The librarian: Why we love working with books by ALMA laureates

For the fourth year running, the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award is our school-wide spring theme here at Hjulsta Elementary. Teachers, staff and students ages 6–16 have been reading, discussing and getting inspired by the ALMA laureates and Astrid Lindgren herself. Not for the last time, I’m sure!

As part of our ALMA theme, we always spend a lot of time on Astrid Lindgren. Many of our students are new immigrants to Sweden, and nearly all of them have parents born in another country. For anyone attending school in Sweden, we think Astrid Lindgren is required reading. Astrid’s characters, her language, Swedish life in the olden days – all these are things that every Swede has a relationship to. Reading Astrid’s books, and watching the first-rate films that have been based on them, unlocks an important piece of our shared cultural heritage for our students.

Reading books by the ALMA laureates also helps us see what life can be like under very different circumstances. The ALMA books introduce us to people from all over the world and from throughout history. For example, when PRAESA was recognized a few years ago, we had the chance to learn a great deal about life in South Africa.

PRAESA visiting Hjulsta Elementary i 2015. Photo: Stefan Tell

Often we grown-ups are surprised by how powerfully our students respond to the ALMA books. The Swedish government instituted the award to recognize authors and illustrators whose work is “of the highest artistic quality and conveys the deeply humanist spirit associated with Astrid Lindgren.” Obviously, “highest artistic quality” will always be somewhat subjective, but we can tell there is something special about these books. We fall in love with them; they challenge us; above all, they get us talking. And when we think and talk about different interpretations, we grow in wisdom together. This is a joyful process – it is exhilarating to realize the importance of our thoughts, and how smart we really are when we try. And I think our ALMA theme has made us grown-ups a little braver. We have learned that books we thought might be too difficult or too “out there” can lead to very exciting discussions.

From Duck, Death and the Tulip, Kunstman Verlag

This spring, many of our groups were deeply affected by reading Wolf Erlbruch’s Duck, Death and the Tulip. The book led us to talk about death and how sad it is to lose the people we love, but also about how a person reaching the end of their life can be a perfectly natural thing. We also read Leonard: we laughed at the pictures, congratulated ourselves on discovering clues to the plot, and some of our students wrote their own stories and drew pictures of the things they are most afraid of.

From Leonard, Peter Hammer Verlag

Many of the ALMA laureates take up difficult subjects in their books. Depression – death – loneliness – sad things that are not easy to talk about. We read about them and process them together, through conversation and our own creative activities. Sometimes the authors joke about the very hardest questions. But it is always done in the spirit of Astrid Lindgren, with respect for people who facing different life challenges and with optimism that difficulties can be overcome.

Many of the books by the ALMA laureates are fairly quick reads and invite a real range of interpretations. The numerous picture books work well for readers of all ages. Some of our teachers and staff like to return to the same books over and over with different student groups. We never get bored, and we learn more each time from our students’ reflections. But with such a wealth of literature, if we want to try something new there is always another book to explore.

Interpretation of Scritch, scratch, dip, clapote by Kitty Crowther

We hope and believe that our ALMA theme has helped other schools throughout Sweden learn more about the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award and its laureates. In the hopes of inspiring others, we have been documenting our work on our website: www.vä

The Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award opens the door to a literary treasure chamber. We hope that many other schools around the world will seek out the treasure and have reading experiences as fantastic as ours!

/Cilla Dalén, librarian at Hjulsta Elementary School in Stockholm

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