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Elsa Beskow (1874-1953) - née Maartman


Swedish children's book writer and artist. Elsa Beskow was with John Bauer and Alice Tegnér one the founders of Swedish children's literature. She also illustrated some of Tegnér's works, including Mors lilla Olle (1903). Beskow's Vill du läsa? (1935-37) was used in many schools as the first reader.

"Det är något så välsignat med barnen, och der är, att de alltid möter en på halva vägen. Om man inte visste det, skulle man inte våga sig fram vad man har. De har själva sett sagomotiven titta fram här och var och därför känner de genast igen dem hur ofullkomligt de än oterges." (from Vecko-Journalen, 1920)

Elsa Beskow was born Elsa Maartman in Stockholm, the first daughter of Bernt Maartman, a businessman, and Augusta (Fahlstedt) Maartman, a teacher. In 1875 her father's business went bankrupt and the family moved to the Old Town and then to Östermalm in Stockholm. Beskow started to draw at an early age, deciding to become an artist. An especially important person for her was her grandmother, Johanna Wilhelmina, who told her fairy tales. At home her favorite writer was Zacharias Topelius. Johanna Wilhelmina died when Beskow was 13. This ended according to Beskow her "happy childhood." Bernt Maartman died of pneumonia in 1889. Augusta tried to support her family by opening a small shop, but she had to close it after two years.

In 1890 Beskow entered the Technical school with her sister Malin. Malin studied at the school for only a few years – she died of cancer in 1907, which was again a deep blow to the family. Beskow planned to continue at the Art Academy, but when this was not possible due to a shortage of money, she worked as an art teacher at the Whitlockska School from 1894 to 1897. In 1897 she married Natanael Beskow, an older art student, whom she had already met in 1892.

Before finally choosing the career of a teacher and theologian, Natanael had studied painting. He was a radical paficist and an advocate of women's right to vote. In 1901 the couple settled in Djursholm. Beskow's younges son Dag died in 1922  in an accident. Her fairly tale, 'Jon Blunds paraply,' which dealt with the loss, was not published until 1944 in Det hände en gång. Two years after his death she traveled to Palestine, at least to catch a glimpse of the paradise where she believed her son was. In the early 1930s Beskow went with her friend Signe von Kochin to the Mediterranean. Its sun and orange trees influenced her book Solägget (1932). After a deep depression she published Vill du läsa? (1935), in which she modernized Lisa from her illustrated fairy tale 'Lisas framtidsplaner'  (1907). Beskow lived in Djursholm until her death in on Juni 30, 1953. Natanael Beskow died a few months later in October.

In 1894 Beskow started to contribute to the children's magazine Jultomten. Her first book, Sagan on det lilla, lilla gumman, came out in 1897. It depicted an unruly cat, who drinks all the milk from a bowl and is chased away by an old lady. "Och katten sprang till skogs och kom ALDRIG mer igen. Men kanske ändå att han kom hem till slut." The work was partly inspired by Walter Crane's and Kate Greenway's drawings. Crane was an advocate of the Jugend style and supporter of the slogan "art for people!" Beskow's breakthrough work was Puttes äfventyr i blåbärsskogen (1901, Peter’s Adventures in Blueberry Land).

In her books Beskow used her own childhood experiences as a source for ideas. Her own six children also inspired her work. Central themes were the relationships between children and adults and children's independent initiative. In Resan till landet Längesen (1923, The Land of Long Ago) children's imagination create a dragon from a fallen tree trunk. The pictures were large, with carefully studied details of nature and bourgeois small town life. Often Beskow combined reality with elements from the fairy tale world – ordinary children meet elves or goblins, ugly witches sulk on the street corners, and farm animals talk with people. The texts were written in verse or in prose.

Sometimes Beskow satirized manners, as in the poem about the foreign Mr. Tomato, who is envied by a local cucumber, admired by Miss Parsley, and imitated by small radishes. Beskow's most popular books include Tomtebobarnen (1910, Children of the Forest) and Peter och  Lotta  series (5 vols., 1918-47), the first of which was Tant Grön, Tant Brun och Tant Gredelin (1918, Aunt Green, Aunt Brown and Aunt Lavender). In this story the children meet the colorful sisters and  their little black poodle, named Dot: "There was once a little town, and in that town there was a little street, and in that street there was a little yellow house, and in the little yellow house there lived three sisters – Aunt Green, Aunt Brown and Aunt Lavender." Pelles nya kläder (1912, Pelle’s New Suit) emphasized the importance of honest work. Its illustration showed the influence of National Romanticism – a style that inspired many Nordic artists from the 1890s, among them Carl Larsson. Röda bussen och gröna bilen (1952, The Red Bus and the Green Car) depicted adventures of an archetypical Swedish car, Volvo. Though nature and rural environment provided the settings for the majority of Beskow's stories, this book was for urban readers.  

"Det var en gång en liten stad, och i den staden fanns en liten gata, och vid den liten gatan låg ett litet gult hus, och i det lilla huset bodde tre systrar: Tant Grön, Tant Brun och Tant Gredelin. I verkligheten hette de nog något annat, men alla barnen i staden kallade dem så, för Tant Grönt hade alltid grön klänning, coh Tant Brun hade alltid brun klänning, and Tant Gredelin hade alltid gredelin klänning, och det var lika säkert, som att maskrosor är gula och blåklockor blå." (from Tant Grön, Tant Brun och Tant Gredelin)

In the 1960s and 1970s Beskow's work was considered by many critics old-fashioned. Her idyllic pictures, full of good-natured children, animals, brownies, and flowers, were seen to present false ideals. Also her gender roles were seen as too narrow: "the father is strong and brave, and the mother is obedient and loving" (from Tomtebobarnen). According to Gunvor Häkansson, Beskow satisfies authoritative ideals in the upbringing of children, but Astrid Lindgren represents more democratic principles. However, new generations of readers have discovered the delights of her books and carefully drawn pictures which always have something interesting to show. Beskow's works have been translated into fourteen languages. She has been especially popular in Japan and in Finland, where her translators include the writers Eila Kivikkaho and Eeva-Liisa Manner.

For further reading: Natanael och Elsa Beskow: Studier och minnesbilder (1954); Elsa Beskow by Stina Hammar (1958); Elsa Beskow och Astrid Lindgren by Gunvor Håkansson (1967); Studier kring Tant Grön, Tant Brun och Tant Gredelin by Per Bergman (1971); Samvetets politk. Natanael Beskow och hans omvärld intill 1921 by Öydind Sjöholm (1972); Natanael Beskow by Anja Wikström (1980); Elsa Beskow och hennes värld by Margareta Sjögren (1983); Vem är vem i svensk litteratur by Agneta & Lars Erik Blomqvist (1999); Solägget: Fantasi och verklighet in Elsa Beskow's konst by Stina Hammar (2002) - Other children's book illustrators and writers: Tove Jansson, Beatrix Potter, Richard Scarry. Natanael Beskow (1865-1953) theologian, educator, who also wrote several psalms. Among his works is Psalmer and andra dikter (1944).  

Selected works:

  • Sagan om den lilla, lilla gumman, 1897
    - Satu pikku, pikku eukosta (suomentanut Paula Karlsson, 1997)
    - The Tale of the Wee Little Old Woman / translated by Marion Woodbutg, 1936) / The Tale of the Little, Little, Old Woman (tr. 1988)
  • Vill du måla?: 16 bilder att måla och teckna, 1897 (illustrated by Elsa Maartman=Elsa Beskow) 
  • Barnen från Solbacka, 1898
  • Gräshoppans visor, 1899 (text by Anna Maria Roos,  illustrated by Elsa Beskow)
  • Medeltidssagor, 1900 (text by Henrik Schück, illustrated by Elsa Beskow)
  • Puttes äventyr i blåbärsskogen, 1901
    - Pikku Puten seikkailu mustikkametsässä (suom. Eila Kivikkaho, 1974)
    - Peter’s Adventures in Blueberry Land (adapted from the Swedish by Sheila La Farge, 1975) / Peter in Blueberry Land (English version by Alison Sage, 1982)
  • Prins Pompom: saga, 1901 (text by Alfhid Agrell, illustrated by Elsa Beskow)
  • Mors lilla Olle och andra visor af Alice Tegnér, 1903
  • Mor Sagas skymningsprat, upptecknadt i åtta sagor, 1902 (text by Amalia Fahlstedt, illustrated by Elsa Beskow)
  • Sagor och äfventyr, 1903 (with Natanael Beskow)
  • Mors lilla Olle och andra visor, 1903 (text by Alice Tegnér,  illustrated by Elsa Beskow)
  • Blommornas bok, 1905 (with Jeanna Oterdahl)
  • Gnällmåns, 1905
  • Olles skidfärd, 1907
    - Ollin hiihtoretki (suom. Eila Kivikkaho, 1975)
    - Olle's Ski Trip (translated from Swedish by Siri Andrews, 1928) / Ollie’s Ski Trip (tr. 1981)
  • Tummelisa, 1908 (text by H.C. Andersen)
    - Peukaloliisa (suom. Eeva-Liisa Manner, 1980)
  • Tomtebobarnen, 1910
    - Tonttulan lapset (suom. Ainikki Kivi, 1924; Eila Kivikkaho, 1973)
    - Elf Children of the Woods: A Picture Book (transl. from the Swedish by Zita Beskow, 1932) / The Little Elves of Elf Nook: Picture Book (English version by Sonja Bergvall, 1966) / Children of the Forest: Verse and Pictures (adapted from the Swedish by William Jay Smith, 1969) / Children of the Forest (English version by Alison Sage, 1987)
  • Pelles nya kläder: bilderbok, 1912
    - Pellen uudet vaatteet (suom. Eila Kivikkaho, 1978)
    - Pelle’s New Suit (translated by Marion Letcher Woodburn, 1934) / Pelle’s New Suit (based on the orig. by Elsa Beskow; ed. by Nova Nestrick; illustr. by Bruno Frost, 1962)  
  • Blomsterfesten i täppan, 1914
    - Kukkaisjuhla (suom. Eila Kivikkaho, 1985)
    - The Flowers’ Festival (tr. 1991)
  • Sagobok, 1915
    - Satukirja (suom. Marja Bäckman, 1958)
  • Görans bok, 1916
  • Vad ska vi göra? En serie sysselsättningar för barn, 1917 (with Anna Warburg)
    - Handwork book for Children (translated by Frances Harbord, 1940)
  • Tant Grön, tant Brun och tant Gredelin, 1918
    - Täti Vihreä, täti Ruskea ja täti Sinipunainen (suom. Eila Kivikkaho, 1973)
    - Aunt Green, Aunt Brown and Aunt Lavender: A Story told and illustrated by Elsa Beskow (tr. 1928) / Aunt Green, Aunt Brown and Aunt Lavender (English version by Polly Lawson, 2001)
  • Muntergök, 1919
  • Lasse liten i trädgården, 1920
    - Pikku Lassi puutarhassa (suom. Eila Kivikkaho, 1974)
    - Christopher’s Harvest Time (English version by Joan Tate and Polly Lawson, 1992)
  • Småbarnens sagobok, 1920 (with Amalia Fahlstedt)
  • Bubbelemuck och andra sagor, 1921
  • Lillebrors segelfärd, 1921
    - Pikkuveljen purjevene (suom. Eila Kivikkaho, 1988)
    - Peter’s Voyage (English verses by Rita Scherman, 1931)
  • Borgmästar Munte, 1922 (with Alice Tegnér)
  • Farmors lapptäcke, 1922
  • Resan till landet Längesen, 1923
    - Lohikäärme vie aikojen taa (suomentanut Eila Kivikk’aho, 1995)
    - The Land of Long Ago (tr. 2011)
  • Sagor och sagospel, 1923 (with Bo Beskow)
  • Sagan om den lilla hinden, 1924
    - Ruususuu ja Pikkuhirvi (suom. Eila Kivikkaho, 1988)
  • Tant Bruns födelsedag, 1925
    - Täti Ruskean syntymäpäivä (suom. Eila Kivikk'aho, 1985)
    - Aunt Brown’s Birthday: A Story Told and Illustrated by Elsa Beskow (tr. 1930)
  • Kistan på herrgårdsvinden, 1926
    - Beskowin satuvakka (suom. Liisa Ryömä, 1987)
  • Årets saga, 1927
    - Vuosisatukirja (suom. Eila Kivikkaho, 1984)
    - Around the Year: A Picture Book (translated by Joan Tate, 1988)
  • Jan och alla hans vänner, 1928
  • Petter och Lotta på äventyr, 1929
    - Petterin ja Lotan seikkailut / Petteri ja Lotta (suomentanut Eila Kivikk’aho, 2008)
    - The Adventures of Peter and Lotta: A Story (translated by Lita Beskow, 1934) / Peter and Lotta’s Adventure (tr. 2003)
  • Farmor och Fjunlätt och andra sagor, 1930
  • Hattstugan. En saga på vers med rim som barnen får hitta på själva, 1930
    - Hattulan väki: saturuno - ja lapsi saa täydentää sen riimit  (suom. Eila Kivikkaho, 1984)
    - Hat-house: A Story in Verse with the Last Word in Each Couplet Left Blank for the Children to Fill in the Rhyme (tr. 1931)
  • Farmor och Fjunlätt, 1930
  • Landet Långthärifrån, 1932
  • Solägget, 1932
    - Auringonmuna (suom. Eila Kivikkaho, 1974)
    - The Sun Egg (tr. 1980)  
  • Sagan om den nyfikna abborren, 1933
    - Pikku-Tommin kalaretki (suom. Eila Kivikkaho, 1975)
    - The Curious Fish (tr. 2009)
  • Sessalätts äventyr, 1934
    - Sesselin seikkailu (suom. Eila Kivikkaho, 1989)
    - Princess Sylvie (tr. 2011)
  • Vill du läsa?, 1935-37
  • Ocke, Nutta och Pillerill, 1939
    - Nappu, Nutta ja pikku Terho (suom. Eila Kivikkaho, 1983)
    - Woody, Hazel and Little Pip (tr. 1990; Joan Tate and Polly Lawson, 2010)
  • Duktiga Annika, 1941
    - Punaisen tuvan Annika (suom. Maarit Sinervo, 1983)
    - Emily and Daisy (2009)
  • Farbror Blås nya båt, 1942
    - Setä Sinisen uusi vene (suom. Eila Kivikkaho, 1973)
    - Uncle Blue’s New Boat (English version by Polly Lawson, 2002)
  • Det hände en gång, 1944
  • ABC-resan, 1945
    - Aakkosmatka (suom. Eila Kivikkaho, 1987)
  • Petters och Lottas jul, 1947
    - Petterin ja Lotan joulu (suom. Eila Kivikkaho, 1975) / Petteri ja Lotta (suomentanut Eila Kivikk’aho, 2008)
    - Peter and Lotta’s Christmas (tr. 1980)
  • Herr Peter, 1949
    - Herra Petteri (suomentanut Eila Kivikkaho, 1989)
    - Peter’s Old House (English version Joan Tate, 1990)
  • Herr Peters hus, 1949
  • Tomten i leksaksfönstret och andra sagor, 1950
  • Röda bussen gröna bilen, 1952
  • Studier och minnesbilder, 1954 (with Natanael Beskow)
  • Elsa Beskows sagor: ett urval, 1967
    - Elsa Beskowin satuja:; valikoima (suom. Liisa Ryömä, 1982)
  • Sagobilder. åren 1894-1918, 1988 (edited by Margareta Schildt och Mary Ørvig)
  • Elsa Beskows sagor: ett urval, 1999 (new ed., edited by Boris Persson et al.)
  • Elsa Beskow: vår barndoms bildskatt, 2002
  • Elsa Beskows sagoskatt, 2010 (edited by Sara Hedenberg and Annika Lundeberg)

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