Reading Guide to Jättehemligt (Super Secret), Världshemligt (Top Secret) and Bladen brinner (Pages on Fire)

by Barbro Lindgren

Laureate of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award 2014

Written by Maria Lassén-Seger (published in March 2015)

About the author

Barbro Lindgren (b. 1937) has had a long and impressively multifaceted literary career. She is the author of prose, poetry, and dramatic works; of picture books, songs, and literature for children, young adults, and adults. Lindgren’s writings speak to readers of all ages and from all walks of life. In the 1960s and 1970s, when Lindgren was embarking on her professional career as an author, writers and artists in Sweden embraced what was called an allåldersideal: a vision of art that reached out to people of all ages. Authors saw children’s literature as a place where children and adults could meet. Working in that spirit, Barbro Lindgren realized the ideal of genre-crossing literature for all ages in her own unique way.

Above all, Lindgren writes for children and adults using the same stylistic techniques, the same stripped-down, deceptively simple language. She has always seen a connection between the visual arts and writing: drawing, she says, gives you an eye for detail. Lindgren is often asked where her lively imagination comes from. Her answer is that she seldom makes anything up. She reaps inspiration from her own lived experience, but shapes her stories so that we experience them as fanciful make-believe.

As a writer, Lindgren has uncompromisingly followed her own path. She has written at times in an absurd style, at times with precise realism and psychological insight, as in the Secret trilogy (1971–73) and the Sparrow books (1976–79). Fundamental, existential questions thread through her output, and she constantly asks her readers and herself one simple, impossible thing: “What do we live for?”

The Secret trilogy

The Secret books are fictional diaries inspired by Lindgren’s memories of her own childhood and teenage years. The books are presented as if written by a young Barbro, but they are works of fiction, not Lindgren’s actual diaries. In an afterword, Lindgren also notes that not quite everything in the books is true, for “even if you plan to set down everything just as it happened, after a while you find yourself adding and subtracting things here and there to make it better.” The trilogy includes the young Barbro’s diary entries from ages 10 to 15, in which she records her innermost thoughts about things that are nice, awful, or just plain weird. The Barbro of the books is not “the kind of person who goes around laughing all the time and never thinking.” She broods over many things and she reacts strongly to what happens around her. The diary format lets Lindgren develop a fictional child alter ego who describes the world as she finds it, honestly and without sentimentality. The young Barbro writes nakedly, holding nothing back, and readers come to know her intimately. Many have testified to finding these books deeply affecting. It can be a great comfort to read that someone else feels the same way we do. Today the diary format is an established genre in children’s literature. Diary books are often narrated by girls who like to write and, like the Barbro of the Secret books, dream of being writers when they grow up. We find a comparable fictional girl narrator in Guus Kuijer’s Polleke books (1999–2001).

In the first book of the trilogy, Barbro is 10 years old. She likes to play with dolls and she imagines romantically that the birch tree outside her window is her own tree of life, Teresia. Her immediate family, her neighborhood friends, and her schoolmates are her whole world. Many things in life are nice, but some are hard, and hard to understand. Lindgren makes skillful use of her narrator’s naive voice. She allows the young Barbro to write about things she does not understand, creating space for readers to inject their own understanding based on their own life experiences.

We quickly learn that our narrator is very sensitive. Even an ugly building can make her sad! She empathizes with people who are suffering or struggling, such as an old man in her neighborhood whose memory is failing, or a girl in her big sister’s class at school who is ashamed of her poor grades and has no friends. Barbro also often thinks about death, both her own and other people’s. Here, Lindgren shares an important insight: we cannot and should not shield children from grieving and death. These are urgent questions for everyone, regardless of age, and young people deserve books that take both their joys and their worries seriously. Lindgren’s sensitive portrayal of 10-year-old Barbro’s depression is unique within Swedish literature. It is characteristic of Lindgren’s utter fidelity to the child’s point of view that the word ‘depression’ is never used. Instead everything is shown from Barbro’s perspective and described in words we all can understand, regardless of age or life experience. Barbro simply gets sad, so sad that she doesn’t have the energy to play, laugh, go to school or even get out of bed.

The world can be a confusing place, for children and adults alike. Lindgren uses the child’s perspective to formulate witty observations about the strange things children and grownups do: swearing when you’re not supposed to is fun, but grownups having sex—that’s just plain weird! Lindgren articulates an impressive series of ethical, moral, and social questions in plain, concrete language: Why are so many people ashamed of things they’ve done or the way they look? Why do some people think they are fancier than others? Life’s questions are formulated in a way that feels simple and straightforward. Behind the scenes, Lindgren is using the child’s voice and gaze as a deliberate stylistic technique.

In the second book, Barbro is almost 13. Her life has even more secrets, but it is also even nicer. She has her own room and new friends at a new school. She still likes to draw and write and she puts out her own newspaper with her best friend. Being a teenager is both fun and exciting, but Barbro feels tugged in two directions. She wants to grow up, but she is not really ready to let go of childhood either. Barbro is eager to grow breasts and get her period, but it bothers her when the boys in her class are “disgusting,” and the things she reads about sex in a book she finds on her father’s bookshelf sound kind of horrible. She continues to be surprised by the incomprehensible ways of grownups. It is hard to make sense of life’s puzzles and injustices. What is the right way to behave when everyone thinks differently? Barbro works hard at being pretty, but she has a hard time fitting into groups where everyone is expected to think and act in the same way.

In the third book, Barbro is 15. Her life still revolves around home, school, family, and friends, but now it is not so much nice as exciting. The autobiographical aspects of this book are reinforced by the inclusion of real photographs, in contrast to the earlier books, which were illustrated with the expressive, tenderly comic drawings of Olof Landström. The young Barbro is drawn to the dancing and dating that go along with being a teenager.  At the same time she feels increasingly alone and “emptier inside.” Teenagers are supposed to fall in love, but when it actually happens Barbro is disappointed. She longs for someone to see her as she really is, not just as a pretty, happy, girl. She still writes, but she is more self-critical. “How can it be so hard to just write naturally?” she says with a sigh. Once again, Lindgren captures something more than the diary writer’s day-to-day life: this time it is the teenager’s tentative search for an identity and confirmation from others. The Barbro of the books longs for freedom, and in response, a loneliness grows within her. She is curious about life and wants to fit in, but she also stands apart and alone.

Things to think about

The books all have short, pithy titles. What do they mean?

The young Barbro writes things in these books that ‘no one is allowed to read’. How does it feel as a reader to find out another person’s secrets this way?

The books were written a fairly long time ago. What feels foreign today? What feels familiar?

Why does Barbro get sad so suddenly? How do the adults in her life react? How do her friends? What would you say to someone who feels the way Barbro does?

The young Barbro is curious and creative and plays a lot. What does she play? What do you like to play?

Barbro thinks about many difficult things. How does it feel when you don’t have any friends? Does outer space ever end? Can you find more examples of the things Barbro wonders about in the books? Have you ever wondered things like these?

The young Barbro wants to be a writer when she grows up. How does she prepare for that career, and what response does she get from the people around her?

Grownups often act strange, and according to the young Barbro, sometimes they are just plain weird. Can you find any examples in the books? Do you ever think grownups do strange things?

The last two books take place in the 1950s, when Barbro is a teenager. She dreams of learning to dance and being famous. How is her life similar to being a teenager today? How is it different?

What things do people expect of Barbro as a girl? Are they the same things people expect of girls today?

Barbro is shy, but she still sometimes does things she’s not supposed to. Can you find any examples?

Barbro admires certain people for being bold and confident. Which characters like that can you find in the books?

It is hard for Barbro to fit in and be a part of larger groups. What groups does she try to fit into? Why do you think this is hard for her?

Lindgren uses her own childhood as material for these books. What do you remember from when you were young? Do you write yourself, or did you ever keep a diary?

A classic is a book that stays relevant for many generations of readers. Do you think the Secret books deserve to be called modern classics?

More about Barbro Lindgren