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CULTURE

Why one of Sweden’s most famous children’s book series is still so relevant

Gunilla Bergström's beautiful children's books about Alfons Åberg send a powerful message that even adults would do well to heed, writes journalism professor Christian Christensen.

Why one of Sweden's most famous children's book series is still so relevant
Gunilla Bergström, the author who wrote the children's book series about Alfons Åberg, or Alfie Atkins as he is known in English. Photo: Lars Pehrson/SvD/TT

Few pieces of art sear themselves into our minds quite like books for small children. Anyone who has read the same story over and over to a child at bedtime knows how deep and profound can be the relationship between the characters and a young person.

And, of course, between the characters and the parent reading the story. The books, the words, the pictures, the stories, the worn and folded covers all become woven into the tapestry of your life. The security your child gets from hearing a beloved story, and the beauty the parent witnesses as the child drifts off to sleep in the company of a well-known literary friend.

So, it was with immense sadness that I heard of the death of Swedish children’s author Gunilla Bergström, the author and illustrator of 26 wonderful Alfons Åberg books (or, as he is known in English-language versions, Alfie Atkins). In the 50 years since the first Alfons/Alfie book came out, the series has been translated into 30 languages and sold 10 million copies worldwide, including 5.5 million in Sweden alone (no small number in a country of just 10 million). He is a Swedish icon.

Bergström’s genius was her ability to capture the joy, sadness, tension and wonder of childhood. Alfons/Alfie lived alone with his father, yet no explanation was ever given about what had happened to his mother. In real life, many things go unspoken and unexplained, and it was for the children who loved Alfons/Alfie to complete that part of his story.

Bergström herself said that she refused to tell children “sweet lies” in her books, and that she wanted to present “true stories about real people, just the way we are in daily life. Mini-drama at the psychological level”. When some readers criticised the fact that the father in the Alfons/Alfie stories smoked a pipe, thus sending a bad message to children, Bergström responded: “Pappa Åberg is no role model. He’s a p-e-r-s-o-n. I think it’s nice to present people with flaws. Why should all adults be perfect in children’s books when they aren’t in real life?”

The tone and feeling of Bergström’s work always reminded me of the “Peanuts” strip created by the legendary cartoonist Charles Schulz. In his lead character Charlie Brown, Schulz found meaning and depth in the small details and events of everyday life, and never shied away from highlighting the fact that children could have complex, melancholy internal lives.

This didn’t alienate young readers, rather it told those young readers that Bergström and Schulz understood them, and refused to talk down to them. That they would be told the truth, no matter what. Bergström, like Schulz, never hesitated to treat the young characters in her work, and the children who were reading or hearing her books, with respect. To present them as equals. To see them as members of a society.

The Alfons/Alfie stories also send a powerful message about the current era of disinformation, conspiracy theories and politics of hate and exclusion. Those corrosive elements of contemporary society are utterly dependent upon cynicism, alienation, dishonesty and mythology: things not only missing from the message of Alfons/Alfie, but actively combatted through Bergström’s reinforcement of the inherent value and dignity of every person and of the preciousness and value of truth.

It’s human to be scared or confused, Bergström told kids, but with knowledge and effort some of that fear and confusion will subside. Many adults would do well to hear that message.

Yes, these are books meant for children, but the fact that we see art produced for our younger citizens as somehow less serious or meaningful than art created for adults is exactly the type of self-centered, myopic worldview Bergström’s work attempted to shatter. Creating stories, loved by millions of children, about the simple act of being human is a wonderful legacy.

Christian Christensen is a professor of journalism at Stockholm University in Sweden.

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CULTURE

‘Don’t wear bright colours’: Eight tips on how to dress like a Swede

Swedes have an international reputation for dressing well, with Scandi style a popular trend outside Sweden. The Local asked Swedes and foreigners living in Sweden to try and figure out the best tips and tricks for how to dress like a Swede.

'Don't wear bright colours': Eight tips on how to dress like a Swede

Black is best

When asking several Swedes their top-tips on how to dress like a Swede, many agreed – wear black.

Young professional Tove advises to keep it “all black, minimalist”. Uppsala newspaper columnist Moa agrees: “Wear a lot of black clothes and DON’T wear sneakers or ‘comfortable’ shoes, like running shoes, with dresses.”

Black is a neutral colour and, in general, if you get the neutral colours right you have got a long way in following the Swedish style. 

Neutral colours and a lot of knitwear is a good starting point. Photo: FilippaK/imagebank.sweden.se

Stay neutral 

Sweden might be saying goodbye to hundreds of years of neutrality by joining Nato, but Swedish fashion maintains its strong neutral stance when it comes to colour combinations.

Generally speaking, in autumn and winter Swedes tend to wear darker colours, as Sharon put it: “lots of beige, grey, black and ivory knits or wool. Jeans black or any shade of blue. Black tights with white sneakers for skirts and dresses”.

“Swedes in general will wear black and navy together which I’ve not seen before,” she added.

However, as the weather gets warmer, things change, as half-British half-Swedish Erik explained: “in summer/late spring Swedes change shape and personality,” adding a bit more colour to their wardrobe.

“Lots of colours yet still somewhat monochrome,” he said.

Most Swedes don’t wear a tie at work. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

Follow the news trend, drop the tie

Nils, a reporter and presenter for public broadcaster SVT in western Sweden, does not always wear a tie in front of the camera – and he said his colleagues on national news don’t wear ties either.

“It’s not a must,” he said.

A blue shirt, no tie, top button open, beige chinos and a grey dinner jacket is the look he chose when presenting the evening news a few weeks ago.

Nils Arnell presenting the news on SVT Nyheter Väst. Photo: Nils Arnell/SVT

On a day to day basis Nils, who stressed that he’s “not a fashion expert”, gave the following advice: “As long as you manage to dress in a neat style, you can get away with quite a lot.”

“A white t-shirt and an overshirt work well in most situations and look stylish.”

Stay classy, even in class

Engineering student Erik (not the same Erik quoted previously) recently returned to Sweden from a one-year exchange at Birmingham University, where he noticed a big difference in student style between the two countries.

“The first thing that comes to mind is that on university campus there are so many people wearing work-out clothes, at least where I was”, he said.

“In Sweden, it’s more common to wear jeans than tracksuit bottoms, compared to the UK”. 

It’s also common to see a difference in styles even between departments at Swedish universities. The law and economics departments, for example, tend to wear more formal attire with a higher number of students wearing shirts and polos than, say, social sciences or engineering students.

Many students seem to wear a toned-down version of what they might be expected to wear in their future workplace.

When in doubt, think Jantelagen!

Equality and conformity are important concepts when it comes to many aspects of day-to-day life in Sweden, including the clothes you wear.

This doesn’t mean you have to do exactly the same as everyone else, but more that being too flashy or over-the-top can be frowned upon.

This can be traced back to Jantelagen, “the law of Jante”, a set of 10 rules taken from a satirical novel written by Danish author Aksel Sandemose in the 1930s, which spells out the unwritten cultural codes that have long defined Scandinavia.

Jantelagen discourages individual success and sets average as the goal. It manifests itself in Swedish culture not only with a ‘we are all equal’ ethos but even more so a ‘don’t think you are better than anyone, ever’ mindset.

And this is seen in Swedes’ attitude to clothing, too. Flashy, expensive clothing with obvious logos or brands designed to show off your wealth breaks the first rule of Jantelagen: “You’re not to think you are anything special”.

‘Stealth wealth’

This doesn’t mean that Swedes don’t wear expensive clothes, though. They’re just not in-your-face expensive.

Felix, a podcaster from Stockholm describes it as “stealth wealth”, saying that Swedes would have no problem buying and wearing “a black jacket without any tags for 10,000kr”. 

Despite living in Sweden his whole life, he said that it’s not always easy to get the style right.

“I’m struggling myself,” he admitted.

He suggested taking a look at fashion blogger and journalist Martin Hansson for inspiration on how to dress. 

“Do NOT use bright colours,” Felix added.

Birkenstocks with socks. Photo: Carl-Olof Zimmerman/TT

Footwear

Most of those we asked said that Swedes are a fan of white trainers, most commonly Stan Smiths or Vagabonds.

With the shoes being popular all year round for men and women, this can cause issues at house parties – as Swedes take off their shoes when they come inside.

This inevitably results in confused guests at the end of the night trying to figure out just which pair of white trainers belongs to them – and trying to find one missing shoe the next day because someone accidentally walked away with one of yours is more common than you might think. 

Vans trainers are also popular amongst more alternative crowds (black of course). At work, dress shoes are popular in the winter and loafers or ballerinas in the summer.

In the summer months, you’re likely to see Birkenstock sandals on men and women. Most Swedes wear Birkenstocks without socks – unless they’re off to do their laundry in their building’s tvättstuga.

Birkenstocks are also popular as indoor shoes all-year-round, both at home and at work. It is common to have a “no outdoor shoes” policy in gyms, schools and some offices. This is to avoid bringing a lot of dirt indoors, especially in the winter months when there is snow, rain, grit and salt on the streets.

H&M’s then-CEO Rolf Eriksen wears colourful socks at a press conference in 2006. Photo: Björn Larsson Ask/SvD/SCANPIX/TT

Don’t forget the socks!

As you often take your shoes off indoors in Sweden, your socks are visible.

This has led to an unexpected trend for colourful socks with interesting patterns, which are a great way to break the monotone of neutral colours and conformity by expressing your personality – in a lagom way, of course.

A pair of colourful socks or a playful pattern will get you noticed and likely be a conversation starter at a dinner party.

What’s your best advice for dressing like a Swede? Let us know!

This article is based on the responses we received from Swedes and foreigners in Sweden on what they think you should wear if you want to follow Swedish fashion trends.

If you have any tips of your own which you think we’ve left out, let us know! You can comment on this article, send us an email at [email protected], or get in touch with us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram: @thelocalsweden

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