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U of M Press gives lavishly illustrated Sami folk tales new life

The authors in Lapland, gathering material for "Children of the Northlights"
Courtesy of Per Ola d’Aulaire
The authors in Lapland, gathering material for "Children of the Northlights"

Folk tales and myths may have come from ancient oral traditions, but it takes a great illustration to give these stories lasting power in today’s highly visual culture.

Between 1930 and 1976, artists Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire brought to vivid life stories from Greek, Roman and Norse mythology, as well as Bible stories and folk and tall tales from the North American frontier in a collection of 20 children’s books that are enjoying a renaissance of popularity.

The University of Minnesota Press has just reissued the d’Aulaires' “Children of the Northlights,” tales of the Sami people of northern Scandinavia. The book follows the adventures of a brother and sister who live in one of the world’s most northernmost places. The illustrations lavishly capture reindeer, northern lights and the warm home life of a traditional culture undiluted by the outside world in 1935, when the book was first published.

“As one of the d'Aulaires' rarest and most sought-after titles, “Children of the Northlights” celebrates Scandinavian culture in a way that many readers may have never seen before, something we felt needed to be made available again.

“Like so much of the d'Aulaires' work, it is a book which has been — and hopefully will continue to be — passed on from generation to generation,” said Kristian Tvedten, editorial assistant, University of Minnesota Press. “It's also a very unusual children's book and one of the only books I know of — certainly one of the earliest — devoted to celebrating the Sami culture of northern Scandinavia.”

Ingri grew up in Norway and moved to Germany to study painting; there she met Edgar, a German painter and illustrator of Swiss descent. The couple married in 1925 and immigrated to the United States, where they found work as commercial artists before becoming children’s book illustrators. The brought with them extensive knowledge of rare art techniques and created their illustrations using a combination of wood cut and stone lithography.

The d’Aulaires are gone now, but their sons Per Ola and Nils oversee their artistic legacy. Per Ola remembers his father carrying 100-pound stone slabs upstairs to the couple’s studio in Connecticut.

 “My parents would take two or three years to make a book, and it was very painstaking work. Today people can’t afford the time it would take to do it the way they did. And no printer could afford to reproduce work made in this manner,” says Per Ola, who is a retired freelance writer living in Connecticut. “The illustrations are so charming and unusual, and the stories are written in a very accessible, colorful way, with a timeless quality to them.”

“The handmade craftsmanship of the book and the amount of work that went into the illustrations is remarkable and complements other titles we have published, including many books by Wanda Gág and Betsy Bowen's woodcut-illustrated edition of Helen Hoover's ‘Great Wolf and the Good Woodsman,’ ” said Tvedten. 

Some of the d’Aulaires' production materials can be seen at the Kerlan collection at the University of Minnesota. The bulk of the d'Aulaire archive resides in the Beinecke Library at Yale University, although Per Ola and Nils own several original paintings and other important pieces of their parents’ art.

The brothers have vivid memories of traveling across Europe and the U.S. with their parents as they researched the books. “Children of the Northlights” was created before either of the boys was born; Ingri and Edgar traveled via dogsled to remote Sami villages to gain an understanding of their subject.

“They always dragged us along, all over Europe and the states. We spent a lot of time in Norway, of course, and when they did the Greek Myths book, we lived in Geneva, Switzerland, while they made side trips to Greece. We saw Italy, Spain and Portugal, and it seeded in both of us a curiosity about the world and a sense of adventure,” said Per Ola, who remembers the King of Norway, Olav (father of the current King Olav) visiting his parents in Connecticut.

The University of Minnesota Press may reissue more of the d’Aulaires' books, particularly those centering on Scandinavian themes. Per Ola would like to see all of his parents’ books come back into print, and says he continues to be surprised and delighted by the stories and pictures his parents made.

“They are all different, so unique,” he says. “They are all my favorite books.”

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Comments (2)

Lovely article, Amy

But the current king of Norway isn't Olav but Harald. Olav was indeed Harald's father.

Growing up with d'aulaire

I'm very happy to hear Children of the Northern Lights is being reissued. I grew up on this, absolutely fascinated by the beautifully drawn and colored illustrations. I was able to purchase a good used copy some time ago to share with my grandchildren (and for me!).

The Sami hats, the children's clothes and the reindeer have brought their world to me.