By Lise Lotte Larsen
Jan Mogensen began writing and drawing for children in the beginning of the 1980s in contrast to the factual everyday-realism that was in vogue in children’s books at that time. He has now over sixty books to his name on a wide range of themes and subjects, and is established and popular both at home and abroad.
His books are characterized by a sympathetic insight into the way children meet the world. An insight that is an integral part of the story and the reason for its existence, as it is in the books of Astrid Lindgren. This means that the illustrations often have a child’s perspective: low and close to the subject. This perspective, the transparent watercolours, and the harmony of colour make the illustrations radiate peace and openness, immediately inviting whoever looks at them to enter into the world of the story.
The reality depicted in Jan Mogensen’s books is not that of everyday life, but the more spacious one of fairytale – a reality that gives every one of its inhabitants voice and soul, whether they are children, teddy bears, animals, toys or tools. Like Hans Christian Andersen Jan Mogensen plays with size and angle. He zooms in on small persons and small worlds in both text and picture so that both they and the big habitual world of reality are given new dimensions. The Land Where Everything is Big (1992) is a typical example. Here a girl called Sofie and her Uncle Ib visit a land where ants are the size of human beings. In this story the insight is the motive, the form, and the message in one.
This insight includes the ability of knowing what interests children of different ages. Jan Mogensen has produced a series of look-and-learn books on central subjects with great powers of fascination for the youngest picture-book readers. The books about Professor Teddy Bear turn learning about the surrounding world through numbers, words and concepts into a game. The books about the little monkey-boy Jojo (2001) tell about visiting the doctor, riding on the bus, and going shopping. Playful Ludo (1999) and Cheeky Fido (1999) have a puppy and a kitten as the main character, respectively. Hearing about How One Makes One’s Own Train (2001) or How One Makes Friends With A Donkey (2001) – titles of a couple of Jan Mogensen’s latest look-and-learn books - is just as exciting for the slightly older children as for the youngest ones.
One of Jan Mogensen’s very first books, The Bird in the Heart (1982) expresses an important aspect in his works, the child’s spiritual growth, described as a process which is partly attributed to forces belonging to the adult world outside the child’s control, and which partly has its own innate strength. He has made the central conflict area, of the child unavoidably having to adapt some of its feelings and innermost inclinations in relation to the reality surrounding it, the theme in a number of his later picture books for children who are above the youngest age level.This he does with unglossy honesty, while maintaining his solidarity with the child.
He does this with robust comedy in The Mischievous Young Trolls (1999), four stories in Dennis the Menace vein about three troublemaker troll brothers whose tireless imaginative attempts to change the world to their wishes repeatedly meets resistance from their troll parents. The story, Piglet (1998), is a subtle moving variation of the theme. Piglet’s desire for cleanliness is a big problem for his parents and for his friends, so big that he is forced to suppress this part of himself and be exactly as filthy as his surroundings. But Piglet grows up and founds a town for clean pigs. In Victor Banana (2000) the theme is unfolded as an heroic story about a little monkey. He is fussy about his food and will only eat oranges. He has to put up with all of his family’s attempts to get him to eat something else when the orange season is over. But he does not give way, and finally solves the problem himself – and enriches his society – by going out into the jungle and discovering the banana. Rita in Rage Wood (1999) is on the other hand a psychological story about Rita, who gets so furious when her father tells her to put on her leggings when playing outside that a hole directly into Rage Wood suddenly appears in the wall. In the wood she meets the king of the trolls, who is the only one who can be more furious than she can. This makes her accept that she will have to do what her father says – sooner or later.
Even though Jan Mogensen’s books are characterized by the timelessness of fairytale and a psychological universality they now and again conceal comments about actual problems. The Tale of Sulliman Ahmed Beduin (2001) is for example a story about friendship across borders and cultures, but also a little mordant dig at those who as tourists wish to conquer the whole world, but when home again in their terraced house have enough in themselves. Each in their way, a couple of Jan Mogensen’s picture books presents the theme of chaos. The Forty-Six Small Men (1990) tells, only through beautiful bright-coloured illustrations, of the chaos that arises when 46 small men from a picture on the wall set out for
Elfs’ Island. Here, the entertaining devastation of chance has free rein. In The Screw is Loose (1997) the happy and contented Mr. Hammer goes for a walk every day in his ordinary, well-ordered town, with Little Blue Nail on a lead. But one day, when a screw that is loose attacks Little Blue Nail, things turn into a chaotic nightmare. One misfortune leads to another. Mr. Hammer returns home shocked, and has to give up explaining to his neighbour that madness is lying in wait just below the well-organized surface of the town. ”You’ll never understand it, without experiencing it”.
Those of us who have read and experienced the book understand it, and maybe also get the feeling that the humorous tone running throughout Jan Mogensen’s work is closely related to this feeling that chaos is close at hand.
Translated by Ian Lukins