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Djur som ingen sett utom vi Ulf Stark (author) and Linda Bondestam (illustrator), Djur som ingen sett utom vi (Animals No-One Has Seen Except Us)

Förlaget, Helsinki and Berghs Förlag, Stockholm,  2016.

Reviewed by Martin Murrell in SBR 2017:1

Review Section: Fiction for Children and Young People

‘On the cover you can see two / Who never said what they were or who!’ This strikingly illustrated book presents a total of 27 species which, supposedly, no-one but their privileged creators has ever seen,partly because of their habitats and lifestyles. There are, however, some apparent exceptions.

Though somewhat exotic, they are mostly not very different from familiar creatures, often being amalgamations of two or more terrestrial species: the Lummalí, for example, resembles a miniature owl with butterfly wings that spins arachnoid webs in the moonberry bush to catch the day.

The book has been described as ‘quite fantastic’,and the verses have been called ‘philosophical’. However, in the absence of any qualification, these labels are unhelpful. ‘The Waiting Animals’ runs:

They stand in a ring on the seashore,
The waiting animals do. . Their eyes are pale, the palest blue.
They stand for ever, some small, some tall. Waiting for something, ANYTHING AT ALL.

This is bitter-sweet, both sad and funny. Other rhymes – like ‘The Mountain’s Guests’, in which the unnamed creatures are ghosts – are satirical:

One Friday every seventh year
The ghosts process towards the west – Every ghost a Mount Blue guest.
There they climb up, climb non-stop,
So high, with never a fall or flop,
Up they rise to Mount Blue’s top.
With snouts now pointing towards the sky
They all howl WOW, and LOOK they cry!
hen go back home, with a contented sigh.

There is something a little disturbing, if very human, about these creatures, given their self-understanding and, yes, in part, their ability to ‘philosophise’ about their fates: trapped in their environment with repetitive lives, they wonder, think, hope, wish, yearn – and are able to speak. The macabre element might cause children of a certain disposition to shudder. Since the creatures are not familiar fairy-tale or fantasy beasts, the distortions could meet with initial indifference, or give an unpleasant shock. None of the reviews I have seen discuss children’s reactions – a major omission. The publishers suggest it is suitable for three-to-six-year-olds, whereas I believe teenagers and adults would form the most receptive readership.

There is, however, nothing particularly exceptional about the creatures’ physical attributes except the combination of features they display.But then it is unlikely that anyone, however imaginative, could come up with life-types very different from those actually existing on Planet Earth. Size is a problem not fully explored by the creators: the huge Klumpantropus eats everything he comes across; he’s depicted putting a bicycle into his mouth. There is no intimation of invisibility. He’s both funny with his skeletal legs, and sad in his longing to become a butterfly. The fierce-looking, not-quite-a-bomb Bombom (boom-boom!) is enormous (think of a 15-storey skyscraper), and as ugly as monsters come, so people flee from him. Despite the book’s title, this implies he’s both audible and visible – but, like other fictional monsters, how lonely he is! (‘So in the end I’m all alone. / Am I to blame for how I look?’)

As a muggle – though a lover of fantasy and faery – and an adult,I enjoyed reading the rhymes, and admired the matching illustrations. From now on, I will see the pitiful Bombom and Klumpantropus in every cityscape. Sadly, I somehow doubt that the contents will have the same effect on the pre-pubescent child. Here is the Egg-Animal wondering:

Thinks the egg-animal in its shell
As all egg-animals may very well,
‘What’s outside my little cell!’

Why, yes, another shell, that’s big and black
With tiny holes that someone’s made.
Behind is the UNIVERSE brightly displayed.
Hope this shell soon goes crack-crack-crack!

The lines translate nicely into English, and, despite my reservations, I hope the work will one day find a place on English- language bookshelves – perhaps even as a collection of some of this century’s first-born nursery rhymes.

Other reviews by Martin Murrell

Other reviews in SBR 2017:1

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