Hopefully I can review these without too much bias, not just because of the protagonist’s name but because I have a soft spot in my heart for books about overimaginative little girls. The books, originally published in the early 1960s in Swedish, cover about a year and a half in the life of the youngest child by some years of a country parson in rural Sweden. All but one of her siblings have grown and left home and the last, Agneta, is about to marry as Josephine begins.
Josephine is set the summer before the eponymous child begins school and so therefore before she’s got any school chums to spend time with. She fills her time with daydreams—the village crone is a witch, the newly hired elderly gardener is God incarnate—and misadventures ranging from cutting seven butterflies out of Agneta’s wedding veil to presenting her balloon to the King of Sweden upon falling at his feet from the top of a wall. She gets in trouble for many of her activities, but nothing horrible or unfixable. Indeed, the butterflies incident turns out all right in the end; Agneta’s fiancee, Eric, brings Agneta his mother’s wedding veil and in the process befriends Josephine when he reveals he got in trouble for making parachutes out of his mother’s living room curtains and outgrimacing Josephine herself in a “horrid face” contest. Hugo and Josephine picks up when Josephine starts school. The school year starts off poorly when the teacher attempts calling Josephine by her real name1, and deteriorates as she tries to negotiate the morass of playground relationships; book learning is easy compared to who is friendly with whom, and it doesn’t help that Josephine is almost but not quite like the other girls, but wants desperately to fit in. However, Josephine quickly acquires a friend and champion, Hugo, who cares so little for fitting in that the other kids have no hook with which to tease him and so he befriends everyone. The third book, Hugo, always seemed like something of an afterthought to me; Hugo seems a little too wise for a seven/eight year old, although it’s true he would have had to mature fast after the death of his mother and the imprisonment of his father. However, the imagination run amuck that charmed me about Josephine is almost absent in this book. I can understand Josephine growing out of it, but there isn’t much explanation of how or why. Perhaps she’s just growing up.
Coming back to the books as an adult, I can’t help but notice how the world has changed since these books were written, or rather how it’s changed from the time in which they were set—I suspect that Gripe was writing about the Sweden of her own childhood. Josephine, a girl of six, is allowed to roam essentially free through the countryside unsupervised. She walks to school in the village from her house some distance away, and Hugo much farther. She’s allowed into a fairly fancy restaurant, judging by the food on the menu, without question; this may be explained by the staff recognizing her as the daughter of the local pastor, but the book doesn’t explain this. This is not the world of Pippi Longstocking; those were clearly fantasy novels, much as the Doctor Doolittle books were. The Josephine books are set in a very real Sweden, though one populated by the vivid imagination of a lonely little girl and while it’s possible they’re set in a village small enough for everyone to recognize one another, I can’t imagine this being written about a similarly small modern village in the United States today.
As with Lawson’s work, I’d say they’re worth keeping if your library has them in the collection, but don’t go out of your way to add them, unless your community has a large Swedish contingent. Or a number of overimaginative little girls called Josephine. While Gripe’s book, Papa Pellerin’s Daughter provides a bit more description of what it’s like to live in Sweden, I’m not sure how the language in the Josephine trilogy would go over with modern kids just starting on chapter books.
1Anna Gra, which Josephine finds too mature a name for such a little girl as herself