What springs to mind when you think about Sweden? Ikea, of course, and Pippi Longstocking; perhaps the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award for Children’s Literature. Would you think about libraries? Ferelith Hordon thinks we should.
This year the Southbank in London has a focus on the Nordic countries. The Moomintroll exhibition has been part of it. Moomins, of course, come from Finland. However, take the singing lift to level 5 and there, outside the Saison Poetry Library all the way from Sweden, is a small, but perfectly formed children’s library where children can relax in their own specially created ‘pods’ or ‘huts’ to read, draw, or just be. I met Ellen Wettmark from the Swedish Embassy and Emma Langley from the Arts Council to find out more about it.
Room for Children – Rum för Barn – is on the fourth floor of the Kulturhuset in Stockholm. Like the Southbank itself, Kulturhuset is a lively space where a wide range of cultural activities take place – an ideal centre for a children’s library. It is a large library with, Ellen tells me, with the explicit aim of being very child friendly. It is space where children can find what they want to read, where they can create and indulge in imaginative play or run wild as they want to having taken off their shoes! As Ellen describes it ‘The children lead, the adults follow’. It has been enormously successful attracting children from all over Stockholm, and indeed from all over Sweden. As a result the Swedish Institute – the equivalent of the Arts Council – wondered if a pop-up version of the library could be created to showcase this around the world. It would be a platform to discuss Swedish books for children but also to encourage debate about such issues as children’s rights and the child’s right to play, to creativity, to access good literature. The Southbank’s Room for Children is one of four such pop-up versions and others have appeared in Washington DC, Berlin and Vilnius. It’s also ‘the nicest’ according to Ellen. The vision is that these miniature libraries should not be tucked away behind the walls of the Swedish Embassy, rather the Institute will actively seek partnerships with organisations that will allow them to be visible and accessible; the Southbank is the perfect host. Indeed, both Ellen and Emma assure me that it has been attracting large numbers of children and can be very busy.
This is hardly surprising. It is immediately inviting and though compact, beautifully designed – the furniture donated by Ikea, naturally. The shelving is not plastic, as is so often found in a modern library, but wood. Indeed the catalogue for the Room for Children shows a large space whose walls are lined with unpainted wood and wooden bookshelves. Apparently this was what the children themselves chose. For them a library was a special space, a very specific space, that had gravitas and a sense of security. Wood epitomised this and created the atmosphere they wanted! Here in the Southbank there is perhaps not quite such a sense of permanence. This little library will be here until the end of the year – though already young users are demanding that it stay. The furniture is comfortable and attractive and the little ‘huts’ inviting; when children curl up inside, a light goes on allowing them to read, or not. There are similar pods in Stockholm where they are a bit larger. It is interesting to reflect that this use of comfortable, tucked away spaces for readers seem to be becoming a creative option in library furniture; the central library in Auckland, New Zealand also has an interesting design which attracts adults to lie down and relax, often with their children.
Since it is a library, there are of course books. Here in the Southbank it is quite a small selection, mostly children’s books in translation, but there are also books in the various Nordic languages identified by that country’s flag. I noticed Denmark, Norway and Finland and I was told there are some in Faroese. Once again children are at the forefront of the thinking and, as is the case in Stockholm, the books are organised thematically either by subject or, perhaps, character. ‘It’s more in line with children’s logic’ explains Ellen. Naturally activities are very much a feature in the parent Room for Children. In the Southbank, though it has not been possible to organise painting and craft sessions, there is plenty to enjoy with regular story time sessions every Friday overseen by the Poetry Library.
This little space is already a destination of choice for children up to the age of 9. As an adult you might have to ask permission from your child to enter; and do remember to take your shoes off. If you are allowed in, it is an inspiring place to think about children and reading, and more than that, how we accommodate them in our society.
Ferelith Hordon is active member of CILIP YLG and has served as Chair of both YLG London and of the National Committee. She is editor of Books for Keeps and of IBBYLink, the online journal of IBBY UK.