Gunnel Beckman is an internationally renowned author of youth literature.
Gunnel Beckman was born in 1910. She grew up in Falköping. In her autobiographical novel Oskuld, 1978, she describes growing up in middle-class society in the 1930s. Her parents were Johan Torulf, a district judge, and Willy Paul. Gunnel Beckman gained her school-leaving certificate in 1929 and then went on to study at Lund University, where she was awarded a Bachelor’s degree in 1932. She then became employed by Morgontidningen, a liberal newspaper that was published in Gothenburg between the years of 1932-1940. In 1933 Gunnel married Birger Beckman, who was a literary and art critic for Morgontidningen at the time. He then worked for Göteborgs-Tidningen from 1941 to 1942 whilst Gunnel Beckman was a freelancer for the same paper. The couple moved to Solna when Birger Beckman began to work for Natur & Kultur publishing house in Stockholm in 1943. The couple co-authored the detective novels Mord i månadsgillet, 1945, and Nobelpristagare innebränd, 1947, using the pseudonym Louis Banck. Birger Beckman later pursued a career in publishing, initially as CEO at A.V. Carlsson publishers in 1947, and subsequently as CEO for two other educational publishing companies. The couple had five children together and Gunnel Beckman was responsible for the home. Having co-authored the detective novels she developed a desire to continue writing fiction. She wrote another detective novel set in the home environment and sent it to Albert Bonnier publishers. They rejected it in its current state but felt it could be reworked as a children’s book.
Gunnel Beckman’s debut as a children’s author was released in 1960. It was entitled Medan katten är borta and recounts the everyday lives of the five Wisenius children. The following year she published a stand-alone sequel, Unga fröken Tova, portraying 14-year-old Tova’s first summer holiday love affair in the archipelago. These idyllic stories from the early 1960s soon gave way to more realistic youth novels. Her subsequent publications during the second half of the 1960s include the youth novel Misstänkt, 1965, where the lead character Anders suspects that his friend is a criminal. The sequel, Försök att förstå, was published in 1971, and tells the story of Anders, now a high school student, trying to help a girl who is not quite coping with life. Yet another sequel, entitled M som i Maggan, was published in 1975, and depicts how Anders and Maggan’s relationship was affected by a miscarriage. Gunnel Beckman tended to focus on female characters.
Her major breakthrough came through the contemporary novel Tillträde till festen, 1969. This is a strong first-person novel about 19-year-old Annika Hallin who has leukaemia and accidentally learns she is going to die. Annika escapes to the countryside, to be alone and away from her family and boyfriend, seeking peace and quiet to think and write. The book takes the form of a long letter written to one of her female friends and the original book cover displayed a female figure beside a typewriter. The novel was published in typescript with crossed-out bits of text, typing errors and a halting narrative to portray Annika’s desperation. Annika’s anxiety is caused by her impending death as well as the physical decline brought on by her terminal disease. Studies of the novel have noted its heavy use of captivity as a theme but also mental acceptance of a sickly and twisted body. Just as in Gunnel Beckman’s other youth novels she makes use of contemporary references. For example, Annika is reading Betty Friedan’s 1968 book The Feminine Mystique as well as Sonja Åkesson’s poetry. A completely different type of book is also mentioned, namely Max Lundgren’s Hunden som äntligen visslade, 1962, which is recommended by the mother’s cousin in the novel. Tillträde till festen is a type of educational novel in which the lead character’s development and maturity occurs in solitude. The novel broke several taboos of the time, including mentioning death, which was an unusual theme within youth literature. As Lena Kjersén Edman writes about the novel: “The awareness of death is a part of existence – without it we cannot access real life, or the party. Annika cannot overcome death but poetry subdues death. […] Plagued by the fear of death Annika locks herself into a place, a spiritual place with poetry. She is, in a way, guaranteed immortality within that place as words never die.”
Tillträde till festen is a groundbreaking work which received international acclaim. It has been translated into several languages and is quoted within both Swedish and international studies of children’s and youth literature. The books Tre veckor över tiden, 1973, and the stand-alone sequel Våren då allting hände, 1974, realistic youth novels centred on Mia, an 18-year-old student at a technical high school, were also translated and received international attention. The women’s issues of the day figure strongly in both books. In the first of these novels Mia believes she might be pregnant and is shocked about this. She does not want to lose her independence, or give up school, so she and her boyfriend consider an abortion. This novel contributed to the contemporary debate on abortion, which only became legal in Sweden the year after the novel was published. The sequel, Våren då allting hände, recounts a sisterhood over three generations and Mia experiences her parents’ divorce, amongst other things. Once again women’s and gender issues are discussed. Questions of identity have a prominent role in Gunnel Beckman’s youth novels.
From 1969 to 1979 Gunnel Beckman served as a jury member for Solna municipality, and this exposed her to different parts of society. Her novel, Ett slag i ansiktet, 1976, portrays a violent heterosexual relationship. The title is a reference to facial assault suffered by Helena, the female lead character, at the hands of her boyfriend Lennart, and how this assault leads to an awakening for her. The book’s portrayal of a young man’s hegemonic masculinity and how it was perceived by the surrounding environment is unusual for its time, as is the portrayal of silent violence present in Helena’s parental home. The novel generated a lot of attention at the time.
Gunnel Beckman has been awarded a range of literary prizes for her writing. She received, amongst other awards, a stipend from Litteraturfrämjandet in 1969 and 1973, the Nils Holgersson plaque in 1975, and Solna town’s cultural stipend in 1978. She enjoyed great public success and has had her work translated into English, German, Spanish, French, Dutch, Norwegian, Finnish, Icelandic, and Danish. Her output was significant for the development of youth literature.
On 12 December 1989 Dagens Nyheter posed the following question to some children’s book and youth literature authors: “Which lines from your books would you most want cited?” Gunnel Beckman responded with a quotation from her novel Tillträde till festen, where the lead character Annika defines the role of an author as follows: “It’s a writer’s ability to phrase things for you. Words are lovely. I thought about that a lot at the home this summer. About how many people just don’t have the words. They can’t express their feelings, as if they are stood behind a closed door, about to burst from all they want to express but lacking the words to do so… Providing words for people must be at least as important as patching their bodies…”. To Gunnel Beckman writing was about the power of the word.
Gunnel Beckman died in Solna in 2003.