When I taught arts and crafts to young children, I was struck by how often they wanted to make a small creature they could keep in their pockets, to nurture and, often, to sleep with. I also worked with people in their 70s and 80s, people with disabilities, people who were becoming increasingly isolated in life whose lives were made less difficult by adopting small dogs or cats.
My Little Small by Ulf Stark, pictures by Linda Bondestam, translated from Swedish by Annie Prime, published by Enchanted Lion Press, 2018, addresses this need to nurture and be needed in a funny and subtle way. It’s possibly the most enjoyable picture book I’ve read this year — and that encompasses a lot of picture books from those published in 1950s til the present.
“In a mountain deep in a cave,
in the dark, there lives a Creature.
The sun hurts her eyes and her skin, too.
If she were to outside in the daylight,
she would feel a little sick. Then very sick.
Then she would die.
So she she stays inside and, like the mountain,
is gray, gray, gray.”
Right away, you know this is no ordinary children’s book — introducing weakness, sickness and death on the first page. And yet the Creature peeking out to check for the setting sun is anything but macabre, even with her sharp teeth. She has this wide-eyed innocence and curiosity that springs to light in Bondestam’s energetic grays.
She tries hard to nurture herself and not feel too lonely, singing songs with her growly voice — “GRR.” But sometimes she gets grumpy, pounds rocks, and grinds them between her teeth. She falls in love with reflection of the moon on the water but when she tries to swim out to it and embrace it:
The story is full of lovely amusing phrases such as the Creature’s tears making “the sea even wetter.”
But one day, a fragile spark flies into her cave:
And so begins a relationship between two creatures who can’t possibly fulfill each others’ needs. The Spark and the Creature know their time is limited, yet they fill it with stories and friendship. The Spark tells the Creature about the beauty of the world of light. Then we are treated to a look at all the colors of the earth:
Ulf Stark, the author of this book, was one of Sweden’s most beloved poets. He wrote some 100 books for children and young adults, as well as screen plays. The translator, Annie Prime, is literary translator of Spanish, French, Swedish and Russian, who received her MA in translation from University College, London, and has translated 5 books. This version of My Little Small is vibrant, witty and completely engaging. I love that there is lots of text — some picture books nowadays are so short, you hardly have a chance to bond with it or the child you’re reading it with.
Linda Bondestam, the illustrator, lives in Helsinki. A graduate of Kingston University, London, she has illustrated more than 25 books and has been nominated for the Astrid Lindgrin Memorial Award, the highest award in children’s literature.
There is a silliness to this story, but also an elegance we rarely find in children’s books. It’s amusing, but it honors the fact that children go through melancholy, experience loss, and long for someone to understand them. Children have complex lives and emotions. How refreshing to read a book that doesn’t shy away from that.
Enchanted Lion Books has always published books that take into account the complexity and curiosity of childhood. They also publish translated books from around the world, which is so vital for American children. It’s why, so often, their books are good for all ages. You can read more about this remarkable press here, in an interview with publisher Claudia Bedrick, in World Without Borders:
Here are some other books I’ve loved and reviewed from Enchanted Lion:
And please look at their website for an array of fascinating books sure to expand your world view and keep you in touch with the wonders of childhood.
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