Family Bonding, Poverty and Vagrancy in Children’s Literature

Three European classics, Seacrow Island, An Episode of Sparrows and Krabat and the Sorcerer’s Mill explore difficult topics with profundity and sincerity.

Beloved children’s author Astrid Lindgren is best known for her fiery, unruly creation, Pippi Longstocking, the pigtailed and precocious menace who turned an idyllic Swedish neighbourhood upside down with her unusual shenanigans. But Lindgren’s ability extended far beyond whimsical madcap and she was capable of producing much more sensitive and subtle fare. Seacrow Island (1964) isn’t one of the Swede’s better-known works, but it’s one of her most delicately poignant ones.

Seacrow Island is a story about a family vacationing on a Baltic island, with wide-spanning scenery of verdant foliage. The Melkerson family have four young children, who enjoy their getaway on the island but also find themselves rather bored without the company of other children.

When the father of the Melkerson family decides to rent out a cottage, they encounter Tjorven, a young boy, his older sisters Teddy and Freddy, and an offbeat little girl named Stina, who loves regaling the Melkerson family with many stories.

Lindgren’s story is typical of many European classics which lean toward slice-of-life narratives. Seacrow Island doesn’t try to do anything but simply capture the episodes in the lives of children for one summer and the author’s greatest attribute, her ability to sharply render the emotions of childhood nostalgia, is polished to a faultless degree here. Replacing the zany humour of her Longstocking franchise, Lindgren evinces a more subtle and charming wit that appropriates the kinds of discussions ones have over old family photographs.

Comparisons to the Bobbsey Twins series are not that far off; there’s certainly the sense of camaraderie and adventure here that the Bobbsey series have been celebrated for. But Lindgren impresses upon the reader a disarming dreaminess that evokes Seacrow’s lush island of greens, blues, yellows, and reds — the simple colours of kindergarten past that will be sure to tug at the heartstrings of nostalgics everywhere.

An Episode of Sparrows (1956) follows a similar trajectory as Seacrow Island, but walks a fine line between childhood innocence and the mores of adulthood. The British classic is, once again like Lindgren’s Seacrow Island, overshadowed by some of the more famed treasures of children’s literary classics, but it is also one of the genre’s most mature works.

Author Rumer Godden shapes a narrative about a young and lonely girl who tires of her drab and dour London urban living. Left in the hands of a caretaker by her negligent mother, Lovejoy decides to brighten up the spots of her city by planting a few small gardens. But these tiny endeavours bring larger hassles and the young girl finds herself the centre of much attention, including an older ruffian boy who, quite possibly, fancies her. Lovejoy’s escapades also draw the admiration of a motley crew of street children that the older, watching adults refer to as the “sparrows” in the novel’s title.

Far sadder and definitively more tender than Lindgren’s Seacrow Island, An Episode of Sparrows is unequivocally British in its “just get on with it” approach to life’s doldrums. At turns heartwarming and heartbreaking, Godden creates in Lovejoy – and the other children – a precocious resilience that refuses to give in to the caustic airs precipitated by war (Lovejoy plants her garden in the rubble of a war-torn church). It is also a spiritually-defiant paean to the attitudes towards poverty; Lovejoy and the street children struggle to defy both the world around them and the ones inside themselves. Their efforts to change their own lives by changing, in any small way, the lives of others, is the novel’s most powerful statement on the endurance of children in the face of hardship.

Sidelining the realism of either Seacrow Island or An Episode of Sparrows is Otfried Preussler’s Krabat and the Sorcerer’s Mill (1971). A German fantasy classic, Krabat relays the cruelties of childhood with a Dickensonian treatment of poverty. In Preussler’s tale, Krabat, a boy of 14, lives a vagabond life, shuffling from town to town and singing carols.

A strange and prophetic dream reveals to Krabat that a host of boys like himself are imprisoned inside a mill where they are ruled by a sorcerer who keeps them under command by his dark magic. Krabat takes heed from his psychic dream and soon finds himself at the mill where, with the help of an angelic young girl, he will endeavour to bring the supernatural mill to destruction and free the imprisoned children.

Preussler’s novel uses religious philosophies to illustrate the struggles between good and evil. It should be noted that one translated title of the German novel (at least for its adapted film version) is Krabat and the Legend of the Satanic Mill, and the sorcerer, in this case, can be seen as the devil incarnate — a crippling authority figure whose political rulings have sounded the death knell for the plight of disenfranchised children.

Like Godden’s An Episode of Sparrows, Preussler perfects a sensitive study on the tenacity of young children, albeit in a surrounding of magic and surrealism. While his Krabat is no less persevering than Godden’s Lovejoy, his protagonist is saddled with the obstacles of symbolic design. It’s a narrative aimed squarely at children (as morbidly dark as it may be), but it reaches into the depths of a more mature contemplation on spiritual triumph, on the ability, through toil and strain, to see a forest for the trees.

All three children’s classics have been reissued by New York Review Books. Seacrow Island and Krabat feature NYRB’s lovely hardback designs with red cloth spines and colourful new cover artwork. Once before reissued in a hardback with a red cloth spine, NYRB reissues An Episode of Sparrows once more in an entirely new design separate from their Children’s Classics series.