More Icelandic (picture) books

posted in: Guðmundur Thorsteinsson | 11

Whilst Iceland clearly has a thriving children’s literature scene, few books are translated into English and even fewer are available to buy outside of Iceland so I’ve struggled a little today with bringing you a round up of children’s books from or about Iceland which you might enjoy.

But here goes – and of course, if you know of any Icelandic books for kids, please do let me know about them in the comments!

Having discovered that a major illustration prize in Iceland is named after The Story of Dimmalimm by Guðmundur Thorsteinsson (translated into several languages, including Japanese) I decided I really ought to start my Icelandic picture book education with this book.

Written in 1921 it tells a tale surely inspired by Swan Lake. Princess Dimmalimm always plays by herself within the walls of the palace garden. “She was sweet and good, and she was also very obedient.

One day Dimmalimm is granted permission to explore the world outside. Everything is different beyond the walls but she does find a lake full of swans and is utterly entranced. She makes friends with one swan in particular and soon she is visiting him every day.

But on one visit she discovers her swan dead at the lake shore. Dimmalimm is heartbroken. Some days later the princess returns to the lake to grieve, but her tears are staunched by the voice of handsome prince.

“One day an ugly old woman came by. She was a witch. She laid a spell upon me and turned me into a swan and said that the spell could not be broken until I should meet a girl who would be sweet and obedient and who would love me.”

And with the bad magic dispelled the prince and princess marry and live happily every after.

If I’m totally honest I was rather underwhelmed by this book. It’s an uncomplicated, familiar tale and its emphasis on “obedience” sat slightly uncomfortably with me and my modern sensibilities. The illustrations are gentle watercolours and match the story well in terms of simplicity and straightforwardness.

Apparently this book is hugely popular in Iceland and if this really is the case, I’m a little puzzled. If there are any Icelanders out there reading this post, please leave a comment to help me understand why The Story of Dimmalimm is so well loved in your home country!

Moving on hopefully, the following are books in translation which I’ve not been able to get hold of but are included here simply because there are so few translated books to point you towards.

  • The Good Dragon by Iðunn Steinsdóttir
  • Flowers on the roof by Ingibjörg Sigurðardóttir
  • The Fisherman’s Boy and the Seal by Jóhannes úr Kötlum

  • Brian Pilkington, a Brit by birth but who now has Icelandic citizenship, is popular in his adopted homeland. Several books with his illustrations have been published in English, including Flumbra: An Icelandic Folktale (also published under the title, A Giant Love story), written by Gudrun Helgadottir, The Yule Lads: A Celebration of Iceland’s Christmas Folklore, and The Last Troll, written by Steinar Berg (review available here). Several of Pilkington’s books are available in French translations.

    If you’re a publisher (or simply curious) looking for some great books (which happen to be Icelandic) take a look at this pdf document detailing recent Icelandic children’s literature (cover image above). Most of the books detailed are not (yet) published in English, but many of them look really interesting. A series that particularly caught my eye is Aslaug Jonsdottir’s range of Monster books. Several are already available in French and Spanish.

    Click here to read an interview (in English) with Aslaug Jonsdottir.

    If you’re a Polish speaker you might be interested in this recently published bilingual book about a Polish family who emigrate to Iceland.

    There seem to be more books by non Icelandic authors but which are set in Iceland or follow an Icelandic theme than there are books translated from Icelandic. Here are some suggestions for you:

  • Half a Kingdom: An Icelandic Folktale by Ann McGovern, illustrated by Nola Langner
  • Days of the ducklings by Bruce McMillan
  • How the ladies stopped the wind by Bruce McMillan, illustrated by Gunnella. Gunnella is an Icelandic illustrator. She’s got an extensive website worth taking a look at.
  • The problem with chickens by Bruce McMillan, illustrated by Gunnella (I reviewed this book here)
  • Elfwyn’s saga by David Wisniewski

  • Although my focus is most definitely on children’s book, I feel it would be remiss of me not to point you towards this site for discovering Icelandic authors writing for adultsIceland is the Guest of Honour at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair and as such there’s a growing buzz around Icelandic novels in translation.

    Reykjavík City Library maintain an excellent website, Icelandic Literature containing information about contemporary Icelandic authors and their work, including children’s authors. Here’s their list of (mostly untranslated) children’s books, and here’s their compilation of Icelandic literature prizes.

    Have you read anything translated from Icelandic, for children or otherwise? I’d love to hear from you if you have!

    11 Responses

    1. Donna McKinnon

      Zoe, I just love your international book tours! Such a treat, and this one was particularly interesting. Those Icelanders really love their trolls. (Sort of like Canada and beavers.)


      • Zoe

        Thanks Donna, that’s very kind of you to say. I have to admit I’m rather enjoying them myself – dreaming of holidays in lovely places and discovering lots of great and interesting stuff along the way. We <3 beavers in this home because of their appearance in Narnia! Never met a Canadian one though 🙂

    2. Alison Church

      I just read The Story of Dimmalimm today for my monthly preschool reading program. The kids enjoyed it, the parents all laughed at the end when it was reveled that Dimmalimm was “the good girl who broke the spell” and the two young children got married. The kids made darling swans out of discarded styrofoam cups.

      • Zoe

        Hi Alison, It’s great to hear that your crowd of listeners enjoyed the story – I’m so glad you came here to share that with us as clearly the book does mean a lot of a lot of people, it’s just that I was (admittedly as an adult reader) a little underwhelmed by it.

    3. Alison Church

      Zoe – I definitely agree with you as an adult reader! I think the parents in my group mostly enjoyed it for the very old-fashioned perspective 🙂

    4. Zoe

      Hi Alison,
      Yes, it’s good to be reminded how books can be received so differently by kids and adults. I read everything I review here with the kids, but I know my reviews often are more about my response to the book than the kids. Anyway, great to have your perspective – so glad you’ve been reading my Nordic posts!

    5. Ainslie Manson

      Allison: I found your “Playing By The Book” Icelandic entry when I was trying to find more information about Iceland’s children’s books. I’m a Canadian children’s author, about to visit Iceland and hope to find out LOTS and meet a few authors and illustrators! If you’re still interested I will will share my findings on my return. Read on! Ainslie

      • Zoe

        Hi Ainslie, it actually me, Zoe, who runs the blog and wrote the posts about Iceland. I’d love to hear more after you return from Iceland – please do get in touch!

        • Alison Church

          Ooh – I just came across this again – and would love to hear about your findings as well 🙂

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