THE SECRETS OF CRICKET KARLSSON
By Kristina Sigunsdotter
Illustrated by Ester Eriksson
Translated by Julia Marshall
I didn’t think a place as utopian as Sweden — with universal health care, five weeks of paid vacation, 480 days of parental leave — could have a problem as banal as mean girls. But a few pages into Kristina Sigunsdotter’s charming, funny, deceptively deep middle grade novel, “The Secrets of Cricket Karlsson,” it becomes clear that queen bees are a global phenomenon.
Of course, this being Sweden, the cruelty is mild. The cool girls are “horse girls” who gallop around the schoolyard neighing and whinnying, behavior that in America, I can report firsthand, rarely qualifies as anything remotely resembling cool. The horse girls whisper about Cricket, shriek at her chicken pox scabs and, after learning she spends her breaks hiding in the bathroom, christen her Crapula. The sting hurts all the more because the horse girls have stolen her best friend, Noa.
“I’m 11 years old and my life is a CATASTROPHE,” Cricket reports in the first pages of Sigunsdotter’s diary-form book, the entries illustrated with wonderfully evocative drawings by Ester Eriksson. “I got ONE HUNDRED AND THREE chicken poxes and had to stay home from school for TWO weeks. When I got back, my best friend Noa had gone off with the horse girls. Now she pretends I don’t exist. I hate school and I hate my life.”
This isn’t all that’s plaguing Cricket. There’s her mother, who constantly sighs in discontent and makes recipes from “Roots & Nuts: Cooking Like a Stone Ager.” A boy named Mitten keeps giving Cricket gifts in hopes she’ll go out with him. After throwing a glass of wine against the wall at a family dinner, her beloved, eccentric Aunt Frannie lands in Adult Psychiatric Ward 84 for what appears to be depression. Cricket herself wrestles with anxiety-induced insomnia, which Aunt Frannie calls “the wolf hour.” But it is the loss of Noa that breaks Cricket’s heart and gives this spare novel, winner of Sweden’s prestigious August Prize, its punch.
“I’ve never been in love, or maybe sometimes with Noa,” Cricket writes. In a drawing titled “Diagram of My Catastrophic Life,” Cricket charts a steady line from her birth to meeting Noa and then a plummet after she got the chicken pox and Noa “left” her. It’s not by accident that she sounds like a spurned lover. There is a particular intensity to young female friendships that’s rarely depicted in literature (Elena Ferrante notwithstanding), let alone children’s literature. But Sigunsdotter’s honest voice and Eriksson’s sophisticated and generously distributed art come together to honor the passion of these friendships, and the pain that accompanies their dissolution.
Perhaps because this is Sweden, however, gentle resolutions are reached with minimal drama. Cricket and Noa reconcile and the horse girls are put in their place. Mitten falls out of love with Cricket. The problem of Cricket’s mother’s sighing is solved. Aunt Frannie leaves the hospital and refuses to answer the door or eat, but her depression is soon ameliorated by a moonlit ride on a horse named Sheriff (an image that conjures another heroine of Swedish children’s literature and her trusty steed). The ease and innocence of all this felt almost shocking to me, accustomed as I am to American novels’ high drama and noisy climaxes. But maybe it’s OK for things to resolve simply. Maybe that’s how things work in a utopia.