Award important for Brazilian children's literature

- There's no tradition here when it comes to books. There's only a small elite who read," says Lygia Bojunga, recipient of this year's Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. Yet now at least there are a few hopeful signs, and even the government has started to show some interest.

When I call her up in Rio de Janeiro, it's clear that Lydia Bojunga has been giving a fair number of interviews recently: some have come from Brazil, others from Sweden. And yet she answers all my questions with a mixture of composure and grace, even my obligatory opener: "How did you feel when you found out you'd won the award?"

"I was very surprised and, naturally, very pleased. I was aware that the award existed, but I knew that no organisation here in Brazil had put my name forward. And since I've been working with my own publishing company for some time now, I don't have a major publishing house supporting me."

Public attention in Brazil
The award has attracted a degree of attention in Brazil, though no major headlines. One of the heavyweight dailies, Folha de São Paulo, ran a very small article, but the local Salvador newspaper, A Tarde, featured a more substantial interview under the heading "Harry Potter gets young people reading". The article makes it clear that although Bojunga herself hasn't read Harry Potter, she approves of the phenomenon because the books have turned so many young people on to reading. This leads me into my next question: how is the current situation for children's literature in Brazil?

"The situation for children's literature isn't as bad as it has been. But I can't really say it's good. There are huge social differences in Brazil, and so many children who don't have access to books. It's extremely important – if you don't develop the reading habit when you're young, it's much harder to start later. Things are different in Sweden and the rest of Europe: if you go on any bus or underground train you'll see people reading. But here there's only a small elite who read. And television is so strong in Brazil – everyone watches it and everyone thinks it's important. It doesn't demand any imagination, like reading, when you're creating something yourself. But there are now a number of organisations and prominent individuals trying to promote books, and the government has started to show some interest, too…"

Children’s culture in Sweden and Brazil
In general, children's culture in Sweden and Brazil are rather dissimilar. Swedish children's culture is renowned for daring to take up existential problems. Yet reading Bojunga's books, is it not possible to perceive a "Swedish" trait?

"Yes, that's maybe why I won the award," laughs Bojunga. "But joking aside, there's a huge difference between children's literature in Sweden and Latin America. Over here, it's more playful. I think we could benefit from more Swedish influences – there's too much play in our literature. My first book was fairly light-hearted, about carnival and other fun things, but since then my books have grown more serious. They're about how it is to be a girl, about justice, about death, even… I've written quite a few pieces on death. I actually think it's good for children: many of my readers have told me that my books have followed them through their lives, that they turn to them in times of trouble, and that feels good to know."

Astrid Lindgren
Naturally, Lygia Bojunga is familiar with Astrid Lindgren:

"Yes, I've read her and a few other Swedish children's writers. Astrid Lindgren is still relatively unknown in Brazil, but I think the award will bring her to the attention of a wider audience here. It would be good for both countries if we could spread Swedish literature in Brazil, and vice versa. I believe a number of my books are going to be published in Sweden, even some of the later ones not written solely for children."

In the interview she gave for A Tarde, Bojunga describes how she started her career as an actor and also worked for a while in television, where she felt uneasy with the commercial environment.

"Yes, I started out and spent several years in acting, but I realised that I was better suited as a writer. I prefer to be in my study, working by myself. But I have adapted some of my books for the stage. I know there were negotiations and an agreement for Swedish television to use one of my books, Corda Bamba, but I'm not sure whether it's actually going ahead. I'll have to check when I get to Sweden."

Her own Publishing House
Lydia Bojunga's talents stretch beyond writing and the stage to graphic design and publishing:

"I've had my own publishing company for some time now. I like the entire process behind books, to see things through from start to finish. I like working with the graphic design and the marketing. I get some complaints that I'm just too busy, but there is actually a new book due out shortly."

I make another telephone call to Rio de Janeiro, this time to Elisabeth D'Angela Serra: "What Lygia Bojunga is doing right now is fantastic, she has such a social commitment to the children of Brazil. It's not just the content of her books, it's making them accessible – that's where her publishing company is doing such a good job. She produces books that are beautiful to look at and cheap enough for ordinary people to afford."

Strong tradition for children's books in Brazil
D'Angela Serra is vice president of the International Board of Books for Young People (IBBY). Naturally, she's very proud that the award has gone to a Brazilian writer, and proud of the strong tradition of children's literature in Brazil:

"First of all in the 1920s we had Monteiro Lobato, a children's writer with an original style, our Astrid Lindgren, if you like. He was a sort of guru for all subsequent writers, like Lygia Bojunga and Anamaria Machado, someone who was playful but who also dared to talk about the war."

What impact has Lygia Bojunga had on Brazilian children's literature?

"Lygia is very original, with a style all of her own. She speaks to children in an intelligent way that gives children's literature a whole new platform. She enchants them with her use of magic, developing the legacy of Lobato. Her books are about the realities of childhood, touching on subjects like security, intimacy, doubt, sensuality and what it means to be a girl, always in a subtle way. And Lygia questions the social status quo from a position of passionate commitment. All in all, she's very important for Brazil."

Interviews by Lennart Kjörling