A Playful Introduction to Swedish Culture
Review by Victor R. Volkman
A to Zåäö: Playing with History at the American Swedish Institute, by mother-and-son team Tara Sweeney and Nate Christopherson, is a playful introduction to Swedish culture and language. This coffee table quality hardcover from University of Minnesota Press is lavishly illustrated with Christopherson’s paintings of artifacts from Minneapolis’ American Swedish Institute (ASI). Since the ASI collections consist of thousands upon thousands of artifacts from the earliest days of the great Swedish immigration (1850-1900), the curators needed help to select an appropriate cross-section. Inga Theissen, the collections manager – herself a second-generation Swedish immigrant – helped locate suitable subjects for Sweeney’s luscious watercolor renderings. The paintings will add interest for children because Christopherson has embellished them with pen-and-ink drawings of miniature Vikings, mythical beasts and sasquatch-like giants reminiscent of the late great Edward Gorey. In a curious turn, the illustrations don’t necessarily literally match the Swedish words as presented in the text. For example, for the letter “A” we are introduced to the Swedish phrase “akta dig!” meaning “look out!” in English. The illustration accompanying this page is a nyckelharpa, that iconic Swedish folk instrument with 16 strings and 37 keys. And so it goes for the full 29 letters of the Swedish alphabet! Because the illustrations are all two-page spreads, there is an appendix explaining the provenance of each item drawn. Admittedly, this part will be of more interest to adults and a crucial resource needed to answer inquisitive children who want to know “What’s that?” on each page. A to Zåäö is a beautiful and fun children’s book cleverly designed to bridge cultures, languages and even generations of Swedish-Americans.