Today Josephine Murray introduces two Swedish Christmas titles full of Swedish festivities and traditions, and the magic of talking animals!
By Josephine Murray
Findus at Christmas and Findus and the Christmas Tomte
Written and illustrated by Sven Nordqvist
Translated from Swedish (Sweden)
Translated by Nathan Large
Published by Hawthorn Press
Normally, on the day before Christmas Eve, Findus and Pettson would be busily getting ready for Christmas in their wooden cottage in rural Sweden. But this year they can’t do any baking, or cooking, and they don’t even have a Christmas tree, because Pettson can only use one foot after hurting the other one falling off the sled while they were bringing home fir branches, and Findus is a cat, albeit a talking one.
The apparent disaster which opens Findus at Christmas leads to a heart-warming, funny story about how a bit of inventiveness and willingness to adapt, combined with the kindness of other people, enables the old man and the cat to enjoy Christmas after all.
Swedish publisher Opal suggests Findus at Christmas is suitable for three to six year-olds, but like most of the other English translations of Findus and Pettson books (one is a board book), I think it can be enjoyed by children and adults of any age. Reviewers on the Hawthorn Press website, including Philip Pullman, concur that the books have multi-age appeal, and praise Nordquivst’s writing and illustration.
The writing constructs relatable situations with believable dialogue and fairly short sentences which give it real momentum. The narrative is peppered with moments of understated, well-timed humour, such as when Pettson and Findus go to bake left-over gingerbread dough that was in the larder and discover it’s shrunk.
A key element of the books is that the only person who can understand what Findus is saying is Pettson. But in Findus and the Christmas Tomte published in English in 2018, a mysterious and magical sausage-eating postman, who turns out to play a key role in the plot, can understand him as well.
At 129 pages compared with Findus at Christmas’s 23, Findus and the Christmas Tomte is divided into 17 chapters and should last several winter evenings. Opal, which published it in 1994 as Tomtemaskinen, suggest a reading age of six to nine years, probably due to the longer length and presence of some great multisyllabic words to enlarge young readers’ vocabularies, such as ‘predictable’, ‘embellishment’ and ‘stupendous’.
Findus and the Christmas Tomte gives even more of an insight into Swedish Christmas traditions than the many mentions of food and drink in Findus at Christmas. Background notes at the beginning explain the cultural aspects depicted in the story: that in Sweden, Christmas presents are brought by the Yule Tomte; and that 13 December is the festival of St Lucia. There’s also a note about Christopher Polhem, a Swedish scientist, inventor and educator who created a ‘mechanical alphabet’ that Pettson mentions in the book.
Author Sven Nordqvist trained as an architect before publishing his first children’s book in 1983, followed by the first in the Findus and Pettson series in 1984. This background is put to good use in his stories, as we see with the unusual Christmas tree in Findus at Christmas. In Findus and the Christmas Tomte, the plot revolves around Pettson’s efforts to construct an automatic Yule Tomte machine to give Findus his presents, because of course, being a grown-up, Pettson doesn’t believe the Yule Tomte really exists. And while Pettson is busy with the drawings and cogwheels of what he’s pretending to Findus is an automatic firewood feeder, the cat gets busy with his own Heath Robinson-esque inventions.
Nordqvist depicts these constructions in detailed, colourful illustrations which reveal more of themselves each time you look at them. In both books there’s an additional smaller world of mice and other tiny creatures alongside the world of Findus and Pettson. Sometimes it’s there for comic effect, such as when mice go sledging on the afore-mentioned postman’s sausages, and sometimes it’s there to mirror or comment on the main story, for example, in one picture Pettson is disappointed that the Yule Tomte he’s made doesn’t look very life-like, and the mice hiding behind boxes on his workbench also look downcast, reflecting his feelings. You’ll have to read the book to find out who ends up bringing Findus his Christmas presents.
I love these books for their mix of real-life emotions – disappointment, frustration, excitement – familiar scenarios; cat (which could be substituted for kid) is bored while adult is trying to get something done, cat (kid) tries to ‘help’ adult and only creates chaos – with humour, feel-good concepts of friendship and community, zany adventures and more than a touch of magic.
The hardback covers of these books make them ideal for Christmas gifting. And why not carry on for birthdays with the 14 other Findus and Pettson titles available from the Hawthorn Press website, which include their adventures with pancake cakes, vegetable growing, fishing and camping, plus a craft, cooking and activity book.
Translator from French, journalist and writer Josephine Murray has not visited Sweden – yet – but she loves sledging and making and eating gingerbread biscuits with her husband and daughter. They live in Gloucestershire with a cat called Morgan, who does not talk. As far as they know. Josephine tweets @MsJHMurray