According to my research, if you were a child growing up in 20th century Sweden, you are very familiar with Elsa Beskow’s Children of the Forest. Originally published as Tomtebobarnen in 1910, this sweet picture book has been enchanting children for over 100 years. Currently in its eighteenth (!) English language printing by Scotland-based publisher Floris Books, this classic picture book certainly has established itself as a title worth notice.
Tom, Harriet, Sam, and Daisy are four very small children who live with their parents deep in the forest, in a small house “under the curling roots of an old pine tree.” They are “forest people,” akin to pixies, elves, or other mythical denizens of the wilds of Europe. They are indeed very tiny; the illustrations show them being dwarfed by the other creatures of the forest, such as squirrels, frogs, and bats. One can always find them, however, by their red and white spotted mushroom shaped caps.
The children love to play in the forest, but there is also work to be done. They gather blueberries, nuts, seeds, and mushrooms, and pick silky cotton grass that their mother will spin into thread. The oldest three children even go to school, where Mrs. Owl teaches them and the other young animals of the forest “the language of all that squeaks, flies or runs” and to “be wary of all hunting animals: fox, stoat and dog.”
Winter soon comes, and the children bundle up against the cold as their father puts up heavy wooden doors to keep the wind out of their small home. The family delivers food from their own well-stocked cupboards to their neighbors (birds, squirrels, and rabbits) that may not have enough to eat, and at night their parents tell stories around a warm fire. Some time later Spring arrives, and the children are “almost mad with excitement.” They even discover that they have a new baby brother joining their diminutive brood! This is where this year-in-the-life look at the Children of the Forest comes to a close, but as the author writes, if you “think about them and their forest friends, their story will never end.”
In Sweden, author and illustrator Elsa Beskow is beloved for her many picture books inspired by fairy tales and quotidian country life. Beskow’s masterful rendering of nature in loving and imaginative detail is in full display in Children of the Forest; look at the father’s pinecone suit of armor and birch bark shield as he battles a viper or the bushy tails of the squirrels as they play hide and seek with the youngsters. Flowers, conifers, mosses, and lichen abound among the forest animals. There is even a hint of a friendly face in the full moon as the children play with diaphanous forest fairies. Beskow is so renowned that in 1958 (only five years after her death), the Swedish Library Association established the Elsa Beskow Plaque for the best Swedish picture book (link in Swedish).
While originally written in verse, translator Alison Sage renders the Swedish into narrative prose. There are apparently other earlier English translations, but this is the one most widely available. Sage’s translation presents a cohesive story that young readers can follow, and is well suited for a cozy bedtime read aloud. If a child in your life loves exploring nature, and is fascinated by the magical that may lie beyond our ken, The Children of the Forest is a wonderful picture book.
Title: Children of the Forest
Written and Illustrated by Elsa Beskow
Translated from Swedish by Alison Sage
Floris Books, 1987. Eighteenth Printing 2020.
Originally published as Tomtebobarnen by Albert Bonniers, Stockholm, 1910
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Klem-Marí Cajigas has been with Nashville Public Library since 2012, after more than a decade of academic training in Religious Studies and Ministry. As the Family Literacy Coordinator for Bringing Books to Life!, Nashville Public Library’s award-winning early literacy outreach program, she delivers family literacy workshops to a diverse range of local communities. In recognition of her work, she was named a 2021 Library Journal “Mover and Shaker.” Born in Puerto Rico, Klem-Marí is bilingual, bicultural, and proudly Boricua.