to children’s culture.
Part of the Foundation’s mission is to make this distinctive approach to engaging with children available to interested New Yorkers. Those with an afternoon to spare in the city can drop in on Sarah’s exhibit, or enjoy one of many other events for kids and families. Oral storytellers bring the legends of the Far North to life every Saturday, and even venture out to the Hans Christian Anderson statue in Central Park during the summer. Children have many opportunities to create their own arts and crafts in year-round workshops. Scandinavia House plays a thriving role as a hub for young families in its home neighbourhood of Murray Hill, but parents come from far afield to enjoy these facilities.
If you happen to be in New York with young children, Scandinavia House makes a great stopover for an afternoon, a retreat from the bustle of the East Side and a moment of Nordic magic amid the skyscrapers. To find out more, visit scandinaviahouse.org.
Thankyou Matthew for such a great guest post! And everyone else, please do pop over to Matthew’s blog and explore. He’s recently interviewed New Zealand Book Month Director Nikki Crowther and I particularly liked his interview with Edgardo Zaghini of Outside In, a UK organisation that supports the translation of children’s books from overseas.