This latest installment in my multicultural folktale series is near to my heart. My penchant for the Norse mythology and folklore rises from my own Swedish ancestry. I’m particularly fond of this book list because sharing stories from the Scandinavian countries is one way I can share the culture of my grandparents down to my kids.
Myths and legends from the Nordic countries of Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Finland and Denmark have the advantage of being less well known than the fairy tales of Grimm and Perrault. Many of them will be new to you, yet the themes are familiar. I’ve included picture books of single stories as well as several heavily illustrated anthology collections of Swedish and Norwegian folktales. You’d find plenty of trolls, snow covered landscapes and magical creatures to entertain you. (Note: Affiliate links included below.) … and if your taste runs towards the Swedish tales be sure to visit my list of Swedish Christmas Picture Books.
Scandinavian Folktale Picture Books
Nail Soup is the Swedish version of the folktale more commonly know as “Stone Soup”. In this story, a weary traveller finds himself stopping at the house of a woman. She is reluctant to offer him a place to sleep but his conversational skills win her over and she finds herself supplying the ingredients for soup made from a nail. I absolutely loved the twist at the end when the traveller leaves, thinking he has tricked a foolish woman into believing he made soup out of a nail, but her final declaration indicates that she knew what was happening all along. Instead, what she realized was the value of friendship — a great lesson for our kids.
I find East O’ the Sun and West O’ the Moon one of the most intriguing fairytales to come out of Norway. There are several illustrated versions; I like this one with illustrations by P.J. Lynch. You can also read it free online (see Norwegian Folktales below, under collections). A girl saves her family by going to the North to live with a polar bear who is really a bewitched prince. When she accidentally triggers a spell that binds him to the trolls she must set out to rescue him from the land that is east of the sun and west of the moon. There are some great novel versions of this story and I wrote about my favorites in this list of middle grade books I read.
Sister Bear: A Norse Tale. The traditional version of this tale boasts a male protagonist, but Yolen has adapted it with a girl hero. Halva finds a polar bear cub and naming it Sister Bear, brings it home to her family. Sister Bear brings food back to the family and also likes to dance to Halva’s flute. One evening Halva and Sister Bear request shelter in a house on their journey to Denmark. Their host, however, fears the trolls which come and ransack the place. Halva and Sister Bear are not frightened and trick the trolls into leaving the place alone. Lina Graves’ illustrations are lovely. Also available as an ebook.
The Problem With Chickens. This is an original story, rather than a traditional folktale, but it reads very much like folklore and I wanted to include a picture book set in Iceland. I had hoped to read Elfwyn’s Saga but I couldn’t locate a copy. A group of ladies buy a flock of chickens but notice that the chickens start to act like the ladies! They also stop laying eggs. So the ladies come up with a plan to make the chickens act like chickens again — with some amusing results. I really love Gunnella’s illustrations. They have a lovely folk painting flair and although I’ve never been to Iceland (only drooled over it in travel magazines) there is a wonderful sense of the landscape. Also available as an ebook.
Fat Cat: A Danish Folktale. Honestly, I found this to be one of the weirdest stories ever, but my 5 year old loved it! A mouse lives with a very hungry cat. The hungry cat goes about eating everyone: a woman, soldiers, an elephant… declaring he’s “meow, meow FAT!” and a “HUNGRY HUNGRY CAT!”, until he is enormous. The mouse (now inside the cat’s tummy) snips open his stomach, lets everyone out and sews the cat up. He is now “meow meow FLAT!” and an “EMPTY EMPTY CAT!” Kids will love chiming in with the cat during this fun read aloud.
There are a lot of picture books based on The Three Billy Goats Gruff about three goats who outwit the troll who wants to eat them up. Trolls, of course, are a frequent feature in Scandinavian lore. These are my two favorites versions of the tale. The first is illustrated by the great Marcia Brown, whose version of Cinderella I also adore. The Galdone version is the one you will most likely find at your library. It was the star book of the week at my son’s kindergarten and he was obsessed with the story for weeks. Galdone’s is available as an ebook.
Astrid Lindgren’s The Tomten should be required reading for every child, especially at Christmas. The Tomten takes care of the farm animals at night in the winter, wishing them goodnight and making sure that they are fed. I wouldn’t call Lindgren’s story a folktale, but tomte are mythological creatures found in Scandinavian folk stories and if your kids are put off by all the vulgar trolls in most of these books, read them this gentle tale.
The Princess Mouse: A Tale of Finland. When it is time to marry, two brothers each cut down a tree. The way the tree lies determines the direction of their future bride’s house. The younger brother’s tree points to the forest. He walks into the forest, but all he finds is a mouse. Of course his older brother mocks him for bringing home a mouse for a bride but what happens next is magical.
The Ugly Duckling. Hans Christian Andersson fairy tales are original, rather than ancient stories and are lots of illustrated version of his tales so you won’t have trouble finding any at your library. Pickney’s illustrations of an ugly ducking who grows up to be a beautiful swan are gorgeous. Some might be disturbed by the killing of the ducks but most folklore is a bit gruesome, isn’t it?
The Terrible Troll-Bird. At first my younger son liked this story and requested it several times, but then he decided it was scary. I must say that troll-bird does look a bit menacing but I do like the story and a menacing chicken does have a high silliness factor. When a troll-bird threatens the village, Ola shoots it with his blunderbuss and after some wrangling they manage to bring it back to the village where its now roasted carcass feeds the whole valley at a merry feast. Unfortunately, two overgrown trolls are not happy about these events and storm the village. Not to worry, the sun comes out to ensure a happy ending.
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to include Easy Work!: An Old Tale on the list. It’s based on a Norwegian folktale (it’s included in the anthology listed below), but it’s set in pioneer Oregon with characters using the Irish name “McTeague.” All the Nordic flavor is missing and I don’t particularly like the story, which reinforces the stereotype of the husband who is inept at doing “women’s work.” Now that I’ve written all that, I’m wondering why I bothered to include it, but there you go. The meme of a husband and wife who switch roles is a common one across many cultures. In this story, the wife is adept at “man’s work” but the man at least redeems himself by recognizing that housework is not “easy work.” You will find a previous version of the tale in the collection below by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Engebretsen Moe.
Scandinavian Folktale Collections
Norwegian Folktales. Several of the above single titles are based on stories from this classic collection and free digital versions of it are available at Project Gutenberg. The first English translation was published in 1888. The two authors, Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe were sort of a Swedish version of the Brothers Grimm, collecting tales from their Norwegian neighbors in villages across the country. Expect lots and lots of trolls. Also available as an ebook.
D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths and D’Aulaires’ Book of Trolls may be the best known collections of Nordic folklore here in the States. We’ve been slowly reading through the Book of Norse Myths and every time I read a story from it my 5 year old talks about it for days. He wants to make sure he has all the important characters sorted out (as in Greek Mythology, all the figures seem to be related to everybody else) and understands all the different worlds (there are nine).
Swedish Folk Tales. This is a collection of folk tales written by a various Swedish authors, including Elsa Beskow and Anna Wahlenberg. John Bauer’s magnificent illustrations make this collection extremely appealing. They are truly magical, in the style of great fairy tale artists like Arthur Rackham. The stories are of varying lengths and there are some nice short ones when you want a quick dose of troll.
The Troll With no Heart in His Body. Although this list has probably supplied you with enough trolls to last you a lifetime, I want to draw your attention to one last selection which I think is worth searching out because of its wonderful illustrations designed from woodcut prints. It also has a nice introduction explaining common motifs in mythology and what we can learn from reading these ancient tales. Also available as an ebook.
Are you a fan of Scandinavian folklore and myths? Are they new to you? I’d love to hear your suggestions for further reading. Leave a comment below with your thoughts and recommendations.
Want more folktales for kids? Try these lists –>