A Hidden Gem: The Warmth and Wit of Sven Nordqvist August 30 2017
Our Illustrator of the Month blog series focuses on some of our favourite illustrators, their lives and their works. This is a chance to learn more about the people who illustrated your favourite books, the influences that shaped their art style and storytelling, and some of their lesser known projects.
This month we’ve chosen the amazing Swedish illustrator Sven Nordqvist, best known for his Findus and Pettson series. Findus and Pettson are household names in much of Scandinavia and central Europe, and the books have been translated into 44 languages and read by millions. Which just goes to show the blinkered vision of the English speaking world when it comes to what the rest of the planet is reading! He's not well known in Ireland, but we've found that anyone who buys one of his books from us always comes back for another, and another. As soon as you open any Sven Nordqvist book, you’ll fall in love with his characters, his humour and his style.
Sven Nordqvist was born in Helsignborg, a coastal city in southern Sweden. He always wanted to be an illustrator, but amazingly was rejected by several art schools! Instead he went on to study architecture, and to this day describes himself as a draughtsman rather than an illustrator. Nordqvist became an architecture lecturer, but continued to seek illustration work in advertisement and posters. In 1983 he won first prize in a picture book competition and since then he has been working solely as and author and illustrator. This was a lucky break not just for Nordqvist but for us all, as the world would be a sadder place without his work! Findus and Pettson have brought joy to millions of children and adults worldwide. That said, Nordqvists’s background in architecture may have been a blessing in disguise for his unique illustration style. His books are full of busy but impeccably balanced compositions, and beautiful landscape drawings.
Landscape from Findus Goes Fishing
He manages to be able to include massive amounts of detail without his illustrations ever feeling overcrowded. And a keen sense of balance is also key to why his writing is so brilliant. The Findus and Pettson series is full of wacky antics, but it can also be quite sentimental and touching at times. So, if you haven’t met them already, it’s time to be introduced to Findus and Pettson!
The old man and the cat
Pettson is an old farmer who lives a contented, if somewhat lonely, life on his farm, until the sudden arrival of a tiny kitten in a box of Findus Green Peas. The kitten is a gift from a neighbour, and Pettson names him Findus. And then… all hell breaks loose.
Findus and Pettson's first meeting as described in When Findus Was Little and Disappeared
Thus follows a whole series of brilliant escapades of this odd couple, the rambunctious Findus and the crotchety old Pettson. Nordqvist is brilliant at capturing gestures and expressions, and he shows Findus’ manic energy through drawing him contorting countless times on the same page, which children of course find hilarious!
From Findus Moves Out
There is plenty for adults too, in the intricate details that swarm every page of illustrations. All of the best illustrators know that pictures can tell us things that words cannot, and we get an amazing sense of homeliness and eccentricity from Nordqvist’s depictions of Pettson’s cluttered house and garden. Tiny creatures called “muckles” are hidden in every corner, pictures on the wall watch the action unfold, and badly mended contraptions give a perfect sense of Pettson’s stubborn independence. Here is a man who has lived alone for decades and does things his own way; fireworks are kept in a hatbox by the door, and pepper is kept in the bicycle basket. Obviously.
From Findus and the Fox
Although humour is the main focus of these genuinely witty books, Nordqvist’s writing can be very emotionally astute too. We see this in Findus Goes Fishing, when Findus tries to cheer up a despondent and irritable Pettson. Findus may be a scatty cat but he knows how to help out his friend. He pretends to scrabble around for fishing equipment to go fishing on his own, clanging around the toolshed and trying to lift the cumbersome fishing rod all alone. Pettson of course eventually gives in and accompanies him, and the fresh air and the stillness of nature quickly reminds him how good life can be. Soon the pair are laughing together again.
Findus helping with our accounting. Get your own Findus here!
Nordqvist has said that he believes Pettson is popular with children because he allows Findus his freedom, while still providing the security and stability that children (and cats) need. Findus often tests the limits of the old man’s patience, but Pettson remains ultimately forgiving. In Findus Moves Out, the cat decides to to fly the nest, and Pettson provides what he needs to build a new home…in the garden shed. This will be familiar to any child who has ever sought independence by pitching a tent in their parents’ garden. In the end, Findus realises that Pettson’s company isn’t so bad after all, and invites him over for their favourite food, pancakes. (But Pettson cooks the pancakes of course). Warmth and wit are hallmarks of these books, and it’s not hard to see why they’re so popular in other parts of the world.
From Findus Moves Out
Nordqvist is definitely best known worldwide for the Findus and Pettson series, but the book that shows his amazing artistry to its full potential is probably his stand-alone picture book Where Is My Sister. The idea for this book came to him before he ever started Findus and Pettson, and he came back to it years later, now a successful illustrator with the means to focus on this experimental and highly unique project. Where Is My Sister was originally designed without text, and large double page spreads of images give Nordqvist the scope to show off his mercurial talent as an illustrator. Small passages of text tell the story of a little mouse who is looking for his straying sister, and we travel with him through the sprawling landscapes of her mind, to find her hidden on every page.
In a note at the back of the book Nordqvist writes, “What appeals to me… is the idea of images telling stories and capturing all of our attention. Without the need for explanations, anything can happen.”. Illustrations often leave more room for interpretation and imagination than text does, which is one of the reasons children love picture books, and Nordqvist’s work in particular. His range of detail allows children to pore over the page and discover its secrets for themselves. In a modern world where everything rushed, he recognises the special feeling of getting lost in a single page of a book, allowing it to take you away and shut out the outside world.
Nordqvist explains that he kept very closely to his original sketches when creating Where Is My Sister. He trusted his spontaneity, and he was right to, as this only adds to the dreamlike quality of the book. To find his sister the little mouse in the story must get inside her head, and some of the things he finds there are unexpected, naturally. But as the little mouse gets closer to finding his sister, we get to know her better, and in the end, it all makes sense. The text for this book was added afterwards, and is very different from the zany and action-packed stories of Findus and Pettson. The text here is more like a collection of short poems; atmospheric and sometimes melancholy:
“She’s in her thoughts, somewhere else, where I can’t reach her. And then suddenly she’s happy again and says: let’s make a car, a racing car, and zoom around at the speed of sound!”
All in all, both the pictures and text in this book delicately reflect the complexities of any relationship between a younger and older sibling.
Sven Nordqvist’s books are funny and zany, but it’s the way he can combine humour and sentiment that really sets him apart. His sense of humour is sometimes sarcastic, but always warm. His world is surreal, but it is grounded in the real love that exists between his characters. And of course, he has the rare quality of being equally accomplished in both his illustration and his writing. Do yourself a favour and pick up one of his books today, for a child you know, or for your inner child!
View our whole range of Sven Nordqvist books here.