Monday musings on Australian literature: Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award

Yes, you read right. This week’s Monday Musings on Australian Literature focuses on an award established by the Swedish government, but it is an international award. Established in 2002 to honour the Swedish children’s author Astrid Lindgren (as you’ll have guessed), the prize is five million SEK, making it, says Wikipedia, the richest award in children’s literature and one of the richest literary prizes in the world.

The award, continues Wikipedia, “annually recognises one or more living people and extant institutions” for “their career contributions”, in the case of people, and for their long-term sustainable work, in the case of institutions. The winners should be “authors, illustrators, oral storytellers and promoters of reading” and their work should be “of the highest quality, and in the spirit of Astrid Lindgren.” The award’s aim “is to increase interest in children’s and young people’s literature, and to promote children’s rights to culture on a global level”.

Alert readers here will have seen it mentioned here before, most recently in my post on Alison Lester, because she has been nominated for the award. However, she’s not the only Australian to have been so listed, and in fact, Australians have won it.

Aussie winners

The first winner, in 2003, was Maurice Sendak, but in its short history, Australians have won twice: Sonya Hartnett in 2008 (whose adult novel Golden boys I’ve reviewed) and Shaun Tan in 2011 (whose little book Eric, from Tales of outer suburbia, I’ve reviewed.)

The Chinese paper, People’s Daily Online, reported Hartnett’s win, quoting the award jury as saying:

Sonya Hartnett is one of the major forces for renewal in modern young adult fiction …


With psychological depth and a concealed yet palpable anger, she depicts the circumstances of young people without avoiding the darker sides of life. She does so with linguistic virtuosity and a brilliant narrative technique; her works are a source of strength. 

Shaun Tan, Eric cover

Reporting Tan’s win, Claire Armitstead of The Guardian wrote that

Larry Lempert, the chair of the jury, described Tan as “a masterly visual storyteller” whose minutely detailed pictorial narratives touched everyone, regardless of age. “His pictorial worlds constitute a separate universe where nothing is self-evident and anything is possible,” the citation says.

The Guardian article describes the prize as focusing on work with “a profound respect for democratic values and human rights”. That certainly describes Shaun Tan’s work, and ethos, as I know them.

Announcing the British contingent for the 2020 award, The Guardian quoted the jury’s citation for British past-winner Philip Pullman (whose His Dark Materials series Daughter Gums loved) for writing that

stands firmly on the side of young people, ruthlessly questioning authority and proclaiming humanism and the power of love whilst maintaining an optimistic belief in the child even in the darkest of situations

I rest my case – I think!

Some Aussie candidates

As far as I understand it, candidates are nominated by organisations around the world, but the winners are chosen by, quotes Wikipedia, “a jury with broad expertise in international children’s and young adult literature, reading promotion and children’s rights. The 12 members include authors, literary critics and scholars, illustrators and librarians. One member represents Astrid Lindgren’s family.”

Book cover

I’ve already said that Alison Lester has been shortlisted (or, announced as a “candidate” as they call it), but given our strong children’s literature culture here, many Australians have been shortlisted over the years, too many, in fact for me to discuss in detail.

Children’s/young adult author John Marsden was nominated in 2008. I enjoyed reading his books when my children were young, and was impressed by the fearlessness with which he tackled some difficult issues, including domestic violence in his 1987 novel, So much to tell you.

Some authors have been listed multiple times. For example, Jeannie Baker, Ursula Dubosarsky, Susanne Gervay and Margo Lanagan were candidates for the 2020 Award, and are again for 2021. The specialty Indigenous Australian publisher Magabala Books and the Indigenous Literacy Foundation are also in this 2020 and 2021 group.

I know and have read works from some of these writers and organisations, but not all. However, it’s clear how and why Magabala Books and the Indigenous Literacy Foundation would meet the prize’s interest in “democratic values and human rights”.

I could go on finding more Aussies to tell you about, but I think you get the gist. This is an impressive, and significant award in both value and what it is trying to achieve (or so it seems to me).

Are you familiar with it?

22 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award

  1. I’ve heard of it: I think it suffers from the same problem as our CBCA awards, that is, it includes in its definition of ‘children’s literature, books for YA that are definitely not children’s books. Sonya Hartnett is a case in point… I’ve read half a dozen of hers and most of them seem to me to be more suitable for 16-20 years+ and sometimes more towards the 20+ range.
    (Like the year the CBCA shortlisted Requiem for a Beast by Matt Ottley, which was very dark indeed and featured suicide. I always used to order all the shortlisted books for the school library and was horrified when I read it, thank goodness I did before some kid got to it!)

    • Thanks very much Lisa. What do you think about John Marsden’s So much to tell you and Letters from the inside. They were pretty gritty – and young adult not children’s. I think YA is definitely grittier than it was in the 70s and 80s when it was fairly new? But, is that wrong given young people are confronted with much more these days than the majority of us were – just because of the media?

      BTW I wouldn’t have thought all YA would be suitable for a primary school library? I must read a Hartnett YA book to see what I think!

      • Well, there was a bit of a fad for YA in primary schools in my years in the library. Because children mature physically earlier than they used to, there was a school of thought that they ought to be exposed to stories that acknowledged sexuality. There was a well-known one that featured wet dreams, for example, and that was a problem because some of our Muslim families wouldn’t allow their children to attend sex ed…
        My view is that primary schools ought to err on the side of caution, there’s plenty of great books that don’t involve these difficulties, and there’s plenty of time for YA in secondary school.

        • Oh yes, totally agree with you there. I think plmay schools should err on the side of caution too, early maturation notwithstanding. Re that issue, I said to my son when he had 5th and 6th grade for a couple of years that he should be prepared for puberty in girls in particular.

  2. I am not. But I’m thrilled that Australian children’s authors have won it; for I believe firmly that children’s literature is as important as – if not more important than – the adult range. My first job out of school was working in a lovely little public library in Fremantle, which had an excellent children’s floor upstairs; and our ‘turns’ (meaning we three juniors) up there always had us reluctant to come back down ..

  3. Despite the fact that I have been buying books every birthday and christmas for 40 something years for my children and grandchildren I don’t know any children’s authors Australian or otherwise – well except the Possum woman and Dr Seuss. I should be apologetic about that, I know. My otherwise excellent local bookshop Crow Books (Victoria Park WA) refuses point blank to promote Australian books, even Magabala, and just lumps them all in with the Americans – which is ok (ish) for little kids because Australians can be recognised by their covers, but stinks for YA (and adults). I might go and live in Britanny where according to Emma the books are sorted not just by country but by province.

    • That’s terrible Bill! l’m actually rather shocked that a book present buyer like you doesn’t know children’s authors? How do you choose books? By their cover? Seriously, I’d love to know.

    • I love the idea of sorting books down to the province level! But the pragmatic me wonders how this would work. I’ve just finished a recently written Garth Nix, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London. Now Garth is most definitely a Sydney lad, but his story is firmly set in England. And whilst Garth’s ouvre is YA, this story is definitely getting verging on an adult read. So where do you put it?

      And Bill, don’t be annoyed that you’ve provided the same book twice. This shows consistency!

      (I have a soft spot for Garth. He is almost one of the family. His wife is the daughter of a good friend of my sister-in-law.)

      • Good question Neil … I think a lot of YA works “cross-over” to adult fiction. Zusak’s The book thief is a well known example. I’m sure it creates a huge headache for booksellers. Ideally, I reckon they should have a few copies in each section, but some small shops often don’t carry a lot of stock do they.

        Now, how many degrees of separation between you and Garth?

      • I don’t get annoyed. My kids and grandkids do, a little, but mostly they’re just resigned. Usually they tell me and I buy them something else.

        I’m not so worried about categories, but Crow Books and its sister store in Fremantle could do a LOT more to showcase Western Australian books; and Australian YA which is swamped by indentically looking US and English stuff.

        • I like your attitude.

          Agreed, seems odd that they don’t promote Western Australian books. I would have thought this would improve their sales. (But what do I know about selling books? I rarely buy one nowadays, relying on ebooks.)

        • When I travelled in the USA last, I would look in bookshops for their local author shelves. They often had them… I remember a lovely shop in Seattle with such shelves. My most recent overseas trip was Japan. Notmuch use looking there.

          However, I agree that bookshops here could do more to promote local region writers.

          BTW I reckon, re the duplicate bookbuying for the family, that you should be pleased to be the family character they can laugh at and tell stories about.

  4. Thanks for providing such a comprehensive overview of this award Sue. I noticed that we had a few authors in the latest shortlist. I’m a huge Tan fan, his latest picture book Dog is just as thought provoking as his earlier stuff.

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