Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Ying Toijer-Nilsson in memoriam

I heard this morning that Ying Toijer-Nilsson had passed away. She wasn't well known internationally, but acknowledged in Scandinavia as one of the best children's literature scholars of the older generation. Her books on gender on death and on religion in children's literature were among the first of their kind. She was also a Selma Lagerlöf scholar and a feminist critic, and she reviewed children's books in a large Swedish morning newspaper. She was a freelancer, but she received an honorary doctorate for her brilliant research.

I met Ying soon after I had moved to Sweden. She had just published a book on children's fantasy, which wasn't a hot topic then, so she was as always ahead of her time. Since I planned to write my PhD on fantasy I was a bit anxious, but saw, when I read the book, that she was doing something completely different from what I was interested in, and that there was room for more than one book on the subject. I was taking a course in children's literature, and a fellow student invited me to her critique group that was reading Ying's book. Ying was invited too. My fellow student explained who I was, and after a while Ying asked me whether I understood what she was saying. I replied in probably not perfect, but quite acceptable Swedish. Ying liked to recall this episode with marvelous self-irony.

Since she wasn't part of the academia, she didn't attend the seminars at the department, but we met at various events, and we also started a habit of having lunch at each other's places every now and then, at least once a year. We talked fantasy and many other things. Ying was a cat person, and from my travels I brought her cats of all kinds for her collection. I didn't know at that time that I also was a cat person, but we talked a lot about cats, particularly literary cats. We also talked about faith. Ying was deeply religious, and I was exploring my own spirituality. She introduced me to C S Lewis's works on Christianity.

Ying did, however, attend at least one seminar where I presented my work in progress and where my supervisor more or less chopped me into small bits and threw them out of the window – she was like that. I went home and wept and swore I would never again put my foot into the department. Ying called the same evening and told me not to mind my supervisor (they were very close friends). “You know she is like that”.

I was elected to the Executive Board of the Selma Lagerlöf Society, of which my supervisor was president and Ying secretary. This involved a couple of board meetings and an annual membership meeting, as well as various Lagerlöf-related events.

Then Ying invited me to join the annual critics' retreat arranged by the Swedish Church in the little town of Sigtuna, north of Stockholm. This was one of the most exciting professional experiences in my life. It was a little group of people from various disciplines, literature, art, music, philosophy, theology, who would get together for three days and talk to each other about some topic of common interest, not necessarily related to religion or faith. For instance, Ying and I did a joint talk on dystopias in children's literature - about fifteen years before it became a trend. I met some wonderfully interesting people there. It also helped me to break away from exclusively children's literature studies, and for many years I reviewed fiction and non-fiction for the cultural journal of the Swedish Church.

Eventually Ying left Lagerlöf Society Board, but went on with Lagerlöf studies, edited several volumes of her correspondence, wrote biographies of people around Lagerlöf; but she also continued with children's literature, and her book reviews were always brilliant. I read some just a few weeks ago.

Ying was important for many of us, younger scholars. She stayed away from academic squabbles, and she had no personal interest in our academic achievements, but she was always supportive, always encouraging, yet never giving praise unless she meant it. And she was always cheerful and full of vigour and humour.

May she rest in peace.

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