Katrín Jakobsdóttir: An Author at a Crossroads
On the Children's Books of Kristín Steinsdóttir
Kristín Steinsdóttir is one of the nation's most prolific children's authors.
Her writing career began in 1987 when she received the Icelandic Children's Book Prize for Franskbrauð með sultu (Jam on White). Since then Kristín has published many books, around one every year, and enjoyed great popularity.
Her latest novel when this is written, Engill í Vesturbænum (An Angel in the Neighbourhood, 2002) has won many awards, among them the Reykjavik Scholastic Prize and the Nordic Children's Book Prize. Arguably the book marks a certain turning point in Kristín's career, as it is quite different from her previous works.
Kristín is best known for her realism. She likes to tackle the problems of everyday life, but has also introduced some mysticism, folklore and folk customs into her stories, with good results. Many of them are set in the past, among them the trilogy about the girl Lilla, which began with Franskbrauð með sultu and is set around the middle of the 20th century. She has also written adventure stories, but that literary form has not seemed to suit her quite as well.
Kristín's books are often set in a seaside village where a glacier looms on the horizon, which is not surprising given that Kristín has lived in Akranes for most of her adult life. Many of her books are also set in the eastern fjords, where Kristín grew up. An Angel in the Neighbourhood is however set in the west end of Reykjavik, where Kristin moved shortly before she wrote the story. One might therefore conclude that the author's immediate environment strongly influences her works.
Her protagonists are both boys and girls, and when Kristín is at her best, her descriptions of their thoughts show a unique perceptiveness and insight. One might mention in this context the books Franskbrauð með sultu, Fjólubláir dagar (Violet Days, 1991), Kleinur og karrí (The Cod Quinted, 1999), and of course the prize winning book Engill í Vesturbænum. In all these stories the emphasis is on the characters and their inner struggles rather than the plot and external suspense. Three of the first ones are realistic, but the last one is more a collection of reflections, where the imagination is let run free, although the subject matter is the everyday environment of the child. In these stories Kristín is at her best, using a quiet style and her insight into how complex and intricate everyday situations can get. Kristín juxtaposes the old and the new, often by having the children interact with their grandfathers or grandmothers, which is for instance the case in the Lilla trilogy, as well as the books Kleinur og karrí (The Cod Quinted), Draugar vilja ekki dósagos (Ghosts Don't Care for Cola, 1992) and Krossgötur (Crossroads, 2000).
A quick glance at Kristín's principal works shows how they fall into two categories. Note however, that it is her principal works we are looking at here; not, for instance, the study- and teaching materials that she has written as well.
Franskbrauð með sultu (1987), Fallin spýta (Time to Play, 1988), Stjörnur og strákapör (Stars and Pranks, 1989), Fjólubláir dagar (Violet Days, 1991), Ormurinn (The Worm, 1998) and Kleinur og karrí (1999) fall into the realistic category. Franskbrauð með sultu, Fallin spýta and Stjörnur og strákapör form a trilogy about Lilla, an independent-minded girl who is a force to be reckoned with and often gets into trouble because she speaks and acts before she thinks. In Fjólubláir dagar and Kleinur og karrí, the protagonists are boys who are experiencing a tough inner struggle during a difficult period in their lives, caused by external or internal circumstances.
Franskbrauð með sultu won the Icelandic Children's Book Prize and placed Kristín on the map as a children's author. It is set in 1955 and tells the story of Lilla, who has to spend the summer with her grandparents in the eastern fjords of Iceland. The summer stay is quite an adventure and Lilla learns some lessons about life, makes new friends and finds various things to do.
Fallin spýta and Stelpur og strákapör follow the same characters. The stories are quite sweet and Kristín seems to delight in describing the old days, long bus journeys in the rain, fantastic trips to the cinema and herring processing on the quay.
The kids perform the play Skugga-Sveinn [by Matthías Jochumsson] (which is obviously one of Kristín's favourite plays, as it also features in another book, Draugar vilja ekki dósagos) and come up with various other more things for entertainment. The last book in the trilogy is set in Reykjavík.
The main character in Fjólubláir dagar is Elli Palli, a brooding teenager who is embarrassed by his family members. His dad has no interest in football, as dads ought to have, his mother, a teacher, is always busy and is studying herself; his little brother, Bjartmar, is not like other people, as he suffers from an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in some areas, and his little sister Begga is a controlling brat in Elli Palli's opinion. Many things are addressed in the books, i.e. bullying, peer pressure and adolescent love.
Ormurinn (The Worm) is a short book, meant for young children, about Rósa and Pétur, who live in Akranes. They embark on a journey to find out what sort of a worm Rósa's mother has got in her stomach. Pétur has many theories about this worm, that it is a berry worm, a parasite or an even worse kind of worm; but the worm turns out to be of a very different sort. A clever story that is mostly based around Pétur’s imagination and Rósa’s needless worrying. The problems are therefore well suited for younger readers.
Kleinur og karrí is one more story about a young boy, Bjössi, who plays the violin for the sea birds and the glacier looming above his village. Bjössi lives with his younger brother and his dad, but his mother died in a car crash. His cousin Úlfhildur, who is one year younger than him, is shocked by Bjössi's laziness and uselessness; she likes to keep herself extremely busy and wants everyone else to be like that as well.
Úlfhildur longs for a family life, but is denied it, because of her mother's perfectionism and inability to accept people as they are. In a way the cousins are both trying to escape reality; Bjössi avoids thoughts about the loss of his mother by abandoning himself in music and nature; Úlfhildur avoids her troubled home life and her parent's arguments by constantly keeping busy. Bjössi therefore has a hard time tolerating Úlfhildur who wants to drag him with her everywhere and does not want him to be weird:
"Úlfhildur!" I said again and this time I stopped so she would notice that I was saying something. "Why can't I just be weird in peace?" [...] "You are my cousin and almost my brother and our great grandfathers were brothers and built their houses next to one another." "And so what?" "I don't want to have a weirdo cousin!" she said, emphasizing every word. "Do you understand?" (Kleinur og karrí, 20)
When a family from India moves into the basement of Bjössi's house, the attitudes of Úlfhildur and her mother are marked by prejudice. But Bjössi knows that Úlfhildur, who is very popular, could easily help the Indian kids to adjust to the community and he is therefore forced to spend time with her so that she will come to accept the new people. Kleinur og karrí is among Kristín's best books; the characters are well rounded and the plot of the story captures the readers' interest, although the pace is quiet.
Adventure, Fun and Games
Kristín has also written pure adventure books. Into this category fall the “ghost books”, Draugar vilja ekki dósagos (1992), Draugur í sjöunda himni (A Ghost in Seventh Heaven,1994) and Abrakadabra (Abracadabra,1995). The first two are linked; little Elsa who is the main character in the first book meets Móri the ghost in that book and Móri then becomes the main character in the second book. He goes to heaven and becomes an angel. Abrakadabra tells the story of the sorcerer Argur and the boy Alli, who lives in Njólanes.
Draugar vilja ekki dósagos and Draugur í sjöunda himni were very popular. Kristín plays with opposites, past and present; girl and boy. She uses similar themes in Vestur í bláinn (Into a New World), where she also juxtaposes past and present, albeit in a more serious story. Humour is paramount in the books about Móri and many funny situations are created around clashes between old and new. The first book is set in Hafnarfjörður, where Móri is a ghost, stuck between two worlds, because his bones have never been buried in a churchyard. But the main character is Elsa, who loses her grandmother at the same time as she moves into a new house. All this has made her fairly grumpy but Móri brings some fun to things and Elsa becomes his saviour by finding the bones.
The latter book is set in heaven. Everything is ruled by a strict class system there and Móri (who in fact is now called Gabríel Móri as angels must have angel names) has a hard time working himself up from the first heaven because he cannot be bothered to learn all the hymns, which proper angels must know.
His greatest wish is to become a shepherd, but then he has to make his way up to the animal kingdom, and proper angels in the first heaven cannot get there unless they learn the hymns – or by gaining a special permission from the Almighty itself, who is to be found in the seventh heaven. Elsa only appears briefly in this story when she once again helps Móri.
These stories contain many interesting ideas about the nature of life and death, heaven and the Almighty.
Abrakadabra tells the story of Alli, who lives in Njólanes and runs into Argur the sorcerer, who is creating havoc in town. Argur is a particularly ill-tempered sorcerer; he conjures whole forests (he comes from the Black Forest himself), causing general chaos. Through the whole book, Alli and his friends are trying to get rid of Argur, without the grown-ups getting suspicious. Here we encounter the motif that people in paintings have a real existence; a motif that Kristín explores much further in the story Vestur í bláinn (Into a New World). It can also be found in Franskbrauð með sultu, where it is mentioned briefly.
Folklore, History and the Present
Vestur í bláinn (1997) and Krossgötur (2000) could in some ways be called adventure stories, but with a much more serious and realistic undertone. Vestur í bláinn is a mixture of history, paranormal events and a realistic story set in the present about Þóra, a thirteen-year-old girl, who in some supernatural way enters a painting. Accompanied by a girl of the same age, Magnea, she travels to the other side of the ocean to Winnipeg in the 19th century. There she experiences some hardships, and subsequently begins to see her own life in a different and a more positive light. This story is a part of the wave of children's books, which combined folklore, history and present day reality, which dominated the second half of the nineties. The interest in mysticism and supernatural phenomena here in this country is probably linked to the worldwide interest in magic and adventure that for instance shows in the popularity of the Harry Potter books and many others. In Iceland, the wave is connected to folklore and has also been used to throw a light on the past and folk traditions (e.g., through time travel).
Kristín treads a similar path in Krossgötur, and there folklore plays an even larger role. The subject matter is drawn from old Icelandic folklore. Three teenagers, Stína, Addi and Eyvi, are to write a school assignment about folklore. They choose to write about the elf story of crossroads on New Years Eve. But their work on the project brings them all the way to the world beyond, where they face a great danger.
The leitmotif is death and life after death and various folklore motifs play a big part. Old folklore comes alive in this new book, perhaps in a different shape or form, yet familiar. The character Stína is given the most space by the author. The characters of Eyvi and especially Addi are also well formed and the latter is kind of a positive force in the story, as he stays fairly grounded throughout. Readers who are more down to earth will therefore easily identify with him. Stína and Eyvi are on the other hand fascinated by the paranormal and the story provokes questions about how to deal with paranormal phenomena, whether one should avoid them or pursue them, whether one should believe everything or doubt everything. In the midst of these complex issues Stína's great grandmother is the one who has most of the answers, and she has the role of the wise one in the book.
The latest but not least of Kristín's books is the award winning Engill í Vesturbænum (An Angel in the Neighbourhood, 2002) and yet again she breaks new ground in her approach. The narrative structure is quite original for a children's book; it consists of fragments of thoughts and the reflections of a small boy in the west end of town. The fragments however come together to form a complete story. There is no distinction between imagination and reality. The story therefore has two voices and grown up readers can distinguish between them, but young readers go along with the fantasy element of the story. In other words, children and grown-ups do not read the same things into the story. The wolf in the basement is a wolf in the narrator's and young readers' minds, but grown-ups can tell that the wolf poses a threat to the narrator; as the wolf has his eye on the narrator's mother. The angel that gives the story its title is a symbol for the narrator's increasing maturity and at the end of the story he can happily give the angel away, because he has passed certain tests (however unremarkable) on his way to growing up and he knows that the angel is now more useful to other people (in this case his younger brother).
Halla Sólveig Þorgeirsdóttir's illustrations go well with the original structure of the story. They are simply drawn and highlight the most important parts of the text. This interplay of pictures and text helps the reader to enjoy the story as a whole experience, making it quite an original work in the history of Icelandic children's literature.
One could say that Kristín Steinsdóttir is now standing at crossroads in her writing career, just as she was when she won the Icelandic Children's Book Prize in 1987, having before that mainly written plays with her sister Iðunn Steinsdóttir. She has already proven that she is among the nations most popular and capable children's authors and the question now is whether she will take her writing in a new direction.
© Katrín Jakobsdóttir, 2003.
Translated by Vera Júlíusdóttir.