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Rose Lagercrantz, a Swedish children’s writer: on faith, hope, and truth in a children’s book on genocide22.06.2022
Rose Lagercrantz, a Swedish writer, is famous in Ukraine for her children’s novels and short stories on traumatic experiences. Among her books, the series Happy life – is about girl Dani, who lost her mother, and still prefers to remember only happy moments.
Right before the full-scale war began, Ukrainian publishing house Crocus was about to publish Rose’s new book Two of Everything. It touches upon one of the most traumatic human experiences – genocide, or more precisely the Holocaust, the mass extermination of Jews during World War II. Nevertheless, despite the plot, there is so much light in this book. Writer and translator Oksana Lushchevska had a conversation with Rose Lagercrantz on searching the light in stories on trauma with children and on support Ukrainian readers.
In February I asked Nargis Gafurova, the editor-in-chief of the Crocus publishing house in Kharkiv to give me the new book by the Swedish children’s writer Rose Lagercrantz, titled Two of Everything, for review. I was never able to receive the book, because on February 24 began the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. Nargis and her twelve-year-old daughter Lilia have had to leave Kharkiv. And Lagercrantz’s book was left in the printing house.
Later I received the layout of the book, but could not read it: I was consumed by anger, fear, despair, and worries for my country, family, and friends.
From my experience of creative dialogues with different kids during the two months of the war, I realized that children really need books that can help them to express themselves. And Lagercrantz’s Two of Everything can help. It can become cathartic.
After reading Two of Everything, I was impressed by how easily Rose managed to describe the horrors of the Holocaust. How easily she managed to experiment with the fairy tale genre in a very creative way. How she told kids about the most painful things. And how, while reading, I felt all possible empathic emotions, ranging from tears to enlightenment; how I repeatedly got goosebumps; how I told myself “this is how it should be!”; and most importantly, how while reading I was never afraid, I was never in pain: there is no horror or cruelty in this book, but there is life, real human life. And there is also the value of a heart-touching friendship that grows into love.
Moreover, there is something healing in it that Ukrainian children’s authors could adopt. Let’s call it the ‘light energy’ and ‘the good of the human heart’. Because this is exactly what we need to write about for kids today: about light and good. I hope that this conversation with Rose will help Ukrainian children’s writers, and inspire them to write bright stories about the value of life. And I also believe that the book is about to leave the surviving printing house and finally reach Ukrainian bookstores.
– Rose, your new book Two of Everything is about World War II and the Holocaust. I wonder how you managed to create such a good and heartfelt story about one of the most terrible traumas of the twentieth century.
Dear Oksana! Here is what happened: when Camilla Bloomberg from Swedish Radio asked me to write a story for young children in memory of the liberation of Auschwitz, I thanked her for her trust, but said that for various reasons it was impossible.
Five minutes later, I went to walk my dog and bumped into my neighbor, who has two young daughters. She always asks me what I’m writing, and I told her about the last offer.
“I said no. This story is not for your girls,” I said. “They won’t be interested in learning such things.”
“No, you’re wrong,” said the neighbor. “Children are interested. Yes, they want to know!”
That’s how it started.
After walking my dog, I called Camille Bloomberg and said I would try. Since she wanted the text to be for young children, namely readers aged 8-9, I decided to write it somewhat in the fairy-tale genre, but mostly using true details. In fact, this is a fairy tale but based on real little details from my mother’s life, from her childhood in Transylvania (the border with Ukraine today passes through the town where she used to live).
– From my own experience, I know that trauma coverage should be true and honest, but not painful. Did the fairy-tale genre help you with that?
You know, I wrote informational texts for children on the same topic, but they were for older children, from 13 years old. And for the younger ones, I chose the fairy-tale genre, because as a child I loved fairy-tales myself. I lived with them and read and reread them as if they were going to save my life.
Also, I appreciate adding all the little details that my uncle’s wife told me. She told me about her childhood in a small Transylvanian town.
My mother and uncle didn’t talk to me about all those things. They rejoiced that they had survived the war, as almost all their relatives – sisters, brothers, and my grandmother – had been deported to Auschwitz and killed there.
Mom said: “I’m happy until we talk about those times.” So this tale is half based on what my aunt told me and is also a little fictional.
I think this is one of the most difficult texts I have ever written, because you’re right by saying: “The text should be true and honest, but not painful.”
I merely allowed Eli, the main character, to say, like my mother, that he can’t talk about it. He just can’t. It was awful (Eli’s prototype was my uncle, and he had to be electrocuted after the war so that he could work).
Some people can talk about Auschwitz. But not Eli. This book is about Eli’s happy life as a child! Because that’s how it was. Many children would have lived a happy life if they didn’t wake up from a nightmare.
Modern kids learn about this story by reading as they grow up. My book Two of Everything is a book for beginners to introduce readers to the dangers of antisemitism.
– The plot of Two of Everything is your family story. How long have you been writing it? What psychological aspects helped you?
I worked on the text for six or seven months, and I couldn’t go and read it in school as I usually do, because we still had Covid-19 restrictions. So I didn’t know how readers would perceive it, but I corresponded with a very good teacher from Sweden who read the manuscript with his students. And that’s how we managed to work on the book more deeply. The children wrote poems on the subject and got to know Eli and Luli, the main characters, as well as learn the history of the Jews in the previous century.
– I wrote an article for the National Council of Teachers of English on the Russian invasion and Russia’s war in Ukraine. I wrote about how to start a conversation with children about the war here, in the United States. But how do Swedish teachers talk to children about Russia’s war in Ukraine? What do children ask?
Due to Covid, I don’t know how they talk about Russia’s war with Ukraine in schools. Everyone must be talking about it. But I don’t know what questions the children are asking. They are probably just as shocked, terrified, and helpless as adults are.
I’m fascinated by the fact that your books for children touch on very complex, multifaceted life topics (death, war, loneliness, etc.). But at the same time, they are so positive! For example, Dani, the main character of the book My Happy Life. She always wanted to remember only the happy moments. What helps you create such bright and energetic stories?
Dani was created to comfort me when my mother died in 2008. She came from God knows where and stayed with me in seven books. That’s it. This book is about children who want to live and be happy, and happiness comes to them and also comes from them.
Now I’m trying to write the last book in the series. It’s a little bit about Dani, but mostly about her friend Eli, who is not so sunny in her mind, and it’s getting harder for her after moving from one city to another. She is being bullied and feels lonely, and it is not easy for her to seek happiness.
– Let me ask you a bit of a personal question, to support many Ukrainian children’s writers who are looking for light right now. How do you manage to stay positive?
I don’t. I’m very dark inside. Like now, at the moment, when my daughter is sick. And the Russian war makes me dark with anger. It’s like a nightmare that goes on and on. What will happen when we wake up? Will the Russian people manage to stop it? They have to! Meanwhile, Ukraine is fighting, these are such incredible, brave people!
– And the last but not least question to you, Rose. What would you like to say to support the young Ukrainian readers of your books?
What can I say to children in Ukraine? That we should believe the biblical legend of David and Goliath; believe that David managed to find the giant’s weakness and defeated him!
Please give my best wishes to the children you meet or interact with, and tell them that we are thinking of them every day.
Yesterday at the post office, a man behind the counter said: “Don’t forget to send greetings to Ukrainian children from me, too!” And he repeated it three times.
– Thank you, Rose. I wish you light!
Translated by Tania Rodionova, proofread by Jonathan Campion
Supported by the Embassy of Sweden in Kyiv
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