Norwegian Wood(s)

posted in: 2. Illustrators and Authors | 8

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:

  • Norwegian Wood by the Beatles!

  • Land of the Silver Birch, a Canadian folk song, here sung by Ceilidh-jo & Matthias Weston

  • Something from my favourite Norwegian band, Katzenjammer – not a kids’ band, but they make fab music for dancing to – my girls adore them! (NB not everyone will think all the lyrics are appropriate for kids)

  • Other activities which you could do alongside reading The Race of the Birkebeiners include:

  • Pretend skiing – find an old pair of shoes a little larger than the children’s feet (perhaps from a charity shop?), glue the shoes to two narrow strips of heavy cardboard then when the glue is dry, let the kids take turns slipping their feet into the shoes and “skiing” across a smooth floor.

  • Printing – the illustrations in The Race of the Birkebeiners are woodcuts, and whilst creating a real wood cut is probably a little difficult for younger children, Styrofoam printing is great for all ages – take a look at this great post from Se7en to see how to do it.

  • Make a helmet like the ones the birkebeiners wear – watch this video from the BBC children’s programe SMart (apologies if this video isn’t viewable in all countries) – it’s actually for a viking helmet but provides a good starting point.

  • 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!

    8 Responses

    1. Choxbox

      Wow. You know Zoe if I were a university I’d award you a doctorate in Children’s Literature Studies. We recently had a mini Saffron Tree meet and were all gushing about you and your blog 🙂

      The birch bark shields look like such fun!

      Btw S lent me her copy of Mal Peet’s Cloud Tea Monkeys recently – it is awesome, have you managed to track it down yet?

      • Zoe

        Thank you so much Sandhya and Choxbox! Your comments are a wonderful thing to wake up to. It makes all the different to know that I have readers who I can really connect with, readers I would really like to spend time with in real life, talking about books, chatting over tea.

        No, haven’t been able to get Cloud Tea Monkeys yet – isn’t in the library system 🙁 But The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips is by my bedside!

    2. sandhya

      I’ll second that, Zoe. All of us STers (if that is the right word to use) were immediately full of praise for you the minute your blog was mentioned. We are all confirmed fans. It is a must visit destination for me even if I don’t comment every time. Other than the books you discuss and the way you discuss them, the activities you do based on them are awesome!

    3. Zoe

      Oh they did Ali! Both the exploring in the woods and tagging trees, and later charging round the garden.

    4. se7en

      Hay you linked to us!!! What a lovely surprise… thankyou!!! It looks like you guys had a wonderful Adventure!!!!

    5. Zoe

      Hiya se7en, you guys do so much fun and interesting stuff – you’re often an inspiration for us!

    6. Valarie

      Oh your little Birkerbieners are so cute. I love this book and it brings me back to Scandinavia. Very lovely. Thanks so much for sharing.

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