“We walk on eggshells as makers because of the diversity debate”

Where is the imagination? When I was asked at the end of last year if I wanted to give an Annie MJ Schmid lecture, I knew right away that this question would be the starting point,” says Marit Törnqvist. “The debate about the importance of cultural diversity in children’s books, at a time when many meet From different people from different backgrounds all of a sudden, it’s currently the most important in our field, but it’s done literally in black and white. The idea that everyone feels represented in literature is, of course, a wonderful endeavour. But then, who is going to tell all these stories, if at the same time so many of us are experiencing that we can’t make stories about people from a culture we don’t belong to? ”

It’s a day after a festive book presentation of Törnqvist’s new picture book Turtle and me A somewhat surreal story about a man telling his grandson how he got a turtle as a boy and how the animal was rescued while searching for it the roots It became part of his identity. But we’ll first talk about her lecture, titled “Where Are the Boundaries?” And about the story of who you can tell as a children’s book author. We do this in the Törnqvist studio in the attic of a distinguished house on the canal in Amsterdam. However, the pictorial prints hanging there betray that Sweden is not far away. There, in her native country, Törnqvist began her career as an illustrator for Astrid Lindgren and also designed the decor of the Children’s Museum Junipaken, where she depicted Lindgren’s stories. Only later, it caused a stir in Holland, with a collection of poems, among other things you are the cutest (2000) by Hans and Monique Hagen and their comic book stories A little story about love (1996) and happy island (2017). “A Child of Two Worlds,” she calls herself.

Passionately, the acclaimed illustrated bookmaker, who is also making a name for himself as an international reading promoter, talks about her concerns about the “Fortress of Europe”, where “walls are rising and people are selectively accepted while at the same time staunchly advocating for ‘more diversity'”.

“I find this an ironic paradox,” says Tornqvist. “It doesn’t mean that we children’s book makers don’t want to respond to the need for more cultural diversity. We really do. We should. Just: How do we do this? Who can and can you empathize with? Also: Do ​​you Everyone should do this? For me, the following applies: I always tell my story, based on what I feel or think. I can’t do otherwise. But I know colleagues who feel they can no longer stand it, and that those stories, told from their distinct white perspective, no longer exists at this time. At the same time, they feel that they are unable enough to tell the other person’s story because of the true respect they feel for a culture that is not their own. Those who dare to do so struggle with the fear of being accused With cultural appropriation. We walk on eggshells as makers and some of us are stuck. Discussing diversity threatens to stifle creativity.”

With one drop of paint it would have been a politically charged book.

But isn’t the art world in particular without borders?

“Yes. In principle, art has absolutely no limits. At the same time, there are natural limits in all of us. Just how we paint them varies from person to person. I quote in my lecture, for example, Stefan Hertmanns, who believes that “literature should To prove that empathy exists. That is the mission.” I love it. It shows that there is so much diversity, even among us writers. Not just in terms of cultural background, but in how we approach life and how we are constantly looking for what we can and cannot say in our work. This particular border area is The most interesting for art. Making art means taking a risk. If you can’t do this anymore, you create out of fear, and everything becomes tamed. That’s why in the end you should always listen to what the voice inside you is saying. One of the requirements is that we realize what’s going on. in the world and that we are open to others. If you walk around with blinders, you fall into clichés and can greatly overstep boundaries.”


“Yes. Although I realize, from my own experience at home and abroad, that no reader is the same. For example, children at a literary festival in Nairobi reacted very differently to my books about children I later visited in an earthquake zone in Iran I felt in Nairobi how they searched for books on children of color and left behind other nicknames.In Iran I experienced how the children matched perfectly with the girl from happy island Who seek happiness on a self-built raft, when before they had no idea what the sea is. The difference in response may be because Iranian children have a scriptural background. It may also have been helpful that they look more like the characters in my book than the children of Nairobi. These kinds of differences, in appearance and reading experience, show the complexity of creating a book for everyone.”

Is there really such a thing as a generic expression?

“I think you should talk about universal feelings. Children all over the world know loneliness, hope, courage and fear. When the story is about these kinds of feelings, everyone can experience them as a mirror. But which of those feelings you see reflected depends on where you live and what you went through. Anyway, you increase recognizability if your stories are not tied to time and place. Turtle and me I consciously chose it again.

However, image has less universal narrative potential than language, and soon becomes more specific. That’s why I always focus on how to give meaning to my image through colours, light and composition. But even then, an image can limit recognition—which is different from empathy, by the way. I realized this while writing the lecture. At first I wanted to start with the opening sentence of happy island: “On a raft / Built from the wreckage / Feed a girl. / She was on her way / To the horizon.” Then I thought, What if I make it dark? And suddenly I realized: With one drop of the drawing it was going to be a politically charged book. I hope to someday get to the point where it doesn’t matter how I draw this kid. Whether she’s colored or blonde, boy or girl, it shouldn’t change the story. But the world is not far away yet.

“I suddenly realized that I had written an appeal against illustrations in children’s books on my final exams in Dutch. I thought they limited your imagination.” He laughs: „After that I was accepted into the Rietveld Academy. This appeal stemmed in part from my frustration with Carl Holland’s illustrations of Baby Longstocking, which I saw when I came to live in the Netherlands from Sweden as a young child. I knew the Swedish version of course. And the image of Hollander, who would later become my best teacher at Rietveld Academy, was simply not true. Pippi for me is very Swedish. And the clothes that Lindgren describes are exactly what Swedish girls traditionally wore in the 1940s. So it’s not at all extravagant like all those hats and dresses Hollander wore for her. I was angry about it and scratched his drawings in black.”

Isn’t imagination limitless after all?

“A painter must always have the original story in mind, he is less free than the comic book maker who, as we mentioned, can create without limits. Because of my ambivalence, I realize how little you know another country and that culture if you do not live or grow up there, even if Those countries, like Sweden and the Netherlands, were close to each other. Yes, there is an outward appearance: the forest, the red houses, you can only paint them. But this is limited: what you take with you from your homeland is very deep inside. The landscapes, smells, sounds, colors. Therefore, considered Acknowledgment points are very important for children, especially if they are not yet experienced readers.They open the door to the story.I experienced this in Nairobi and Iran.

Turtle and me It’s about homesickness, among other things, so many different landmarks are laid out from different worlds. The main character appears to be from the Middle East and has painted a hookah. I feel like everything is close to me, I’ve spent years with Syrians and Afghans. But the mountains are the ones in Lapland, where I’ve been a lot. And the homes from New Orleans where my brother lives. The children will introduce themselves in the opening scene where the grandfather tells a child about the past and far away.

“But along the way I tried to turn the mirror into a window, and what follows is actually a very mature narrative about living and dying, loving and letting go, leaving and going home. The story comes from deep within myself, and yet I think every child will understand me and I wish they could travel with me” .

Read also: This review of “Happy Island” was written by Marit Tornqvist

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