Zenia Johnsen and Signe Parkins

Martin Dam / Jensen og Dalgaard
Zenia Johnsen and Signe Parkins (ill.): Per. Picture story, Jensen og Dalgaard, 2023. Nominated for the 2024 Nordic Council Children and Young People’s Literature Prize.


Per is a magnificent and very quiet masterpiece about life and death. About metamorphosis, longing and sorrow, and that some people never change. We remember those we betray, says the first-person narrator’s father, moving away. He leaves behind an aquarium with a wire mesh lid and a promise to come back and fill it with something. After a year without any contact, the father reappears and takes the child on a hunt for butterfly larvae. Patiently, the child observes life’s drama unfold before us, while the father is once again absent and silent. Finally, the butterflies unfold and leave us with hope on behalf of the child. Still, something has changed.  


Zenia Johnsen’s text is precise and poetic, observational and without sentimentality. Combined with Signe Parkin’s ingenious strokes, spanning from a humorous, sketched larval universe to the very feeling of abandonment through colour-saturated rooms without people and a dizzying level of zoological detailing, this is where we truly encounter genuine art and artist. 


On many levels, it’s a staggering and enriching work about something relentless, raw, and almost impossible to put into words. Something else is needed when loneliness both can and must be evoked as the trembling unrest it is, as it grows in the child’s world, without the child being able to give it shape, colour, and understanding. It’s just there all the time.  


Per is a grand work about the very small things, which nonetheless shift, emerge in their own ways, and provide content and everyday life to the child, making it possible to exist in what seems so impossible. It’s realistic poetry, almost hand-held, a drawn reality in which we must reach out for something or someone not yet known, with a wish that it nevertheless – and despite everything – can help us.  


The work can be interpreted on many different levels and contains even more layers within itself. What seems immediate still grows within us as readers long after encountering the story, where text and drawing strike a razor-sharp balance in an insistent masterpiece of the grandest scale about what is so heart-wrenching to have a childhood in. Fortunately, it’s also a work that neither moralises nor pedagogises, but simply tells us what hurts, when it hurts. That in itself is an achievement and a display of courage in this work. The courage to tell about deprivation and sorrow in a style where culture isn’t sufficient, and therefore nature takes over and offers hope for something much greater. The fluttering butterflies are so beautiful and fragile at the same time. Just like living, and not merely surviving.