If you’re learning… Swedish

This year, we’re starting a new series at World Kid Lit blog, where we recommend children’s and YA books in translation in response to a certain topic or a language. We invite young people and families to tell us about their connection with a country or language, or educators to outline a topic they’re teaching in class, and then we ask literature experts to recommend books in translation to add context, culture and a bit of fun to the learning journey. 

In our first instalment in this series, we ask Yasmine (7) and Hamza (11) about their experience of learning Swedish at home using Duolingo, and then we ask Swedish literature experts B.J. Epstein, Kate Lambert and Julia Marshall to recommend their favourite Swedish books for young readers… 


1. Have you found Swedish easier or harder to learn than you expected? 

Hamza: I find that learning Swedish is surprisingly easy and fun to learn, although Duolingo was my only means to do so. It has certain similarities with English and Italian, so that only helped me to get better at the language. I definitely recommend it to other young people my age or older. 

Yasmine: I have only done the basics and so far I have found it fun and easy. 

2. What do you think of Duolingo and how it works? 

Hamza: Duolingo’s system is fantastic in my view. It is easy to follow, set up well and gives a positive, interesting aspect of speaking, reading and writing. 

Yasmine: Duolingo is a good way to learn a language because you can have fun while learning.

3. Would you try learning any other languages and if so which? 

Hamza: All the languages I have learnt other than English and Italian was on Duolingo. From their selection of courses I would choose French, Spanish (which I have already started) and perhaps German as an extra. 

Yasmine: I am learning Arabic on Duolingo sometimes. I would also like to learn French. 

4. Why Swedish?

Hamza: I learnt Swedish as my father was born and raised there so I decided it would be a nice thing to learn, especially because we could then have conversations that people wouldn’t understand.

Yasmine: I chose Swedish because my daddy comes from Sweden


Translator Kate Lambert recommends…

My childhood favourite by Astrid Lindgren was The Bullerby Children (Barnen i Bullerbyn), which has just been republished by Oxford University Press as The Children of Noisy Village, translated by Susan Beard. There are three in the series from OUP. Another favourite of mine is Ronja the Robber’s Daughter (Ronja Rövardotter) which was made into a Japanese animated film by Studio Ghibli, which might be a way in. 

Translator B.J. Epstein recommends…

I recommend The Bird Within Me, written and illustrated by Sara Lundberg (Fågeln i mig flyger vart den vill). I’m biased because I translated it to English, but it is a gorgeous and powerful book. The Bird Within Me is based on the true story of the Swedish artist Berta Hansson, and it is about finding your own path in life. Berta is torn between her obligations to her family and her desire to be an artist. She has to find a way to let the metaphorical bird trapped inside her free. The book helps inspire other people to live their dreams.

Gecko Press publisher and translator Julia Marshall recommends…

Can you Whistle, Johanna? by Ulf Stark is one of my favourite Swedish books published by Gecko Press (Kan du vissla Johanna). It is the first book I published, and I believe it is one of the best books in the world – I first read it when I was learning Swedish so it is perfect for that too. It is about two boys – one has a grandfather and one doesn’t. They go to the old people’s home and adopt Grandpa Ned, who hasn’t yet learned how to be a grandfather. He turns out to be one of the best grandfathers you could wish for, even though he doesn’t like pigs’ trotters or fishing. This book has humour, character, drama, plot, and it is sad too, at the end. But Berra has learned how to whistle and fly a kite, and he and Ned were the best of friends. It is the sort of book you can read a hundred times.

All the Dear Little Animals (Alla döda små djur) is another of my favourite books, by another Ulf called Ulf Nilsson, and illustrated by Eva Eriksson, one of the best illustrators in Sweden. This is another of my favourite books, Esther, the oldest of three children, decides one fine summer’s day to start a company called Funerals Limited, to bury all the poor little dead animals in the world, because “somebody must”. Esther is the bossy older sister, the narrator is a poet and Puttie the youngest’s job is to cry. They start with a bumble bee and graduate to bigger animals, such as fish, mice (given by their grandmother) and a squashed hare. They practice funerals and are well prepared when they have to bury a dead bird that smashed into the wall. Like Johanna, All the Dear Little Animals has drama, humour, character development, pathos, and emotion – and it ends firmly with the words: “And the next day we decided to do something else, something completely different.”

Detective Gordon: The First Case is also written by Ulf Nilsson (illustrated by Gitte Spee; Kommissarie Gordon. Det första fallet). Detective Gordon is a toad, and his job is to look after the forest to make sure that fairness and good will prevail. No one should be bullied or tricked or made to feel bad in the forest. Detective Gordon takes on an assistant mouse, Buffy (from the Latin for toad, bufa) and the two of them look after the forest and do fine police work. When a job is finished, they stamp the paperwork, Ka dunk! At Gecko Press we say that this book is full of human nature – not least in that Detective Gordon paces his day with morning cakes, afternoon cakes and evening cakes. Every moment is a cake moment. There are five in the series of Detective Gordon, each one a treasure.

World Kid Lit co-editor Claire Storey recommends…

Valdemar’s Peas by Maria Jönsson, translated from Swedish by Julia Marshall (Gecko Press; original Swedish title Valdemars ärtor). It’s dinner time and Valdemar has to eat his peas: ‘Papa decides “The peas go in the tummy. Then ice cream. Chocolate ice cream”.’ What Papa didn’t say, however, was whose tummy. The illustrations are great in black, red and pea green showing the dynamics between Papa, Valdemar and little sister Lynn. The simplicity of the story is great and my kids really identified with it, giggling about Valdemar’s plan to get the ice cream. I also love the fact that it’s Papa who is in charge of dinner time – Dads can cook too!

Global Literature in Libraries Initiative (GLLI) recommends…

Sara Lovestam’s Wonderful Feels Like This, a YA novel translated by Laura A. Wideburg (original Swedish title: Hjärta av jazz). For Steffi, going to school everyday is an exercise in survival. She’s never fit in with any of the groups at school, and she’s viciously teased by the other girls in her class. The only way she escapes is through her music—especially jazz music. Wonderful Feels Like This was shortlisted for the 2019 GLLI Translated YA Prize.

Did you know…

Swedish is also an official language in Finland.

The 2020 joint winner of the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative Translated YA Book Prize was Maresi Red Mantle, written by Finnish author Maria Turtschaninoff, translated from Swedish by A. A. Prime (Pushkin Press/Abrams Books). For more about this third instalment of the Red Abbey Chronicles, take a look at our review. In Swedish, the series is called Krönikor från Röda Klostret.

More reading ideas