Ulf Stark and Linda Bondestam’s sweetly eccentric picture book My Little Small opens itself to many layered interpretations. On the surface, it’s a story of finding a small friend to care for. Dig a little deeper and Stark’s philosophical ruminations come through.
“In a mountain, deep in a cave
In the dark, there lives a Creature.
The sun hurts her eyes and her skin, too.”
Like her mountain cave, the Creature is “gray, gray, gray.” Bondestam’s whimsical illustrations produce a Creature with large, expressive eyes, an oblong body, and pointy teeth.
Hidden away during daylight to escape the harmful rays of the sun, the Creature leads a solitary life, yet she craves companionship. “She dreams of the moon and of having someone small to sing to and care for.” Her yearning turns to anger at times, and she grinds the rocks of her cave between her teeth. When night falls, she emerges from her cave, marveling in the soft colors of the sunset, the lake, and the distant city.
Young readers will relate to the Creature’s many emotions as she wrestles with her loneliness, longing, and frustration.
The lonely Creature explores her nighttime environment, looking for something small to care for. The Creature does not just want to find companionship; she wants to become a caregiver, providing love and protection. Although readers do not know why she seeks this out, they will relate to the feeling of wanting something small to love and protect. After all, this is one reason why young children like to play with small stuffed animals and baby dolls.
She tries swimming out to the reflection of the full moon, but the moon shatters “into a thousand gleams.” She tries stacking boulders on top of the highest mountain so she can reach the moon, but the rocks always tumble over.
“One morning, something bright comes flying into her cave.
A sun spark!
It hovers before plummeting
straight to the ground.”
Terrified that it’s so dark, the little Spark squeals in alarm. The startled Creature asks, “Will you be my very own Little Small?” But the Spark isn’t sure—what could this strange creature be?
“‘Leave me be!’ the Spark squeals again. ‘Are you going to damp me down or snuff me out?’
‘Oh, no,” says the Creature. ‘I’m going to care for you for a thousand million years.”
‘But I can only live for a single day.’
The Creature wants to hug the Spark, but it would hurt her. So she lifts the Spark up in her hand instead.”
And thus begins a sweet, brief friendship. The little Spark tells the Creature of the sun and the sun’s colors. She describes the “vast, blue ocean” and the “hot, yellow, empty desert.” The Creature tells her new friend stories of the adventures they’ll have. Even though they only have one day together, their friendship sparkles and shines. After sending her beloved Little Small back to the sun, the Creature closes her eyes so she can “see all the colors the Spark lit up inside of her.”
Young readers may see this as a simple story of friendship. On a deeper level, this existential story is a rumination on savoring the moment, making connections, and reaching beyond borders. Even though the Spark only lives for one day, the Creature reaches out to make friends. Both of them seize the moment and live it fully. When it is time to send the Spark off to return to the sun, the Creature does not hesitate. Young readers are left with the sense that the Creature has grown from this experience, is happier and more satisfied. Perhaps the ultimate message is that caring for others is what brings our lives satisfaction and meaning.
Stark, who died in 2017, was a leading Swedish author and screenwriter who wrote more than one hundred books for children of all ages, ranging from picture books to poetry to young adult fiction. (See this reflection on his life and work excerpted from Bookbird: A Journal of International Children’s Literature.) Finnish artist Linda Bondestam, for her part, has been nominated for the 2018 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. (Readers may enjoy seeing this short video of her drawing and creating picture book illustrations in 2012.) My Little Small is not Stark and Bondestam's first collaboration. Together, they have written and illustrated several picture books, winning the 2017 Nordic Council Children and Young People’s Literature Prize for their picture book Djur som ingen sett utom vi (Animals Nobody Has Seen Except Us). They also won the 2016 Snöbollen (Snowball Prize), awarded each year in Sweden to the best picture book, for the same title. Min egen lilla liten (the original version of My Little Small), was nominated for the Finlandia Junior Prize in 2014.
© 2018 Mary Ann Scheuer.
READ MORE: An interview with Claudia Bedrick of Enchanted Lion, publisher of My Little Small