The Cantankerous Crow: A classic Swedish picture book returns

Posted on 27th May 2016 at 09:14 by SELTA Web Editor

SELTA member and Swedish Book Review editor Deborah Bragan-Turner looks at the story behind the new edition of a classic Swedish picture book first published nearly sixty years ago.

A Swedish picture book that was first published in English translation nearly sixty years ago will soon be in the bookshops again. In playful words and glorious colour, The Cantankerous Crow relates the adventures of the naughtiest crow in the world. The history of how this beautifully illustrated book came into being makes interesting reading!

Lennart Hellsing was born in Västanfors in central Sweden in 1919. (He died in Stockholm in 2015.) He trained to be an engineer and and worked as a journalist, but was to become one of Sweden’s best loved children’s authors. His first children’s book was published in 1945 and over the next seventy years he wrote a hundred more, receiving numerous prizes and awards. Hellsing broke with earlier tradition of rather conservative, formal literature for children and in his playful nonsense verse and “verbal acrobatics” he described exotic adventures in which his characters freely roamed.

Alongside his own writing, Hellsing developed a second career as a translator. His first translation was A.A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young, translated with Claes Hoogland and published in 1945. It’s tempting to speculate that many of his own books reflect the English nursery rhymes he heard as a child living with his grandmother, who came from Liverpool.

Hellsing’s books attracted many skilled illustrators. Award-winning illustrator and painter Poul Strøyer (1923-1966) was born in Denmark and moved to Sweden in 1946. He was commissioned by Stockholms-Tidningen, where he met Hellsing, who was a journalist on the same newspaper. They collaborated on Summa Summarum (All in All), published by Rabén & Sjögren in 1950, and would work closely together on a further fifteen successful books. The second was Den krångliga kråkan (The Cantankerous Crow), created for a magazine competition in 1951 and published as a book in 1953, also by Rabén & Sjögren.

The Cantankerous Crow appeared in English translation in 1959, published in New York by McDowell/Obolensky. The book states it is “adapted from the Swedish” by Nancy and Edward Maze. Edward Maze (1925-2010) was an American film director and actor, who worked in Stockholm. He married Nancy E. Quackenbush in 1948. A connection between Maze and Hellsing is not immediately obvious, but it’s quite possible their paths crossed through Hellsing’s involvement in musicals and film.

Fast-forward more than fifty years and the fifth person to feature in the story of this book is editorial director at Thames & Hudson, Roger Thorp, who, as he explains in a publisher’s note to the new edition, discovered a battered copy of the original Swedish edition in a second-hand bookshop in Gothenburg some years ago. He was charmed by the crazy words and ingenious illustrations, and determined that he would bring it to a new generation of readers, which he has duly done.  


The Cantankerous Crow by Lennart Hellsing and Poul Strøyer, adapted from the Swedish by Nancy and Edward Maze, is published by Thames & Hudson on 14 June 2016.