Myndhöfundur: Ari H. G. Yates
Myndhöfundur: Ari H. G. Yates

Finding joy, yourself, and others in fiction

A conference on children’s and young adult literature was held in Gerðuberg on March 5th. Attendees could hear four lecturers discuss children’s literature, comics, the publication of diverse books for children and young adults, and their own ideas on writing fiction. The conference was well attended and there was a good atmosphere among the people who were there on Saturday morning, with coffee cups in hand, and who later had soup together at noon in Gerðuberg Café.

 

The theme of the conference this year was ALL KINDS OF DIFFERENT. The focus was on diversity and how it manifests in children’s books today, as well as the importance of belonging and having a place in fiction.

Hilmar Óskarsson was the moderator. One of the things he spoke about was his favourite book: Selur kemur í heimsókn (A Visit from a Turtle), which is full of pictures, and is an example of a book that plays with the reader’s perception, as the words and pictures are not necessarily related and are even contradictory, which changes their reception. Hilmar then introduced the featured authors: Þórunn Rakel Gylfadóttir, Atla Hrafney, Sverrir Norland, and Þórdís Gísladóttir.

 

An author of one’s own life, or a minor character in the lives of others?

Þórunn Rakel Gylfadóttir was the first speaker. She published her first book, Akam, ég og Annika (Akam, me, and Annika), last year, for which she was awarded the Icelandic Literary Prize. Þórunn Rakel discussed the process of publishing her first book and her experience of its success, as well as reflecting on what it means to be a writer. She said her book was a double coming-of-age story, and that writing is acknowledging yourself and your weaknesses, because the author’s experience will always limit and shape them. Þórunn’s lecture was both sincere and passionate. She found herself at a crossroads following a divorce and sought comfort in writing fiction. She said that she fully believed in the healing power of fiction. “When you write, you come face to face with your innermost core,” Þórunn said. In order to form believable characters, you need to fully give yourself over to the work. Sometimes, she has been asked which of the characters in her book she is, and her answer is: I’m all of them. Each and every person is multifaceted, though she says she would most like to be the brave punk girl Annika. Hrafnhildur, the main character, had a big influence on the author, and the author and her life had also influenced the development of the character. Þórunn Rakel asked: what does it mean to be different? - and answered that maybe there’s no such thing as being ordinary. In that context, she pointed to the biggest compliment, said at the end of the book: You must know that you’re not ordinary.

Being human is more complicated that humanity wants to admit, the author said in conclusion, and also mentioned the law of inertia, and applied it to the individual: when forces, even in the form of people, touch us and transform our state of rest into motion, even the forces of younger generations, who want to fight for justice in the world.
 

Diversity and comics

Atla Hrafney, director of the Icelandic Comic Society (Íslenska myndasögusamfélagið), was the second speaker. Atla Hrafney talked about comics and the importance of role models. She herself is a trans woman, and talked about herself and contemplated how trans people are represented in literature. That it’s important to form your own idea of what gender can look like. Comics can play a big part in shaping role models and making diversity visible, for example through non-binary characters, like Cat-boy, who Atla mentioned as an example. She said that comics can impact the subconscious within each and every person. That pictures are clearer than language.

Atla Hrafney visited Grófin library when she herself was a child and read Manga books there. Publishing comics is expensive, which is why these days it’s common for them to be published online, and as a result, children and youth are often reading comics on their phones. In most cases, these comics are in English, and there aren’t many in Icelandic yet. Therefore, Icelandic comics are not very diverse yet, Atla Hrafney said, though she mentioned the book KVÁR, which was nominated for the the Icelandic Women’s Literature Prize (Fjöruverðlaunin), as an important Icelandic comic. The book contains interviews with several individuals about how they experience their own gender. 

Atla Hrafney has managed the Reykjavík City Library’s Anime Club, which is often attended by kids on the autism spectrum, and where it’s common for them to speak English. It’s an important platform for children who maybe don’t relate to various other groups but find common ground through comics.

Atla Hrafney touched on the importance of non-binary people being able to see themselves reflected in various media. It is important to strengthen visual media and show more diversity.

Atla brought along many comics and showed them to guests, including the book The Carpet Merchant of Konstantiniyya, by Reimena Yee, an absolutely stunning masterpiece.

 

At noon, following Atla’s lecture, guests had soup and salad and chatted together.  Many of the guests wanted to talk to her about the world of comics.

 

When I grow up I’m going to keep being little

After the break, it was Sverrir Norland who took the stage, giving a lecture on writing and publishing children’s literature. Hilmar introduced him with a quote from his book Stríð og kliður (War and Hubbub): - we must treat the world well, for it flows through our veins.

Sverrir began his lecture by talking about the idea of masculinity and the perfect man. It’s an idea that is going through a certain dissolution: we hear more about toxic masculinity, but Sverrir asks: what is positive masculinity?

Sverrir even wanted to call his lecture: When I was a little girl - he talked about his children and shared a fun story about his daughter Alma, who went to ballet in coveralls and a bow tie. Alma wanted to be the pirate boy Almar, and even said that it was better to be a boy because boys could do whatever they wanted.  She said: I'm in a girl’s body, but I’m a boy in my heart. 

Sverrir talked about his experience of being a father who worked from home and throwing himself into both childrearing and literature, and that for him writing and reading were the same thing. It’s fun to make up stories, and reading is self-discovery, just like writing.

Sverrir talked about the publishing company he has with his wife Cerise Fontaine, AM forlag, which publishes children’s literature in translation. One of the books he brought along to show was Eldhugar (Brazen), which is a graphic novel for 8 to 80-year-olds. It’s a story about remarkable women throughout history. The book Heimili (Home) shows diverse homes around the globe, opening readers’ eyes to how big the world is. Sverrir then mentioned that the animals we share the world with are also part of diversity and that they are often involved in children’s books. The graphic layout of text is very important in catching kids’ interest, Sverrir said, because there is a lot of competition for our attention these days. Sverrir emphasises engaging children’s joy and creativity and allowing them to tell stories.

 

All kinds of books for all kinds of people – writing for modern children of all ages

Þórdís Gísladóttir ended the conference with a historic overview of children’s literature and a broader perspective on writing for children. Þórdís’ latest book was just published in the beginning of March and bears the title Algjör steliþjófur! (An absolute stealing thief!) Þórdís says that for a long time, authors didn’t write for children, but then children’s literature was institutionalized and associated with pedagogy. The main requirement was therefore for it to be educational, while today there is a strong requirement for it to be entertaining. Þórdís pointed out that in the past, children were marginalised and compared to animals; wild and untamed and in need of raising - but views on children have changed and that is very apparent in children’s books. 

In the past, there was not a lot of original Icelandic fiction for children, but the children’s books publishing in Iceland changed within a short period, and almost overnight, in the year 1974, with the release of Guðrún Helgadóttir’s books. Her books became a springboard for discussion on the state of social classes and equality. She advocated for social realism in children’s books.

According to Þórdís, it was that realism that brought the concept of ALL KINDS into children’s books, and she also says that realism ran its course and was followed by an adventure book renaissance. She names the Moomin books as a good example of books where the boundary between children and adults is blurred. That boundary is becoming more and more fluid. Children’s daily life is reflected in children’s books. Children are of course diverse just like adults.

Þórdís talked about her perspective and her writing, that it is important to set yourself free, think like a child. To write books in which children see themselves, but also those different from them as well as different worlds. Reflection is important and it’s just as important to see into others’ lives. Þórdís enjoys telling stories and entertaining others. She thinks it’s important for books to be provocative and for children’s books to communicate on two levels. An author can be on thin ice when they begin to describe marginalized groups. The goal is for the characters to get to be themselves without being some sort of anomaly. Children’s books don’t always have to have a message or meaning.

Þórdís said that reading is important to democracy but that it is also entertainment and recreation. It’s important to be able to lose yourself in the world of a story and find the joy in reading. Those are good closing words for a conference on children and young adult literature.

Watch the stream from the conference.

Her you can listen to excerpts from the lectures in the radio show Orð um bækur.

Coverage on Rás 1 and ruv.is.

The annual conference on children’s and young adult literature is organised by FFÁS, SÍUNG, IBBY Iceland, SFS, the Icelandic Library and Information Science Association (Upplýsing), and the Reykjavík City Library - Culture House.

 

 

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UpdatedMonday March 28th 2022, 12:12