Happy 145th birthday to Elsa Beskow. Elsa Beskow was one of Sweden’s best-loved writer and illustrator of children’s books. “For over one hundred years Swedish children have grown up with her books. Her illustrations take the reader back to an idyllic Sweden at the turn of the last century. Elsa Beskow’s books transcend nationality and time and are true classics.”
Elsa was born on February 11, 1874 in Stockholm, Sweden and was the second of six children. She loved fairy tales, and started telling stories even before she could speak properly telling stories to her older brother Hans, who would help her find the right words and give suggestions on the plot.
When Elsa was 15 her father Bernt died leaving her mother, Augusta, alone with six children. This caused great financial strain on the family and they moved in with her mother’s unmarried sisters and brother, who were already living together. In her new home the focus was on books, music and art. The Swedish women’s movement was growing in strength at this time and it was a cause supported in her new home. It was liberal and she was raised to stand up for her ideals. These values can be seen in her picture books. The Flowers’ Festival, from 1914, contends everyone has the right to freedom of speech. Some people believe that Mrs. Chestnut, in her loose-fitting dress, was pregnant. Showing a pregnant women at that time was a daring thing to do when the middle classes believed pregnant women should be kept out of sight.
Elsa’s life with her extended family inspired her Aunt-series of books. During the First World War Elsa was afraid, depressed and angry at the state of the world, and she used her own experiences and memories from her childhood with the aunts and uncle to create an idyllic world into which she could escape. This is when she began writing her Aunt books: Aunt Green, Aunt Brown and Aunt Lavender, Aunt Brown’s Birthday, Peter and Lotta’s Adventure, Uncle Blue’s New Boat, and Peter and Lotta’s Christmas.
Studying drawing at Konstfack, University College of Arts, Crafts and Design (then called Tekniska skolan) was when she began drawing for children. Her drawings and writings were first published by the children’s magazine Jultomten (Father Christmas) in 1894.
It was there that Elsa met Nathaniel Beskow when she was a model for his paintings. Although they both were studying art, Nathaniel decided to resume his theology studies. Instead of being the wife of an artist, Elsa became the wife of a doctor of theology. Together they had six sons between the years 1899 and 1914, and Elsa supported the family by producing a new book each year, as Nathaniel’s work didn’t bring in much money. Elsa once described her married life as “every year another book and every other year a boy.” Her sons became models for her drawings of children. All her child characters had a basis in reality and she created one picture book for each of her sons.
The first book published by Elsa in 1897, the year she married, was as an illustrator for the Tale of the Little, Little Old Woman, a nursery rhyme taught to her by her grandmother. However, her big breakthrough came in 1901 with Peter in Blueberry Land. This was also the first book to be translated, into German in 1903. From then, her Swedish picture books were hugely popular and have been translated into fourteen languages including Arabic, English, French, Dutch, Japanese and Korean.
Elsa used her life and surroundings to inspire her books. The Beskow family lived in an old wooden mansion in Djursholm, outside of Stockholm. The house had a huge, wild garden where Elsa was inspired to create her images of flowers and plants. Nature is always prominent in her books – filled with flowers, plants, trees, animals and mountains. She combined reality with fantasy and fairy tales; children meet elves and goblins, animals talk and acorns come to life. She told her stories to her children and later to her grandchildren.
Elsa wrote and illustrated Swedish picture books throughout her life. She also illustrated books and songbooks for Swedish schools. Elsa Beskow’s final book, Röda bussen och gröna bilen (Red Bus, Green Car), was published when she was 78.
Elsa Beskow’s style dominated Swedish children’s picture books for over 50 years and inspired many artists. Elsa Beskow was awarded the Nils Holgersson Plaque in 1952 for her collection. In 1958 the Elsa Beskow Plaque was established by the Swedish Library Association. Elsa Beskow died of cancer in 1953, aged 79.
We carry many Elsa Beskow items in our store and on our website. You can see many of her images here:
There is a play area in Terminal 5 at the Stockholm Airport that features drawings of Elsa Beskow for kids to play in while waiting for their flights.
Much of this information came from the Elsa Beskow page of Floris Books.