Seven diminutive fathers for one girl, sheep who will only eat used Band-Aids, and gray wolves who play dead rather than admit to their confusion – these are the characters that Pija Lindenbaum creates in her writing for children. Lindenbaum, an award-winning author and illustrator in Sweden, has so far had five of her books imported to the United States, all of which demonstrate Lindenbaum’s knack for absurd humor and quirky characterization, elements that make her books entertaining reads or readalouds. Below the comedic lightness, however, lies an unwavering commitment to a child’s perspective, which gives her voice authenticity even in the most absurd of situations.
Else-Marie and Her Seven Little Daddies, the first Lindenbaum book to appear in English in the U.S., has all that and more. It can be read in one sense as a lesson in diversity and tolerance--whether you have a single father, two fathers, no father, or a septuplet of them, it’s all good—and also as a whimsical yet sympathetic satire on kids' tendency to freak out about their parents' public presentation. The seven small daily newspapers (who is printing them?) read by the dinky daddies and the array of other small objects that fill the home are meticulously depicted in Lindenbaum's illustrations, creating a rich visual world where seven fathers are simply and completely integrated into Else-Marie’s home life. It is only when their existence, so familiar and reliable at home, looks to converge with her preschool environment that Else-Marie begins to worry. What's humorous is the way the age-typical concern about Parent World meeting School World plays out in Else-Marie's unusual situation: she's not just afraid that her schoolmates will think her daddies are weird, she's got nightmares her teacher will sit on them and squash them. However worried Else-Marie is and however odd seven tiny fathers may seem in the cold light of day, though, her classmates' reaction is the usual one to somebody else's parents—mild interest and no particular alarm at the parental qualities that their kid is most concerned about.
Lindenbaum returns to a child's voice again in the narration for Boodil, My Dog; where Else-Marie is uncertain, the speaker in Boodil makes her declarations with untrammeled certainty ("She's the best dog in the whole world"). The narrative establishes a complicity between speaker and beloved pet ("We don't like getting caught in the rain'"), so that the occasional clever contrasts between the narrator’s monologue about the heroics of her dog and the accompanying drawings create a double story that somehow refutes neither perspective. The illustrations offer glimpses into Boodil’s laziness, cowardice in the face of the vacuum cleaner, and flighty disposition – even while the narrator steadfastly defends the bullterrier as not only the best dog in the world, but also a pooch who is tireless, unstintingly courageous, and deep thinking. The result is comedic for the viewer, who understands that Boodil's owner is a little partisan about her pooch, but it's a comedy that doesn't diminish the warmth of this quirky partnership or the staunch, authentic loyalty of the narrator to her closest companion.
Animals also feature prominently in Lindenbaum's picture books about the exploits of self-assured young Bridget. While she rarely finds a human companion, Bridget seems to be a magnet for animals, encountering a pack of easily bemused gray wolves, a herd of silly, helpless sheep, and an obstreperous trio of moose whom she initially hopes will become her brothers (they prove far too disobedient). While it's not rare for children to speak to animals in picture books, it is usually apparent whether the books are simply fantasy, replete with talking animals, or embodiments of children’s rich creative imaginations. Lindenbaum's matter-of-fact treatment suggests instead that this is commonplace, that talking wolves may be like seven little daddies—a little outside the average range, but nothing to find hugely noteworthy. While these animals may initially pose threats to her orderly kid world, Bridget stands firm on her rights ("I am a child who has lost her day care!" she declares to the wolves) finds herself developing considerable authority, as she bosses the wolves silly and patiently persuades the moose toward more appropriate behavior—or, at least, toward more appropriate venues for their raucous behavior.
In all of these books, Lindenbaum recognizes children’s worlds as literally and figuratively separated from the often drab and realistic world of adults, yet she keeps her children's attitudes, desires, and emotions firmly grounded in child-world authenticity; the absurdly fantastical situations often address real-life concerns and desires, such as the concern about schoolmates' opinions or the desire for siblings. And in all these books, what's powerful are children, not adults (who are often peripheral or unseen if they're not literally diminished); what's important are children's experiences in these eccentrically conceived worlds, not the fantastical elements themselves. Lindenbaum believes that her child audience can have an ironic sensibility and a sense of humor that can accommodate both the expected and the offbeat; her books reflect this belief, much to the delight of their audiences who see their concerns acknowledged and their imaginative worlds humorously embraced.
—April Spisak, Reviewer
Else-Marie and Her Seven Little Daddies. Henry Holt, 1991. (BCCB 2/92)
Boodil My Dog. Henry Holt, 1992. (BCCB 12/92)
Bridget and the Gray Wolves. R & S, 2001. (BCCB 9/01)
Bridget and the Muttonheads. R & S, 2002.
Bridget and the Moose Brothers. R & S, 2004. (BCCB 4/04)