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.

Seacrow Island

Publisher: New York Review Books
Length: 256 pages
Author: Astrid Lindgren
Price: $17.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2015-05

An Episode of Sparrows

Publisher: New York Review Books
Price: $11.99
Author: Rumer Godden
Length: 264 pages
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2016-05

Krabat and the Sorcerer's Mill

Publisher: New York Review Books
Price: $17.95
Author: Otfried Preussler
Length: 264 pages
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-09

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.