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Stories sans sugarcoating

By Jiang Yuxia (Global Times)

11:03, August 31, 2012

Acclaimed Swedish children's author Petter Lidbeck has been dubbed by his publisher as "an author who trusts in his readers, even though they are children." His books don't depict superheroes in their comfort zones whose stories wrap up as neatly and morally as they started. Instead, his stories often take on terrifying twists in haunting settings that would appear more suited to the world of adult literature. A girl in one of his stories calmly accepts the tragedy of losing her leg, while another three become the witnesses of a bloody bank robbery.

In his compatriot Ulf Nilsson's picture books, young characters are deliberately created to encounter fear and death. They learn to overcome obstacles in humorously crafted worlds where the author speaks to readers with honesty on an equal footing.

While the domain of children's literature as a safe world is a centuries-old tradition, both authors have successfully ventured into darker territory bordered by truth without condescension. It was a gamble, but one that appears to have paid dividends with young readers entranced by both writers' books.

But how can a children's author be so honest in storytelling? "My stories are based on my own experiences as a child," explained Nilsson, 64, who has over 100 books to his credit and is currently in the capital attending the 19th Beijing International Book Fair in Shunyi district. "I would like to have read these kinds of books when I was little because I worried my mother would die someday."

Nilsson agrees honesty is the best virtue in storytelling, regardless of the of age of readers. "To be honest [with children] is to share my life with them in order to help them," said Nilsson, who in 2002 won Sweden's most prestigious literary award, the August Prize, for Goodbye, Mr Muffin (2002). In the picture book, a boy becomes calm and positive despite the fear of death after exchanging letters and opinions with an aged, dying guinea pig.

Encountering fears in fiction puts you in better stead to overcome them in real life, noted the author. "I'm 63 years old and my mother has died. I've learned how to overcome my fears," said Nilsson in an amicable tone. "I'm not trying to be educational or teach them anything. I'm just telling a story using philosophy."

Lidbeck agreed and pointed out there's no need to shelter young readers from the harsh realities of life. "Children are no less intelligent than adults," said Lidbeck, who is also attending the book fair that runs until Sunday.

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