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Literary cat pains

We meet cats who are put in the freezer, drowned or chewed to death in Norwegian picture books. Are they the scariest in the world?


[picture books] – Outside Norway, Norwegian picture books are seen as dark and lingering – and just as much for 30-year-olds as for children, says the new children's book editor at Samlaget, Ragnfrid Trohaug.

On the desk of Ny Tid is a pile, new and old picture books. In one, the cat drowns. In the other, a cat is almost bitten to pieces by the dog Tombo. And in a third, Fy cats, the cat first eats up little brother's birthday cake. Then Selma gets angry: “Selma is so angry that she hardly knows what she is doing. She opens the freezer, pushes Katja into one of the boxes. "Take care of you, you stupid, stupid cat!" says Selma and slams the door to the freezer shut. "

In reality, the gray daylight is only turned on, but in the Seilduken nursery Sara, Live and Lilly are sitting around a table, and their eyes get bigger and bigger in the story of Selma. Just when the story is done, Jenny arrives.

- You see, the cat ate the whole birthday cake nonstop, Live says to Jenny.

- And the girl got really furious, and put the cat in the freezer, Lilly says.

Then the girls laugh. They think the book is fun, but the cats look really bad, even though they really like cats, but best when they're small.

Picture books are the book group for children who sell the best. Last year, 815.656 picture books were sold in Norway, which makes up about a quarter of the total book sales for children and adolescents. The year before, over a million picture books were sold, and sales accounted for about one-third of the total book sales for children and adolescents.

Norwegian picture books are heavily supported by the Norwegian Cultural Council. It is possible to obtain up to NOK 70.000 in support per book for an illustrator, author and publisher. In total, around NOK 1,3 million is distributed each year in so-called development support, to illustrators and publishers – and production support, primarily to publishers. This million is in addition to the purchasing scheme. Many point to this as the reason for the extensive experimentation.

- It is obvious that the Cultural Council has had a lot to say for this development. The publishers would probably have been safer to invest in innovative picture books if the support schemes were not there, says Tone Birkeland, associate professor at Bergen University College.

She believes that development accelerated as early as the 1970s. Cappelen's publishing manager for children and youth, Torill Hofmo, says that the big red dog by Erlend Loe and Kim Hiorthøy in 1996 was very important.

- It was a milestone, and gradually came more books, which break both genre, expression and age limits, says Hofmo.

Swedish picture book researcher Ulla Rhedin has described Norwegian books as "anarchist". She has also expressed a bit of envy, and a strong desire that more of the Norwegian books be sold to Sweden. The publishers Cappelen and Samlaget, with leading editor Guri Vesaas in the lead, are highlighted by several when innovative Norwegian children's books are the theme. Tone Birkeland believes the interaction between text and image is one of the most evolved.

In recent years, it seems that authors and illustrators have become more aware of the division of labor between the two art forms. In good picture books, the author economizes with the text. And this gives the illustrator more leeway to convey his version of the story, a freedom many utilize in a more self-conscious way than before, says Birkeland.


And since then cats have been abused, and little girls have cut down houses. Where does the border really go?

- Picture books need no boundaries, as long as the story hangs within the universe that has been created. We release the artists. It has been a long time since the books were supposed to be educational and pedagogical, says Hofmo in Cappelen.

- So the border goes neither by war nor terror?

- No, no, those boundaries have been broken for a long time. Recently, there was a Nordic discussion about the youth novel. There was talk that there might be a limit to taking the hope from the readers – so yes, by showing suicide as the only solution to difficulties, there is a limit. Otherwise, there are many beautiful books with war as a framework for action.

We browse further in the picture books. It's about angry dads who beat, it's about jealousy and grief and death and anger. It is about a mother who poisons the dog to the son. Last year, the library manager in Øvre Eiker refused to put the book about Tombo by Mats Jørgen Sivertsen on the bookshelves – despite the fact that the book had been bought by the Cultural Council. "It is not a child – friendly book," the library manager told Drammens Tidende.

'But Tombo had never bitten anyone. Except for the cat. Tombo used to gnaw on it. Until he got bored and spat it out, "Ny Tid reads aloud to the children in Seilduken kindergarten. We look a little nervously at adults Anne, but read on carefully.

- It was fun, Live says afterwards.

- Not scary at all?

- No, funny, she repeats.

- I do not quite know what to say, says Anne Standal.

- It was a bit humorous, but not nice, neither towards humans nor animals. We teach the kids to be kind to animals, says Standal.

Ny Tid asks Hofmo in Cappelen if there is not a lot of damage to cats in these books.

- Cats have been abused all along, but yes, there is really something new in children's books. We are tougher in tone now, says Hofmo.

- Are Norwegian picture books too dark and long?

- There are books that are brave and address existential themes, such as Gro Dahle and Svein Nyhus' books. Some of Arild Nyquist's books are also quite black. I see it as positive. If you dare to bring up black topics, you reach larger readerships, says Birkeland.

And so we have a natural transition to a new point in the article. Namely, many of these books are made just as much for adults as for children.

- There are no support schemes for picture books for adults, so the pressure is great – and sometimes there are books that are blacker than some like. Arild Nyquist's Gold's dream of an island is just as much for adults. Fam Ekman also writes more for an older audience, says Birkeland.

Hofmo thinks the books are not mainly written for adults, but…

- The stories have several dimensions, and the artistic whole can be read on several levels, and thus you can experience different things, says Hofmo.

However, Birkeland is not concerned.

- Preschool children are dependent on being read to, so the literature is filtered through the adults first, she says.

Illustrator Silje Granhaug has illustrated seven children's books. The last one is called Fy Cats, and was the first book read from the Seilduken nursery earlier in this article.

- Who are you illustrating for?

- Mainly for children, but you make things you like yourself, Granhaug says.

Ragnfrid Trohaug in Samlaget would like to have several picture books that are also made for adults.

- But then they must also be marketed as adult books, says Trohaug.

Birkeland and Hofmo also point out that the picture books are usually placed in the children's section of the bookstores, and that it is strongly criticized.

- These books should also be fronted in the adult department, says Birkeland.

Stays in the country

Norwegian picture books are thus pioneering, receive a lot of support, but do not go far.

- It is rare for a picture book to travel outside the Nordic region, says Andrine Pollen, advisor at Norla, center for Norwegian fiction and non-fiction abroad.

Hofmo in Cappelen believes publishers outside the Nordic countries envy them the opportunity to publish something with such great artistic quality.

- They dare not take the chance to sell them themselves, they think they are too narrow, she says.

Illustrator Granhaug lived in London for four years.

- I walked around with my folder to various large publishers, but was told that it was far too experimental, Granhaug says.

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