Marit Törnqvist in conversation with the iRead Foundation

On 4th May 2020 the International Board on Books and Young People – IBBY – announced that Marit Törnqvist had won the first IBBY-iRead Outstanding Reading Promoter Award. This was the first time she has won a major international award for her reading promotion work with children. As an illustrator, she was a finalist for the 2016 Hans Christian Andersen Award and has been nominated many times for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. Her books have won numerous national and international awards. 

Marit Törnqvist is not only an excellent children’s book illustrator and author, but also a tireless promoter of children’s reading around the world for the last thirty years. She has taken picture books to children living in the former Dutch colony of Suriname, and organized cultural exchanges and a literature festival for primary schools in the jungle; she has used stories to console children in hospital suffering from cancer; her reading activities give disadvantaged children the courage to face harsh reality; she has mobilized communities in Sweden and the Netherlands, so that on arrival, refugee children are welcomed with books in their home language.

“I am fighting against inequality in the world.” Marit said in the interview, “a lot of children are victims of this inequality. I want to fight for the rights of these children.”

Marit was born in Sweden in 1964 and moved to the Netherlands when she was five years old. Both of her parents were “book people” working with literature, so she grew up surrounded by books. Although Marit had a relatively carefree childhood, from an early age she acutely realized that beyond her own comfortable life, there is another world, where many children are living a difficult life. Later, as an adult, fighting for these children’s and young people’s rights has become an important part of her life.

Since 2015 she helped a lot of refugees in need and for some of them she became a mother. When talking about them, Marit said, “they are my extra children.” She refers to the book the Red Bird written by Astrid Lindgren that she illustrated, and feels often that she wants to be like the mother in this story.

You could see that it was a mother, she had a mother’s eyes and a mother’s hands, and her eyes and hands were enough for all children who crowded around her.

For Marit, reading is not just about a story. More importantly, it is an experience and a dialogue. She also places a lot of emphasis on the reading environment, where it should be an open, warm and cozy place that children can truly be themselves. Books and stories are a point of departure. They give children the opportunity to express themselves, share with each other and even connect with others living far apart in the world.

For many years, Marit has shared her own experiences as a reading promoter with many others around the world. Read With Me, a project that makes quality books accessible to vulnerable children in Iran is one organization that Marit works closely with. She has visited many parts of the country and communicates with Read With Me regularly. Among her other projects in Iran are workshops with children, showing teachers how to interact with children, and training of local illustrators. Read With Me was selected by Marit to receive the 150,000 RMB 2020 IBBY-iRead prize donation.

Shortly after a major earthquake had hit the city of Sarpol e Zahab, Marit met a young boy there. He said to her, “you know we lost everything. But because of books, we can be everywhere. If we have no books, we have no life.”

Unfortunately, serious inequalities exist in the world. Because of war, natural disaster, social instability and poverty, many children lose almost everything. Among all children, it is these children that Marit really cares for. With books, stories and drawings, she brings them imagination and hope.


Winner of IBBY-iRead Outstanding Reading Promoter Award

iRead: Congratulations on winning the IBBY-iRead Outstanding Reading Promoter Award. What were you doing when you received the news?

Marit: I was working on a new book when I got the call from the jury president. I have been nominated for prizes and awards more often, but usually I don’t win them.

So I thought I shouldn’t think about it too much. I was chatting with my daughter around 45 minutes before the announcement. I said to her, “Can you imagine if I would win this award?” She asked, “Did you get a phone call?” I said, “No, I didn’t.” “Then you didn’t win,” my daughter replied. So I just went back to my work again.

Then suddenly my phone started ringing. It was a telephone number from Malaysia. Of course I was very happy and excited about the news.

iRead: You are an illustrator, author as well as an active reading promoter in many parts of the world. What do you think is the driving force behind your work?

Marit: To be honest, when I knew I was nominated for this award, I was surprised. I didn’t see myself as a reading promoter, I am simply someone doing a lot of work with children and books.

For me, the driving force for reading promotion consists of several things at the same time. I think first of all I am fighting against inequality in the world. A lot of children are victims of this inequality. I want to fight for the rights of these children. And I think that books can help them to find out who they are and what kind of world they live in. Books can also make children stronger and give them dreams and hope.

Then of course I simply love children. And it is hard for me to see children who cannot have a real childhood like my own children had. Books can change a lot for them. When I receive letters from children who write about what reading means to them or how happy they were when they read books in their own language, I feel that I at least did something for these children. The last driving force would maybe be my curiosity: I love to meet people from other ‘worlds’ with different backgrounds and to share stories with them.

To find out what we have in common and what we really need to explain to each other.

Reading as an Experience and Dialogue

iRead: When did you start doing work related to children’s reading promotion?

Marit: When you are an illustrator and writer, you automatically are doing school visits, workshops and so on.

When I started visiting schools 30 years ago, I slowly felt that this was an important part of my work. It was meaningful for me not just to talk about my books, but also to connect with the children.

iRead: What do you do in your reading sessions with children?

Marit: Many different things! But let me give you an example. This is an unforgettable experience I had when I was about 27.

I wrote a book called Small Story about Love. It’s about a girl sitting all alone on a pole in the sea, watching the boats passing by. In fact, the whole world is passing by, but she is not connecting to all things happening around her. One day, suddenly a man in a boat comes towards her. She is kind of confused because he notices her, laughs at her and then he disappears. 

After this, everything changes. Suddenly her old way doesn’t work anymore. She cannot just sit there and watch all the boats passing, because she is longing for something. And then she starts to build a big house on this pole, hoping the man will come back.

In the end, the whole house collapses into the sea and she builds a raft out of the materials. She sails away to the light.

I went to a school class with this book. The teacher called me in advance telling me this is not a regular class. All of the children face a lot of problems in their lives, such as abuse at home. “Be prepared,” the teacher said, “it won’t be an easy visit.”

I read the book to them. And slowly, the children opened up and we started to talk. They told me about their loneliness, about friends they lost contact with. I remember asking them, “Is this a happy ending?” One of them said, “Yes, because sailing and moving is always better than sitting and remaining at the same place. You must move to come somewhere.” And another child said, “No, because I want her to meet this man again.” We had deep and philosophical talks in the class.

Afterwards the teacher sent me a letter. He said he was totally surprised about what had happened. The children had never spoken like this before, they never trusted each other. During that lesson, the children started to share their own experiences and thus grew closer to each other.

During a different school visit, I told a class a story about our rabbit that had died. It was because I had drawn this rabbit in one of my books. When all the children were saying “My rabbit also died”, “My cat died”, a child suddenly said, “My mother died.” The other children didn’t know about this. They all started to ask the girl what had happened and wanted to comfort her. So reading with children is not just connecting with them, but also connecting them with each other.

I speak about all sorts of things with children, big and small issues. Nearly all children have a lot of thoughts and questions. They are curious about many things. But I never try to put pressure on children. It is not an exam, but rather a conversation with reflections on a story. I ask open questions and listen very carefully to what children have to say.

iRead: In your nomination material, I read that you often talk about difficult and important topics with children. You also use bibliotherapy to help vulnerable children. 

Marit: With bibliotherapy, children can find a way to talk about a hard experience for the first time, something they want to share but they don’t know when and how. I call it the ‘hidden stories’ in a child. Books can really help children to open up. I did not study bibliotherapy but found methods for this step by step. I made the illustrations in the picture book Bigger Than a Dream by Jef Aerts. It is a beautiful story about a little boy who grows up in a family where a sister died before he was born. He feels that his parents are sad about this, but he cannot bring back his sister to life. And then, during a kind of dream, he meets her – and they get to know each other.

I worked with children after reading this story and did a workshop called ‘Lost Treasures’. We talked about life and that we all lose things and people but also find new things and meet new people. And then all children started to draw a treasure they lost. It could be a doll or a pen or a phone, but some refugee children were drawing their house that got destroyed or a relative who died. We framed all the treasures and talked about them. The children were absolutely not forced to share anything, they told the stories they wanted to tell.

In a hospital I read with children who were diagnosed with cancer. It was difficult because I knew that some of them were not going to survive. I used the book The Red Bird by Astrid Lindgren, which is about two orphans, Matthew and Anna. They have a very hard life, but one day a red bird takes them to a kind of paradise. After reading aloud, I asked the children to draw the most beautiful “paradise birds”. Some of them got help from their parents, as they were not strong enough to sit and draw. I saw the focus of the children on the fantastic bright colors and it was a moment of forgetting time and place and of dreaming away a little.

iRead: You place a lot of emphasis on the reading experience. Could you tell us more about this? How do you create a warm and joyful atmosphere for children?

Marit: When you read with children, they need to know that the person reading aloud is someone they can trust. It must be a loving and caring person who is curious to get to know them. A patient person. This is the start.

You could also spend more time making the space where you read warm and cozy for children. It can be the colors, the size of the chairs, the soft pillows and so on. It needs to be a place where children like to be. Children should feel they can truly be themselves there.

Children shouldn’t feel the pressure that they have to pick up a book and read. Why not try it in a different way? It can start with giving them a drink and some cookies, or talk about what happened on the way to the school or library. About what they dream about, about their wishes. And then maybe find a book that you feel is connected to their lives. If you feel they are not readers yet, you can just start reading aloud for them.

It is a lot of listening and finding out what kind of person a child you meet at a reading session is. It is of course not like we just give children bags with books and expect them to start to read when they get home. When I am with children, I think it’s OK when they don’t feel in the mood for reading. Helping children develop the habit of reading asks a lot from the librarian, the teacher or any reading promoter. I remember from my childhood that reading aloud with my parents was not only hearing a nice story, but also the close contact with my parents, sitting on their lap and having small talks in between.

iRead: Do you have any other easy-to-use advice for other librarians, teachers and reading promoters in the world?

Marit: A reading session could start with talking with the children. You can find out what is happening in their lives, did they read books before and so on. It can be just small talk and I like it when the reading promoter and the child are on the same level – I can also talk about myself to a child. For me reading is also talking.

I often use a beamer to project images when I read aloud picture books. It helps to make the reading session more like a little theatre and the darkness in a room makes the children more focused. You open up a world for them.

It is also important to include one creative moment in the reading session. It can be giving children the opportunity to draw and write, or talk and share. Or make theatre or dance or music. Just listening or reading the story is not enough I think, it is better to let children express themselves as well. Then the story becomes part of the children.

Some children might be blocked. They won’t say or draw anything. It doesn’t matter. They don’t have to. But I always try to sit alone with such a child and try to find out why the child feels blocked, sometimes it helps.

Piranhas and Pancakes

iRead: Could you tell us about Piranhas and Pancakes? It’s a very interesting project.

Marit: I visited a literature festival in Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname in 2009. While I was there I met Dorus Vrede. He was a writer, teacher, musician and the chief of a village in the jungle, a fascinating person with lots of talents.

We soon became friends and discussed that it would be fantastic to organize a small festival in the jungle for the children who never come to the country’s capital. We shared lots of ideas and this is how I connected to Dorus. We also wanted to do a cultural exchange between children in Amsterdam and children in the jungle.

Back in Holland, I started sending books to them, since people speak Dutch in Suriname as well. Small Story about Love was also one of the books I sent to them. Then Dorus and I started reading the same books to a primary school class in the jungle and in Amsterdam. After they read the book, the pupils in the two countries would have the same drawing and writing lessons. Since they had no drawing materials in the jungle, I also sent drawing materials to them. Dorus and I called each other every second week to make new plans.

When reading Small Story about Love, we asked the children: ”If you were the girl sailing to the horizon, where would you want to go?”  The Dutch children drew and wrote stories about boats filled with “shopping centers and cinemas” while the children in Suriname were saying, “I’m going to an island where the water can not come and I can live with the birds.”

We exchanged the results and letters between the pupils in Suriname and Holland and thus, in both countries the schools collected drawings, stories and letters from the other side of the world. The process was complicated, because the jungle is very remote and the materials had to be shipped for hours in a kind of canoe.

In the five years we did this project, we read and talked about many personal things  - from families to fears – with the children. With stories, writing and drawing, these children really got to know each other’s lives. It was a way of opening up their curiosity and stimulating writing. I believe that as soon as you stimulate writing and drawing, children will also be more interested in reading. This is because they suddenly understand what it is to make a text or illustration. Making your own book is a way to become interested in books written by other writers.

When the project started, the children in Holland felt a little sad for the children in Suriname, because they are poor and live in a rather primitive way. But after a while, especially the boys became kind of jealous as well, because these children in the jungle were very tough. They were used to jump in the river and see crocodiles. It was much more thrilling in a way than the Dutch children’s lives in the city.

When I visited the jungle myself in 2012, we were able to organize the literature festival Dorus and I discussed. I brought many books for the children as well as adult literature for the teachers, so they also got the opportunity to read more. I did school visits in three different villages. One of the things we did was illustrating an old traditional story that Dorus wrote himself. He was reading aloud and I helped the children illustrate it. We divided the text of the story in small parts so all children had a few sentences to illustrate. This is a good way to avoid them copying each other when they draw. We also went into the jungle with the medicine man and picked different plants. The children then had to draw all details of the plants in black and white and write about how the plants could be used as medicine. This lesson was a special request from the medicine men, as they were worried that the children had no knowledge of the plants anymore.

During this project I had a lot of freedom. Sometimes I used books, sometimes not. Dorus also played music and sang songs with the children.

At the end of the project, I received a letter from the medicine men in the villages. They told me the children’s school results had improved because they opened up more, had become readers and felt more freedom to express themselves in writing.

Working With Read With Me:

iRead: You chose Read With Me, a project you work with closely, to receive the 150,000 RMB award donation. What kind of work does Read With Me do?

Marit: Read With Me is a project designed and implemented by the Institute for Research on the History of Children’s Literature (IRHCL). Its most important work is to make quality books accessible to children who normally don’t have access to books, such as street/working children and those living in remote and deprived areas of Iran.


The Read With Me team discovered that if there was a place where the street children could go and get reading aloud sessions, the children kept coming back. It was a safe place and a place where they could feel like children for a while.

Read With Me also publishes books, as they wanted to have more quality books for Iranian children. They also published books from European authors.

Another aspect of the work that Read With Me does is tackling the problem of illiteracy, because there are a lot of children as well as parents who cannot read.

Over ten years, Read With Me has grown enormously, reaching hundreds of thousands children and lots of teachers. The children involved in Read With Me’s programs also turned out to have better school results than other children. I remember when visiting the Afghan refugee children outside Tehran, I was told that the Iranian parents did not want their children to go to the same school as these refugee children. But with the help of Read With Me, the Afghan children started to have even better school results. Then the parents’ attitude also changed.

iRead: In what ways do you work with Read With Me?

Marit: It is fantastic to work with Zohreh Ghaeni, the founder of Read With Me. She is smart, sensitive and she can get things done. And we laugh a lot together.

Iran is experiencing very difficult times, especially now because of the economic situation due to the US boycott. There are a lot of vulnerable children in Iran. But at the same time, it is a very developed country. So there are many people who can work with these kind of projects and who are educated. I am involved in many ways in the projects. 

At the moment, I'm most active in coaching illustrators who make books for Read With Me. I have coached six illustrators so far. Three of their books have been published, two more are now nearly finished. Among other things, I share my experience as an illustrator with them. At the moment we do Skype sessions together where they show me sketches and storyboards and we discuss their work.

I also give the copy rights of my own books to Read With Me for free, so that they can publish them in Iran. I encouraged a lot of other European authors and illutrators to do the same.

At the same time, I am trying to make books published by Read With Me available in Europe. A book by one of the Iranian illustrators has been published in Holland and it has already won two awards in Holland. It is called The Girl and Her Seven Horses by Hadi Mohammadi and Nooshin Safaktoo.

When I was in Iran, I trained workshop facilitators by showing them how I do workshops with children, with a special focus on how to interact and communicate with children. In Holland we tend to talk more openly about many different topics with children. 

I also traveled to different parts of Iran to do workshops with children. When giving these workshops, there were always a lot of teachers watching. I have a translator, but I am also learning a little Farsi myself. It’s not easy, but I hope that the next time I visit Iran, I will be able to speak a little with the children.

After these workshops we sometimes have meetings to discuss what happened and speak about problems the teachers have to deal with.

Some of the children we visit in Iran have an extremely hard life. They are young but already working like slaves in the factories. Many of them are Afghan refugees. I read to them The Red Bird, the story about a red bird taking two very poor children to a place of hope.

I asked them, “Imagine if you met the bird in the wood and it is taking you somewhere, where do you want the bird to take you?” Then their imagination started. Many wanted the bird to take them to a playground even though some of them never had been to one.

Others wanted to come to the Read With Me house, but they were already there. Then I realized what this place meant for them.

Even though these children have a very hard life, I think the imagination is helping them cope. The worst thing is losing your hope. For these children, reading is a way of escaping life for a while. It makes them stronger.

When I am in Holland, I also talk to Zohreh on a regular basis on all different things they are working on in Iran. Read With Me really has become a very successful project.

I am only one person. I am not an organization and I don’t want to be one. I want to be free and open to see what’s happening in the world and see how I can respond to that by developing new projects. And then I can offer my advice to Read With Me for further development.  

iRead: Can you share with us your most memorable experience from your visits to Iran?

Marit: I think it was when I did a workshop near the Iran-Iraq border. It was just after a serious earthquake in the city of Sarpol e Zahab. Read With Me built a container library there. All the houses were destroyed and the children lived in tents or containers. After the workshop, a boy came to me. He pointed at my books and asked, “When are these books going to be translated into Farsi?” I had some books in Dutch. I told him that I wasn’t  sure but that I would check with Read With Me. Then we started talking to each other and at the end of our conversation he told me, “You know, we lost everything. But because of books, we can be everywhere. If we have no books, we have no life.”

I remember when I met Zohreh in 2004, she said to me, “If you want to change the world, you must start with children and books.” This is something I will never forget.

Books as a Welcome Present for Refugee Children

iRead: When did you first notice the problem of refugees in Europe and thought of doing something for them?

Marit: In 2014, lots of refugees came to Europe. Like everybody else, I saw the photos of enormous groups of refugees running for their lives. I realized that there were children in these groups. At that moment, I also saw the photos of barbed-wire and fences around Europe. These people who already lost everything were not welcome in our countries. That feeling was terrible.

We have a small house in Sweden in the woods. Close to our house, there was a refugee centre. In fact, there were several refugee centres in our village. I went to one of them, only to say “You are welcome here.”  To tell them that I don’t agree with the fences around the country. And I thought that maybe I could find new friends in the centre.

I also brought some paper and pencils. When I started to draw with the children and the grown-ups, they liked it a lot and they wanted me to come back.

After my first visit, I brought my picture books there, they were in Swedish. I just really wanted these children to be children again. When I showed them my picture books, they were interested, but I also knew they could not read the text. I realized it would take a year or more for them to be able to read it.

Then I remembered that I had one copy of the Arabic translation of a picturebook I made with Astrid Lindgren. So I went back to the centre with the book in Arabic. The children and adults started to laugh with joy when they saw their own language in the book. Even women who never spoke to me were fighting to get hold of the book. They were thrilled.  

After my visit, I immediately sent an e-mail to my publisher, the family of Astrid Lindgren and some other people who are involved in children's literature in Sweden. I said that we must give all the refugee children a book of our best children’s literature in their own language. This means they will be able to read our stories the first day they arrive. It’s not only a wonderful welcome present for them, it is the first bridge to the new country. The first way of understanding this unknown place.

In the end, 30,000 books were given to the children in the refugee centres in Sweden in 2016.

I then started this project in Holland as well. This time, I collected some of  the famous children’s literature in Holland and made a book out of that. I spent hours and hours with my editor reading and selecting the stories for this book. We asked the authors and illustrators to give us the right to use their stories and illustrations for free. At that point, I already had a lot of refugee friends. So during the selection process, I sent some of the stories to them to check when I was unsure about something. For example, can we have a love story between two children or is it too sad to include stories about death?

Interestingly, I found out that there is a fairy tale we have in Europe which they also have in Syria. So I decided to start the volume with this story. When the children open the book, they would be like “In my new country, they also have this fairy tale!” When I chose the stories, I really thought about how we can communicate with this group.

I think it’s important to give the books to the children immediately when they arrive in our country. In this way we can really help children develop a love of reading. It is also great that when these children go to school, they already know all the famous characters from our literature like other Dutch children do.

I know a Syrian couple, who asked me how and when to read to their son when they got the book. I told them they could read one story every evening. Now they read lots of books to their son. They weren’t used to this before they came to Holland. 

I want this project to be an example for the whole of Europe. We should use books as a welcome present for all refugees in Europe. And always in their own language, so they can develop the love for reading immediately.

Unfortunately, the situation for refugees is very bad now, because all the countries try to keep them out of Europe. I don’t think the refugees are a problem, the problem is that we are not opening up more for them. Books are very important tools to bring them closer to us and to share values and experiences. 

iRead: What is the hardest part of your work related to refugee children?

Marit: The hardest is the changing political environment. This means that the governments are not interested in developing projects for these children like they were before. When I gave the 30,000 books to the refugee children in Sweden, people thought it was great. They wrote about it in every newspaper. I was in several TV and radio programs. Everything was positive.

Now there is a negative view on the reception of refugees. The media also started to report about refugees in a different way, as if they are a huge problem, even if we had this many refugees before without really knowing it.

This means it will be harder for us to get support from foundations. But we try, I am already in touch with the organization responsible for refugee centres in Holland and of course they are very enthusiastic about developing this plan of giving every child a book in their own language. They see the children close by and know how important these kind of projects are for them.

Marit the Illustrator and Designer for Junibacken

iRead: I’ve learned that both of your parents work closely with books. Could you tell us a bit more about your family and what influence they had on you?

Marit: I grew up in Uppsala in Sweden before moving to Holland when I was five years old. Uppsala is a university city. When we were in Sweden, my father was a scholar of Swedish literature and later on he became a professor in Amsterdam. My mother was a translator of mainly children’s literature as well as a writer. She translated all the books of Astrid Lindgren to Dutch.

So you can imagine, there were lots of books in our house. My mother read a lot to us when we were kids. We also had many writers visiting us, including Astrid Lindgren.

iRead: What kind of books did you like as a child?

Marit: Interestingly, when I was around 10 years old, I really liked sad books. I liked books about things that were not part of  my own life. I was thinking a lot about what was going on in the world. This might be because I grew up in the seventies when people were really aware of what was happening in the world, such as the problem of starvation in Africa. I also knew that my mother grew up during World War II and my father lost his mother when he was 12 years old.

I was aware that my life was very simple and easy. I wanted to read about children who were in difficult circumstances. I didn't trust the world. I thought maybe one day I will be in those difficult situations as well.

When I was younger, my mother read aloud to me a lot. I really liked Elsa Beskow’s picture books and of course all the stories by Astrid Lindgren. There was also a very famous writer in Sweden called Lennart Helsing, who wrote absurd and strange poems. I loved them.

However, I must say and I think it's important for this interview, I was not the kind of child that was just reading, reading and reading piles of books. For me, it was more like I really went into one book, immersing myself in the story. It could never be like I read one book on Monday and then another one on Tuesday. No, no, no, I needed time to feel the story and to experience it.

iRead: Do you think the fact that you were interested in serious issues happening in the world was because you had many adult guests in the house and you were influenced by their conversations?

Marit: I think it’s more because my mother spoke with us about everything, including serious problems in the world. She talked to us like we were grown-ups in a way.

iRead: You went to college to study illustration and since then you have been illustrating either for others or your own stories. When did you develop your passion for art?

iRead: I have loved drawing since I was really young, probably when I was three. I moved to Holland when I was five and since I couldn’t speak Dutch, I was bullied by the other children.

Then I found out that if I started to draw, the children were nicer to me. I felt safe when I was drawing. I started having drawing classes every Friday afternoon when I was eight.

When I was in high school, I attended an Academy Class for drawing once a week. I loved drawing so much that in the last year of high school, I skipped other classes to draw. Directly after high school I went to the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam to study illustration.

iRead: Very early on in your career you started illustrating Astrid Lindgren’s work. How did it all happen?

Marit: My parents owned a house in Småland, the same province where Astrid Lindgren grew up. And I was drawing a lot in that house during the summer. When I showed these drawings of Småland to the publishing house Rabén & Sjögren in Stockholm, they said, “Oh this is like Astrid Lindgren’s books!” At the time, they were looking for illustrators who could illustrate one of Astrid’s winter tales. They decided to choose me. That’s how everything started.

iRead: There’s quite a big age gap between you and Astrid, what was your relationship with her like?

Marit: I am not so interested in age. I love to work with children because I can still feel what it’s like to be a child. In Amsterdam I have friends of all ages, from twenty five to ninety. Astrid was a fantastic person. She was a child and grown-up at the same time. She was very open-minded, you could talk about everything with her. She was very funny and we had very good laughs. She was also a fighter for children’s rights. We shared many things.

iRead: You are also the designer of Junibacken?

Marit: Yes. When I was around thirty, I worked day and night for two years to build Junibacken, a culture house for children. My role was to design a world based on Astrid Lindgren’s books. In Junibacken, children take a train that travels through the scenery of six of her most famous books. When they are on the train, they also hear the stories told by Astrid Lindgren herself. I am sure the experience makes children curious about the books of Astrid Lindgren.

I was responsible for the way this scenery was built. There were around 50 to 70 people working for me constructing all different parts of the scenery. While I was designing the scenery, I felt very worried because the initiator of Junibacken had a different opinion about what Junibacken should be like, much more commercial. So I had my fight to make it really close to the reading experience. There should be space for children’s own imagination.

iRead: Did you win the fight?

Marit: I think I did. The team of builders I had was very professional and they also had a lot of respect for the books of Astrid Lindgren. Now Junibacken also hosts theatre, plays, several playing rooms with scenery based on other famous Swedish children’s books and also a very big bookstore. The whole experience is stimulating for children. Every year, there are around 400,000 visitors coming to Junibacken.

iRead: What are you busy with at the moment?

Marit: I am planning a pilot project called “The Big Meeting”. This is an extension of a poetry project I started doing four years ago. In that poetry project, I read many poems with primary school children and guided them to write and illustrate poems themselves about “a memory they think they will never forget”.

After they finished their poems, they all became illustrators and I coached them with making an illustration for the poem another child wrote. In the end I designed a whole book with all the children’s poems and illustrations and all children got a copy of it.

I remember I also asked a group of pupils in Sweden to write about memories. In that class, half of the pupils were refugees. One boy from Afghanistan started to write about how he left Afganistan. He walked in the mountains for days and he had an accident on the way. It was heartbreaking.

The regular Swedish children knew he was a refugee, but they had no idea what it is really like to be a refugee and how he fled for his life. After this workshop, the child became almost like a hero of the class. The workshop had given him an opportunity to share his story.

In “The Big Meeting” project, I will connect a school in a wealthy area in Amsterdam and a school in a poorer area in Amsterdam. The wealthy school has mostly Dutch children whereas the poorer school has many nationalities.

I have invited a poet to teach the children how to write poetry and a graphic designer to teach them to design. When they have taken all the lessons, we will arrange a big meeting. Children from the different schools will meet, talk, exchange ideas and illustrate each other’s poems. If you illustrate a text you must really focus on the content of it which means that the children in a natural way connect to each other. In the end, these children will discover different experiences as well as find common interests among all of them. I hope this will be a natural way of creating tolerance, integration and friendship. At the end of the project, we are going to make a book of all the children’s works and publish it for them. We will then organize a celebratory book release with music for all the children and their parents. If this pilot project works well, I would like to run the project in other cities as well. It feels like an important project as these groups of people living in the same city nearly never get the opportunity to meet.

Another thing I did recently was that I started a YouTube channel – “The painting class”. People can subscribe for free.

In these lessons I show children how they can make an illustration in the same painting technique as in my books. It is for children at home, but also for teachers who need some inspiration for art classes.

My eldest daughter Jasmijn Kooijman who is filmmaker, is making the films for the painting class. During the summer we want to make more lessons because we see that it is a success. After doing the painting class I see children’s way of reading picture books change – they suddenly realize that they can make illustrations themselves!

And I am also making a new picture book, of course! A book close to children but also a little philosophical.

Marit Törnqvist in conversation with the iRead Foundation
Winner of the 2020 IBBY-iRead Outstanding Reading Promoter Award