By Maureen Tai, 10 February 2022
During a recent trip to my hometown in Malaysia, I visited the shamelessly Instagrammable BookXcess @ Kong Heng and my browsing was rewarded with a gorgeous picture book, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils (ages 6+). I confess to not knowing at the time that the fable-like story was over a century old, and that its author, Selma Lagerlöf (1858 – 1940), is legendary in her native Sweden, being the first woman to ever win the Nobel Prize in Literature (as she did in 1909). I had been attracted primarily to the book’s exquisite paper-cut pages and how cleverly they overlaid the whimsical illustrations on the cover and inside of the book. A blatant case of judging a book by its cover.
Nils starts out as a rather unsympathetic character: all he does is sleep, eat and cause mischief, and one of his favourite activities is to torment the animals he encounters. By some stroke of misfortune, Nils runs into an elf, who then turns the little boy into an elf. What Nils has lost in terms of stature however, he gains in the ability to understand animal-speak. Luckily for the hapless boy, and before any of the sparrows or cows or cats can exact revenge on him for his past misdeeds, Nils is spirited away by a flock of geese led by Akka, a hundred-year-old wild goose from Kebnekaise. The geese are on their way to Lapland, right at the other end of the Swedish peninsula, the furthest point from Nil’s home in Västra Vemmenhög.
Despite being terrified and tiny, Nils quickly proves to the geese that he is a worthy travelling companion, and is allowed to join his new, feathered friends on a journey across Sweden. By the time Nils finally returns home (and to his normal size), he is much-altered – a kinder, more compassionate and wiser boy – and much more knowledgable about the geography of his homeland. As I read the story, the detailed attention to place names, landscapes and seasonal changes had struck me as being a little odd, but it all made sense once I learnt that Selma had been commissioned to write the book as a geography reader more than a hundred years ago. Regardless of its age and original purpose, Nils’ fantastical adventures will delight younger readers, especially those who love talking animals, and this edition with its intricate paper-cut pages by Olivier Latyk is a worthy addition to any book lover’s bookshelf.