Ying Toijer-Nilsson was a prominent literary scholar and a children’s book reviewer.
Ying Toijer-Nilsson was born in the Chinese mountain village of Ki Kung Shan (Jigongshan) in 1924. Her father, Daniel Toijer, was a history teacher and was the headmaster of a boarding school for the children of Swedish missionaries. Her mother was the children’s book author, Maija Toijer.
Ying Toijer-Nilsson and her family returned to Sweden when she was only a year old. After spending her childhood in Kristinehamn (where she was known by her second first name of Hillevi) she enrolled at Uppsala university, which introduced her to a life of studying, dancing, and heated discussions in the kitchen, and the formation of life-long friendships. Ying Toijer-Nilsson also worked while she was a student, doing voluntary work for Svenska Dagbladet, which also involved working for the newspaper’s London editorial board. In 1952 Ying Toijer-Nilsson presented her dissertation on the writings of Selma Lagerlöf for her licentiate degree.
Ying Toijer-Nilsson married the archivist Nils Nilsson in 1951. The couple had two sons together and during this period Ying Toijer-Nilsson’s life became that of a full-time suburban mother of young children. Her personal experience of the restricted nature of this lifestyle which was largely confined to the home turned her into an active feminist. She served as editor of Fredrika-Bremer-Förbundet (association) organ, Hertha from 1963–1977. This role entailed travelling throughout the country and giving talks. Whilst the women’s movement was gaining momentum Ying Toijer-Nilsson found this to be an enjoyable and enriching time. However, at the age of 53 she resigned from her post in order to focus on writing and research.
Ying Toijer-Nilsson’s interest in children’s books had developed during the 1950s – the period when she would read aloud to her children. In 1978 she combined her women’s movement ideas with her knowledge of children’s books in her book entitled Berättelser för fria barn. This was a ground-breaking study of gender roles as portrayed in children’s and youth literature. Later she also became one of the first scholars to re-evaluate the genre of girls’ books, which had generally been the subject of mockery since the 1960s but which was revealed to contain many strong role models for women. She and Boel Westin published an anthology called Om flickor för flickor in 1994.
Ying Toijer-Nilsson was a practising Christian who went against the flow by studying spiritual matters in children’s literature during the peak crass everyday realism of the 1970s. She published her book Tro och otro i modern barnlitteratur in 1976. She also penned a biography of Jeanna Oterdahl, a children’s author with deeply-held Christian convictions.
Romance and fantasy were also important elements to Ying Toijer-Nilsson. She was the first Swedish scholar to undertake fundamental research into fantasy-tales in youth literature in her 1981 book Fantasins underland. During the 1980s Maria Gripe’s “Skugg” series were also very successful and later Ying Toijer-Nilsson wrote about Gripe’s work in Skuggornas förtrogna, published in 2000.
Throughout her working life Ying Toijer-Nilsson wrote reviews and articles on children’s literature, which were published in newspapers and journals, including Vår Kyrka, Land, Vår Lösen, Barn och Kultur and, not least, Svenska Dagbladet. She was a major contributor to the latter in terms of monitoring children’s and youth literature up until her death, at the age of 87.
Children’s literature was, however, not the sole focus of Ying Toijer-Nilsson’s interest. She was a great cat-lover and she produced an anthology on cats in literature. She also retained an interest in Selma Lagerlöf throughout her life. During the 1990s and the 2000s she published and commented on several collections of Lagerlöf’s personal letters to the likes of Sophie Elkan and Valborg Olander. Ying Toijer-Nilsson was awarded the Lotten von Kræmer prize in 1994 in recognition of her contributions to research on Selma Lagerlöf. She was also a recipient of the Gulliver prize in 1982. In 1993 she was awarded an honorary doctorate from Stockholm university.
Ying Toijer-Nilsson died in Stockholm in the summer of 2012.