Lygia Bojunga. Photo: Stefan Tell

Throws Herself Fearlessly into the World of Adults

Brazilian author, began her writing career under the name of Lygia Bojunga Nunes. Born in Pelotas on 26 August 1932, she grew up on a farm. At the age of eight she moved to Rio, where in 1951 she became an actress in a theatre group that toured the rural areas of Brazil. Her reaction to the widespread illiteracy she encountered prompted her to become one of the founders of a school for poor rural children which she helped to run for five years. She spent a long time working in radio and television before making her debut as a children's writer in 1972.

In the continent that has become known for its magical realism and fantasy-filled storytelling, Brazilian children's literature is renowned for a marked erosion of the boundaries between fantasy and reality. Lygia Bojunga is a writer who has developed and perfected this tradition. For her, magic permeates the everyday: an everyday where desires grow so heavy that one literally cannot lift them, where safety pins and umbrellas talk, as do spinning tops and balls. The lives of animals are as varied and as vulnerable as those of any human being. Imperceptibly, what is palpably real transforms into something new, not so much another world as a world inside the sensory, where the boundaries of what is possible are blurred and easy to transcend. In Bojunga's work, sorrow coexists with comfort, tranquil happiness with breathtaking adventures. At the heart of this poetic fantasy is the child, often abandoned and lonely, always sensitive and possessed of a vivid imagination. Neither death nor betrayal are taboo, yet just around almost every corner, healing is at hand. She paints her pictures in lyrical, colourful prose, and no matter how bitter loneliness may feel, there is always the smile that expresses empathy with the young and is never sentimental.

The child's point of view is always paramount in Bojunga's texts. She views the world with the imaginative gaze of a child at play. Here, everything is possible: her principal characters can conjure up a horse they can ride away on, or draw a door on the wall which they can walk through just moments later. Fantasy often functions as a way of dealing with distressing personal experiences: when the main character in Corda Bamba (1979) uses her rope to walk into an extraordinary house with a number of closed doors on the other side of the street, what is really taking place is a coming-to-terms with grief after the sudden death of her parents. In A Casa da Madrinha (1978), we quickly realise that Alexander's amazing experiences in his search for his godmother's out-of-the-way house are actually the concrete expression of an abandoned street child's blissful yearnings for happiness and security. It is a story with many parallels in Astrid Lindgren's South Wind Meadow (Sunnanäng). The psychological elements of Bojunga's imagination also appear in her animal stories: when the armadillo Viktor in O Sofá Estampado (1980) gets nervous, he starts to cough and scratch, until he presses himself down through the sofa and literally into his own childhood.

Magical realism and acute psychological observation are combined with a passion for democracy and social justice. Bojunga, who started writing when Brazil was still under the iron grip of dictatorship, is something of a subversive. This was easier to express in children's literature, given that, in Bojunga's own words, "Generals don't read children's books." In her work we encounter fighting cocks with their brains sewn up with thick thread, and peacocks with thought filters that can be removed with corkscrews. The winds of freedom blow freely throughout Bojunga's books, alongside a recurring critique of gender inequality. Yet Bojunga never preaches: she constantly offsets the serious with playfulness and absurd humour. Rachel's ballooning dreams in A Bolsa Amarela (1976) are literally burst by a safety pin: the remains are transformed into paper kites that she allows to fly away in the wind.

Bojunga (who often performs dramatic monologues for audiences) has the ability of the live storyteller to engage the reader from the very first page. She has also written plays, and often employs a theatrical narrative style. In one of her books, Angélica (1975), she actually includes a complete play. The storyline is not always the most important element in her work: occasionally, as in oral storytelling, diverse events are linked together and the main character can disappear from focus. The emphasis lies instead with the narrative itself, its humorous and poetic overtones, and in the remarkable feeling of liberation that arises from the fact that anything can happen. The unique beauty of these books is also augmented by the sophisticated way in which Bojunga allows colours to express emotions. This is perhaps most obviously apparent in O Meu Amigo Pintor (1987), (My Friend the Painter, 1991, a book which was also adapted for the stage), which describes how the main character, a boy, deals with his grief over the painter's death with the help of colours. A bell rings yellow, then gradually stops and becomes completely white. Yellow happens to be Bojunga's favourite colour, associated with a joie de vivre that has been a constant theme ever since her first children's book, Os Colegas (1972) (The Companions, 1989).

Bojunga sometimes opts to remain in reality, where she also reveals her sharp psychological focus: Seis Vezes Lucas (1995), like the title short story in the earlier Tchau (1984), deals with infidelity, marital disputes and divorce from the point of view of the powerless, yet ever hopeful, child. In her choice of subjects, Bojunga throws herself fearlessly into the world of adults, justifiably reliant on her genuine ability to portray and make concrete what goes on in people's minds in a storyline which is easy to grasp.

Like Hans Christian Andersen, with whose work her own shares much in common, Bojunga skilfully maintains a fine balance between the humorous and the serious. However, in her book Retratos de Carolina (2002), it is the serious that holds sway. Her continual experimentation as a writer has led her in a new direction. In this narrative, partly in the form of a meta-novel, she allows us to follow the main character from childhood through to adulthood. Bojunga uses this device to extend the boundaries of literature for children and young people, and fulfils her stated ambition in the introduction to the book to make room both for herself and the characters she has created in one single house, "a house of my own invention".

Bojunga's work has been translated into a number of languages, including English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic, Bulgarian, Czech and Hebrew. She has won a number of awards, including the Jabuti Award (1973), the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award (1982), and the Rattenfänger Literaturpreis (1986).