June 23, 2013

IconGender-neutral kids books: Like putting Dynamite under a Kindergarten…

Jesper Lundqvist, yoga instructor, writer and parent, hit Swedish headlines last year with his book Kivi and Monsterhund. Sophie Cairns catches up with him on the continued reactions his books are receiving.

Interviewing Lunqvist is like interviewing an eager young boy. His eyes are wide, his brow furrowed, his demeanor exciting. With his iPhone in hand, Skype-camera activated, he sweeps through his home. “Lets take you on a tour! This is where I live. It’s out in the Swedish countryside. It is a house, it his a home and a Retreat Centre – set up by my wife and I. I live here, I work here and I write here.”

With this, Lundqvist jumps up and heads to the garden, his smiling face framed by a sky of blue and sunshine. He points to his office, a white pavilion, where he crafts his quirky, controversial stories, hovering there shortly before perching down beside a gushing water fountain in the yoga studio.

"For me, the great liberation in my writing is not having to care about what my perceptions of who little girls or little boys are... " Photography: Per Qvarnström/Sveriges Radio

“I saw myself with the image of a professional writer around the time I started to do yoga seriously, which was around 10 or 11 years ago. Before that I worked with experimental movies, working on film sets and experimental radio shows and stuff like that.”

It was at this advent that Lundqvist started attending a two-year writing course at University, and began writing for dramatic theatre and Swedish National Radio. He describes himself as the station’s ‘go-to writer’ for children’s’ story characters, for their show the ‘Radio Monkey’.

“My first book wasn’t for children, it was more an all-ages book. It was written in a naïve language, with verse and rhyme so looks like a child’s book, but it’s really not,” he says, hinting at its adult nature.

Writing for children, he says, comes with a lot of baggage. Characters have to be established as either a boy or a girl, their age has to be defined and personality created, without falling into any stereotypes, he explains, citing Pippi Longstocking for reference.

“For me, the great liberation in my writing is not having to care about what my perceptions of who little girls or little boys are, or what I might transfer to someone. For me, this is a little kid, first and foremost. I can generalize from there what they will be like.”

Lundqvist talks of this lack of gender as a liberation tool in his writing, “I don’t have to care about information I don’t care about in this story.”

Kivi and Monsterhund, Lundqvist's first and most controversial children's book.

This new tool of his became the key to his success. Published in March of 2012, Kivi and Monsterhund, Sweden’s first book to use the gender-neutral pronoun ‘hen’ created a media storm.

Flashback Media Group branded Lundqvist a “baboon” and Jan Guillou, one of Sweden’s most well known authors, referred to proponents of hen as “feminist activists who want to destroy our language.” DN, Sweden’s largest newspaper, even went so far as to ban the use of the word ‘hen’ in it’s articles following the book’s criticism.

Lundqvist describes this backlash as if he had blown up a playschool. “Language has always been sensitive to play with and anything that can be connected with gender can also be a little sensitive. And then take those things, and put that in children’s culture… it’s like mixing this and making dynamite. And I’m not only making dynamite, but I’m putting it under a kindergarten.”

Kivi’s family members are also gender, age and race neutral, leaving it all up to the children to decide for themselves.

Kivi and Monsterhund created so much debate that Umeå University students conducted research into the child’s responses. “I don’t get a lot of reactions from the use of the word hen from kids up to 5 or 6 years old. It seems like it just flows in them, which is the way it’s presented in the sentences. Its obvious hen’s a pronoun; it’s obvious it’s not he or she. In Swedish it’s hon, han and hen. It goes in with all the language and is very very natural,” he says.

The children focus more on the story, following Lundvist’s vision, “[Hen] shouldn’t be a problem, it shouldn’t be a thing. It’s about a kid who wants a dog for its birthday, and gets a monsterdog. ‘Aint that enough?”

After ‘hen’ there are deeper issues. The storyline is about accepting everything that is. “I didn’t want the dog to change, I wanted the dog to be completely awful. Kivi was quite happy when the dog ran away and there’s a lot of commotion and riots. Kivi then doesn’t want a dog, and when hen wakes up on hen’s birthday, hen wants a gorilla instead. We never give up…”

Keeping the storyline simple and apolitical was important to Lundqvist, “My ambition is that in ten years maybe there will be more books that use hen and if it didn’t say on the cover ‘this is the first’ people wouldn’t notice, they’d just see, hopefully, a good book that they liked.”

With this in mind, Lundqvist set about writing another book involving identity, Kivi and the Sobbing Giraffe. He says, “The story starts where the last story ended. Kivi is locked in the bathroom and doesn’t want to come out. Kivi’s a very strong-headed kid and doesn’t let hen’s family into the bathroom… and they really need to go. Kivi says hen won’t come out until hen gets a gorilla, so the family goes to the zoo to find one. There are no gorillas there, but they find this crying, sobbing, giraffe instead. Well, more a mix of animals, but a giraffe sounded nice.”

Kivi and the Sobbing Giraffe, the sequel to Kivi and Monsterhund.

The characters in the book think the animal is ugly and useless, much like the Swedish people’s view of ‘hen’. Kivi finds love and use for the lonely animal.

Released in September, the intention was to show the effect of bullying on transgender people. “I realized by writing about a monster dog who stirred up a lot of commotion and just ran amok, that this is what the debate became like. It was a lot of emotion and people got upset, kind of like this monsterdog running around, just creating chaos.”

Lundqvist’s latest book in the pipeline hits even closer to home, taking a completely different tact. His voice sounds heavier when he talks about it. “My father died of pancreatic cancer last year. He was diagnosed and dead within a five week period. It was a very strong thing for me and I involved my kids directly with what was going on and we talked a lot about death.”

With two young daughters, Lundqvist was never into sugar coating, and so was inspired by the death to write the book Everybody Dies. “There are a lot of children’s books about a grandparent being sick, or a parent who dies. For [my kids] it was more that it was my dad that was dying and then they go, ‘oh, is our dad going to die, are you going to die dad?’”

Remembering his proposal to the publishers, he starts laughing again, “I talked to Maria about it, and she said ‘What do you want to write?’ and I said, well, I want to write a book in rhyme that tells them that they’re all going to die. He chuckles. “‘Oh, it sounds great!’.”

When asked about the future, Lundqvist gives a broad grin, “Stuff seems to be happening and life seems to be unfolding in a lot of different ways. And it’s interesting and challenging and fun…”

Lundqvist's yoga studio in Varberg, Sweden. Photography: Linda Ringi/Sveriges Radio.

“When it comes to writing I have a few projects I’m working on, but it’s so much with everything else, with family, and the Retreat Centre, and the Yoga Centre, the Swedish National Radio who calls me and tells me ‘We want you to do this…’ So I think the challenge for me is finding the time to write books, which is something I want to do, amongst other things. But it needs to be interesting, for me to do it,” he explains.

As Lundqvist’s daughters arrive home from school, the interview draws to a close. The Skype call is ended and promises of a ‘yoga-ing’ are made. Perhaps next time.


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Sophie Cairns


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