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63rd IFLA General Conference - Conference Programme and Proceedings - August 31- September 5, 1997

Children's Literature in Denmark. Trends and currents in the 1990s

Eva Glistrup


Almost half of all fiction published in Denmark is written for children and young people. Children's literature is therefore a major component of the literary map. The resources - first of all demand from the many well-financed public and school libraries - made available for children's literature in Denmark over the last 30 years describe an interesting development, also when looked at in an international context.

A system of secure and substantial subsidy for children's literature, as seen in the other Scandinavian countries, has never been established in Denmark. A progressive Public Libraries Act, making a comprehensive collection of children's literature an obligatory component of every public library and a school library an obligatory of every junior school, is placing the public and school libraries as an absolute prerequisite for the quantity and breath of a children's literature which, in such a small language area, would not be able to compete on prevailing marketplace terms.

The result of the advancement of children's literature in the library service has been to give a large number of stimulating Danish authors the opportunity to evolve and reach a wide audience.

The paper presents some examples of Danish authorships with the following headlines: Art - Education, Children's literature in Relation to Contemporary Society, Utopia, The Historical Novel. A Vigorous Genre in Danish Children's Literature, Ancestry, Critical Perspectives of Future Civilization, Love-Fantasy, Reality-Schock Horror-Evil-Conscience. Neil Postman (The Disappearance of Childhood, 1982) never became a guru in Denmark. On the other hand in new Danish children's literature we increasingly experience 'the adult child' and 'the childish adult'.

Are we heading towards a new era which does not have a special literature for children and young people - but a 'people's literature'? It's beginning to look that way!


Children’s Literature in the Public and School Library

Children’s literature in Denmark is highly sensitive to market trends. Its status and resources should therefore to be taken into consideration in any outline of the dominant trends and currents in the literature of the 1990s. The resources made available for children’s literature in Denmark over the last 30 years describe an interesting development - also when looked at in an international context.

Public and school libraries are an absolute prerequisite for the quantity and breadth of a children’s literature which, in such as small language area, would not be able to compete on prevailing marketplace terms. A system of secure and substantial subsidy for children’s literature, as seen in the other Scandinavian countries, has never been established in Denmark. It was in 1965 that a new Public Libraries Act was ushered in on the back of an economic boom, making a comprehensive collection of children’s literature an obligatory component of every library - be it a central library, a branch library or a mobile library - and local authorities were to be obliged to provide each and every junior school with a school library.

One result of these legal requirements, which the local authorities could fulfill thanks to quite adequate funding from the state, was an enormous increase in the demand for children’s literature. This demand was, however, hard to satisfy because fewer than 200 books suitable for library distribution were published annually at the time, and these covered the entire age span from 0 to 16. It was not unusual for children’s librarians in the field to be confronted with bookworms of all ages claiming to have read every book in the children’s library. A claim which had to be taken with a pinch of salt, but which, seen from the individual child’s point of view, was indeed true: this child had read every single book which he or she found inviting in accordance with his or her personal taste and stage of development.

Danish Children’s Literature in Figures

Demand from the many well-financed public and school libraries created a Danish market for children’s literature which, from an international perspective, is quite remarkable. More publishing houses began to publish children’s books. The annual total of published titles grew steadily and, in 1979, broke through the 1,000 barrier for the first time. The upward swing reach its zenith in 1986 with 1,304 titles published. Today, the annual figure is approximately 1,100. In other words: from the mid-1960s until the end of the 1980s just as many books for children and young people were published as had been produced during the previous 400 years.

In 1983 the Public Libraries Act was modified to the extent that direct state subsidy to the library service ceased. In the 1970s Denmark had entered an economic recession with high unemployment and frozen public spending - the latter resulting in a reduction in library funds available for the purchase of books. So why are over 1,000 books for children and young people still published every year? The Danish children’s literature community also wonders about this. The problem here is that the books have a very small print run and consequently a high retail price. A vicious circle: few copies, high prices, little private purchase, shrinking budgets for library purchase, fewer books bought but at higher prices. A development which, of course, first hit the Danish picture book with its pioneering work in visual language and subject matter - work which is possibly of less interest to the big outside world, co-edition thus not being a possibility.

The net result of 25 years of advancement of children’s literature in the library service has been to give a large number of stimulating Danish authors the opportunity to evolve and reach a wide audience. Almost half of all fiction published in Denmark is written for children and young people. Children’s literature is therfore a major component of the literary map.

The same cannot be said of research into children’s literature, nor the editorial will of newspapers and journals to analyse and appraise this literature. The situation here leaves much to be desired. Denmark has, for example, no designated institute for children’s literature as we see in many other countries.

Art - Education

Europe has always seen a clash of interests between art and education in both children’s literature itself and any discussion of the subject. In Denmark the educational aspect of children’s literature has had favourable conditions. At the beginning of this century there was even talk of school teacher literature, written as it was by school teachers and, being promoted by them, often of a moralising tone. The picture book of the 1930s had high artistic standards on the visual side and a horribly moralising text. The 1970s gave us a politicising and politicised literature for children and young people. From the 1980s onwards there has been a growing and pressing expectation of artistic quality, structural distinction. Today we can see that there has been a shift from instruction to style. And this has had its consequences. The dividing line between children’s and adults’ literature is now more fluid. Old definitions of the nature of children’s literature and how it should be presented in form and content are seen to be breaking up. A scepticism has emerged in relation to earlier conventions which required adaptation to and consideration of the reader’s age, psychological and intellectual stage of development and degree of experience. ‘Forget about target groups - and give the youngsters a good story. It doesn’t matter if the author uses some words which are too long or are at the outer edge of what the children will understand. It’s all right to provoke children with something they don’t understand or get a bit wrong. Neither does it matter if a children’s book contains something that is perhaps only for the adult reader,’ says the author Kim Fupz Aakeson. The writer Bjarne Reuter has expressed practically the same sentiments and the writer Louis Jensen says: ‘My personal framework means that it’s quite all right for it to get harder. It’s quite all right to have contemporary and reflective layers in the text. But, as a basis for the totality, there must be a simplicity. What I want to create is exactly that combination of simplicity and complexity which would enable anyone to read the story. Children and adults.’

Form has taken a new direction. Narrative styles are modern and more sophisticated. Concurrent with this development, a number of authors of fiction for adults have begun, in the last few years, to publish books for children and young people. Taken together these two phenomena have been designated ‘adultisation’ - not a particularly accurate description. A more unifying characterisation of these new types of books for children and young people would be Umberto Eco’s concept of the ‘open text’ which suggests a variety of interpretative possibilities and thus implies the active collaboration and application of the reader. The contrary is the case with the ‘closed text’ which, with few built-in indicators for interpretation, seeks to steer its reader in a certain direction. The didactic children’s book can be called, in Eco’s term, a closed text. Pile upon pile of such books are to be found in Denmark, as everywhere else. Although there are good reasons to be pleased about the development in literature for children and young people as described here, it has not been completely cost-free, as a comparatively large number of children experience difficulty in learning to read. They can easily be frightened off should the text be too difficult and demanding and there is a serious and dangerous risk that this can lead to reading being deleted from their list of activities. For these children the large output of suitably uncomplicated, quality children’s books is essential.

Children’s Literature in Relation to Contemporary Society

Today we see a profusion of genres and themes and we see new ways and different forms in which to tell stories. Experiments are made with forms of expression, language is honed, new methods of illustration and narrative techniques are taken up. Family, the historical, the psychological, cultural criticism, love, realism, fantasy, thrills and spills - it’s all there - in new forms. On top of this, fundamental themes such as life and death and ‘who am I’ are once again on the agenda in the 1990s, at a time when ethics and morality are major topics for discussion.

However marginalised and segregated children’s literature might appear, this development demonstrates that it feeds off the same raw material and breathes the same air as all other art.


Silas is a well-known figure from a Danish children’s book series; he has survived for four decades and each book - twelve in all - is characterised by the decade in which it was written. In 1967 Silas came sailing down the river all by himself. Silas and the Black Filly (Silas og den sorte hoppe 1967). This was the decade of personal growth. The boy has left his mother and stepfather and now, full of self-confidence, is off to make his own way in the world. At odds with every adult, he nonetheless avails himself of their sharp practice. Craftily, and without too many moral scruples, he acquires the black filly; she follows him through all twelve books. He already has the magic flute. Silas is a decent person who objects to the injustice heaped upon the weak. A baby in a dustbin, a child no one wants to look after, proves to be a turning point in his life. He sets up a collective on Mount Sebastian; the old, the disabled, children and so-called oddities come to live there. The collective idea was strong in the 1970s. The Women’s Movement was also a central element of the ‘70s and ‘80s and Silas’s friend Melissa is a radiant repesentative of the independent girl who wants knowledge, authority and freedom. Melissa has a well-developed talent for business - is she something of an ‘80s yuppie? No, but the 1990s show her to be one who seeks reliability, security - no experiments for her. And now their paths must separate. Silas and his friend are on their way out into the world to face new adventures. A profusion of extremely interesting minor characters people the books and in the centre stands Silas - a person with a strong identity combined with the contemporary restlessness and quest for new objectives. In 1976, the author of the Silas books, Cecil Bødker , was presented with the prestigious international Hans Christian Andersen Award for children’s literature.

Ecology is central to life as lived by the residents of Mount Sebastian, time and place are entrusted to the imagination. This is also the case in Bodil Bredsdorff ’s books about the children of Crow Creek: The Crow Child, Eidi, Tink and Alek (Krageungen, Eidi, Tink and Alek 1992-95). The series starts somewhere in the world, somewhere in time. The girl lives here with her grandmother - an impoverished, hungry life. When the grandmother dies she leaves nothing but a list of simple maxims: you should trust your own instinct as to whether a person is likely to be good to you or harm you; the door to a person’s heart can only be opened from the inside. As with Silas, a little community is gradually established during the course of the four books, its strength drawn essentially from the sensuous description of the interplay between nature, climate, the changing seasons and the daily battle to hold hunger at bay. The immediate is of primary importance. Whereas Silas progresses so that the first book addresses the 10-year-old child and the last book is clearly directed at young people, Bodil Bredsdorff has chosen 10-12-year-olds as the central characters in the books and therefore the target readership. If the children grow older they change status and become supporting characters - since, as she has said: ‘the culmination of childhood is the period just before it disappears.’ The 1990’s utopia of the simple life - the person of integrity - is a little artistic apropos to contemporary deliberations on world resources.

The Historical Novel. A Vigorous Genre in Danish Children’s Literature.

The historical novel as a genre has always been a vigorous component of Danish children’s literature. From around 1980 it gained renewed topicality following a period during which the market had been dominated by contemporary social realism. Are critical contemporary novels written at times of optimism and economic prosperity? Is it more compelling to look backwards when living at a time of pessimism and economic recession? Maybe the ‘old days’ really were good? The most recent trend is for great complexity in the historical novel. Not only is light cast on the past, but the present and the future are also put into perspective.

Peter Seeberg ’s trilogy, Without a Name (Uden et navn ), The Sleeping Boy (Den sovende dreng ) and The Frost Helps (Frosten hjælper ) (1986-89), takes the reader back 1,800 years to the Roman Iron Age. It is the story of a time of turbulence, of friction between hunters and an emergent agrarian community. The main character is one of the hunters; at the beginning of the book he leaves his settlement and starts out on the long journey to Crane Lake, in order to collect three of the cranes’ red neck-feathers. As has always been the custom of his people, he will not be given a name until he returns with the three feathers. When he gets home, he finds his settlement has been burnt to the ground. The peasants have killed everyone - including his parents and sister. But he must have a name and so he sets off - once more on foot - on a new expedition which takes him to a rich uncle, a tradesman in Paris. He is offered the opportunity of staying there, but he chooses to be faithful to his ancestry and therefore returns to his settlement with a young woman, his beloved, who he stole from the peasants.

The books deal with existential choice - hunters, peasants, town merchants? - set at a time of upheaval which resembles our own in many respects. Our hero chooses the familiar, the moribund, and the author argues elegantly, in a powerful and poetic language, in favour of the value of this culture’s pact with nature and her resources. Peter Seeberg, who is a highly respected author of books for adults, received the 1991 Austrian Children’s Literature Award for this series.

Bent Haller has produced a large body of high-quality work in many genres since his debut in 1975. The Saga of Brage the King’s Son (Brage Kongesøns Saga), published in 1993, is a major - in every sense of the word - and very complex novel. It deals with the Danes’ historical roots, religious notions and legends. It is about how these - via the runes - are translated into words and pictures and thus become the building-blocks in a story which gives the people a common identity and saves them from a fate worse than death: oblivion. Brage’s tale is the story of a people at the turning-point between the old and the new ways, customs and gods; a people who, due to climate changes and flooding, leave their land, sun disc and sacred sacrificial bogs. It is the story of the great expedition through Europe undertaken by the Cimbrians and Teutons and their bloody encounter with the Roman army. It is also about the art of storytelling. Brage is the King’s son who, in Rome, meets the storyteller of all storytellers, Homer, and later returns to his own homeland as the god of poetry. Throughout the book, Brage’s adversary is the Old Woman of the Forest - an interesting archetypical witch, she represents the matriarchal power with its knowledge and gift of prophecy which is to be pushed aside by the new divine law and symbolic order which Brage brings to the North.


Ancestry and a need to seeks one’s roots are the themes of a book by another significant Danish author, Gerd Rindel ’s Tracks in Russia (Et spor i Rusland ). When Gerd Rindel, mistress of many genres, avails herself of historical material, she always presents a clear manifesto: spotlighting inequality and the persecution of those who choose to differ. This book was inspired by a journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway undertaken by the author in the summer of 1990.

Jelena - or Jelena the Third (her mother and grandmother are also called Jelena) - has spent every moment of her 14-year-old life at home on her grandparents’ estate in Denmark. She has only heard about the outside world through the servant girls’ tales of boutiques and burger bars. Her family is of fine Russian noble ancestry, obliged to flee after the October Revolution in 1917. Her grandparents live in another era, another world. Jelena has never known her mother, but she finds a love letter hidden in a statue and from it she learns that her mother ran off to the Soviet Union shortly after giving birth. When her grandparents die, Jelena decides to track down her mother. It proves to be a journey in time too. And she finds her, but her mother will not assume the maternal role - and Jelena has to accept that that’s how it is. Besides being deeply fascinating and original, with a dazzling use of language and refined psychology, this book also requires effort on the part of the reader.

Critical Perspectives of Future Civilization

In many ways, perceptions of utopia, the past and ancestry are all intimately connected with a vision of the future.

Post-1970 has seen an international golden age for the science fiction novel - a trend which started making its mark on Danish children’s literature during the 1980s. As we know, there are at least two directions this genre can take: the optimistic, techno-enthusiastic, or the pessimistic, describing an impoverished, polluted world perhaps under a totalitarian regime. In Denmark, the latter became dominant. Numerous Danish authors have made their contribution with this type of novel.

Two publications, Svend Åge Madsen ’s Manhunt ( Jagten på et menneske 1991) and Kim Fupz Aakeson ’s There’s Something Rotten (De gale 1992), have added a large helping of originality and a dash of optimism to the genre. In Denmark we have had, for a number of years now, what in the language of political officialdom is known as youth unemployment. This is of course a subject about which books of bleak social-realism could be written, but Svend Åge Madsen, otherwise principally an author of fiction for adults, has chosen his own quite unique approach by continually switching between the space occupied by dream and the one occupied by reality. The novel unfolds along two balanced paths, dividing the six chapters into twelve which relate to one another as reality to nightmare. Young Asser appears as the central character in both worlds and gets mixed up in strange goings-on which curiously mirror each other. In the one system, unemployment is seen as affording the right to be creative and enjoy life. In the other system, young people are fully occupied in trying to avoid loss of life, as every day, from nine in the morning until four in the afternoon, has been declared a free-for-all in hunting down the unemployed. Svend Åge Madsen found inspiration for this particular form of blood sport in Jonathan Swift’s tract A Modest Proposal (1729), in which Swift suggested that the problems of famine and overcrowding in Ireland could be solved by introducing cannibalism of children.

The story in Kim Fupz Aakeson’s novel for young people There’s Something Rotten (De gale) begins in the year 2010, at a time when bio-technology is running riot. Out of the blue an illness strikes, resulting in most of those over the age of 25 being deprived of their memory and social behavioural skills. The adults are crazy, so the young people take over. And what happens if the dream of power to the young suddenly becomes the only prospect of survival and how will people react to the threat of chaos and extinction? The style is cinematic and it is liberating that the author refrains from staking out solutions taken from the political, neo-religious, occult and mythological fringe. This book is an exponent of the new trend in Nordic literature for children and young people: the endeavour to depict a society via a reality, a reality that is here and now and just around the corner. And which, in a way, frees it from overt instruction, and chooses rather to woo the reader’s common sense and delight in the written word. The book was the Danish winner of a major Scandinavian fiction competition.

Love - Fantasy - Reality - Shock Horror - Evil - Conscience

The Magic Town (Den fortryllede by 1994) opens like a fairy tale: ‘First of all, I lived in a completely ordinary town with ordinary houses and ordinary cats and dogs and people, apart from Marie. She wasn’t ordinary. Later on, I lived in a magic town, in a church, in an old-fashioned, leather-backed and leather-seated high chair.’ One morning a giant heart lies stranded on the shore of the fjord. You can go inside it through a door, and this is exactly what the boy who is telling this fantastical story does. In the rooms of the heart he comes across the various components of a mechanical person. He puts all the parts together, winds it up and follows the figure out of the heart and into the town. And that’s when the magic starts Birds and animals turn into porcelain. All the people disappear and the boy is left alone. At first it’s all great fun, but the amusement is short-lived and changes into a regular nightmare. It’s not long before he cannot bear the loneliness or his own company any longer. In the middle of his despair, however, he finds some little comfort in the church where he is now living. He looks through the service books and comes across many wise words.

Who is responsible for all his torment? At first the boy puts the blame on the mechanical person and a violent life-and-death battle begins. He gradually embarks upon a lengthy process of introspection during which he looks inside himself and at his life so far. It is precisiely this preoccupation with the bizarre, the semi-macabre, spiced with an infectious, affectionate humour full of pranks and childishness, that has made Louis Jensen one of Denmark’s leading authors for children and young people. All of his books have this characteristic. They are like dreams committed to paper, leading the reader through the mind to its remote recesses where the perception of unmanageable concepts such as life, death, love and malice are made tangible and concrete - in a language of such elegance that Cecil Bødker springs to mind.

Malice is also to be found in the work of another interesting author: Peter Mouritzen . And terror. Death’s-Doll (Dødningedukken 1993) opens with: ‘A dead girl was sitting in class.’ The central character is an author visiting a school class. When he tells the students that he does not believe in the possibility of supernatural manifestation, blood-curdling and inexplicable things over which he has no control start happening. He is in a constant state of uncertainty about what is fact and what is fiction. The girl in the book asks several times - what use is an author? Peter Mouritzon has himself speculated about this very question in an article: ‘...the object of human existence is poetry. That is what defines our identity as humans.’ Peter Mouritzen has made the sophisticated horror story his speciality. ‘I think it is necessary to shudder and I am convinced that children who seek out shock and horror in the cinema and in books are performing an unconscious ritual function designed to generate a fully-dimensional self, embracing what could be called monstrous experience.’

In 1982 the American media researcher Neil Postman published The Disappearance of Childhood . He outlined a progression which has led TV to become dominant at the expense of reading. When Gutenberg invented moveable type he created a childhood universe and an adult universe. It was possible for adults to have secrets to which children had no access. The march of the television into our homes has changed this relationship beyond recognition. Shows, quizzes, but also ‘exposures’ from the sphere of adult intimacy, have transformed childhood, and now we increasingly experience ‘the adult child’ and ‘the childish adult’. Neil Postman never became a guru in Denmark. On the other hand, and for a long time now, it has been apparent in a succession of children’s books that adults are being knocked off their pedestal, they behave childishly and often irresponsibly. Simultaneously, we see children, as a matter of course and with great tolerance, assuming adult responsibility. They neither are nor become adult in their behaviour - merely responsible and sincere.

The jewel in this particular crown was put in place in 1996 with Dorte Karrebæk ’s The Girl who was Good at Lots of Things (Pigen der var go’ til mange ting ) - a book which earned her the Ministry of Culture Award for Children’s Literature, even though it is a picture book containing very few words. But what words! Words to make any adult shudder - and hope. The girl is an only-child, so she has no one to help her, she is fully occupied with practicalities. But she never makes it to school. Her parents muddle through and the girl wonders where they learnt to make such a mess. The parents are excellent at staying up all night and very good about sleeping all day. One day the girl organises a fancy-dress party - her father dresses up as a dog, her mother as a cat and the girl dresses up as a girl. The party is a success, but next morning the masks have stuck. That was the only change that the party made. And then the girl knows that it was all too late and there is no way you can change a dog or a cat. Therefore she decides to forget about her childhood and proceed to grow up as quickly as possible. And so she leaves home. The final words of the book are: ‘All children leave home sooner or later. The girl left sooner.’

An uncompromising story about the tenor of the times, but without putting the child in the role of ‘victim’. As the final page was turned and the book was shut, the 6-year-old noted laconically: ’That was good and a bit too short, but of course the girl had to leave home so that’s the end of that story.’

Danish literature for children. Honest and uncompromising. Humorous and well-written. Finger on the pulse. Are we heading towards a new era which does not have a special literature for children and young people - but a ‘people’s literature’? It’s beginning to look that way!

Translated by Gaye Kynoch