River Symbolism In Storytelling


Where there is a river there is symbolism. At least, in stories. The nature of rivers also differs between cultures.

A stop motion animation of Keith Water (in Scotland)

A good example of that is between the ‘masculinist engineering world view’ and the Native Himalayan world view. The difference has very real consequences:

In the masculinist engineering world view, rivers are lifeless entities, composed only of water. They can be plumbed, split, or made to walk in a straight line. Rivers are valued for their water, but not for the vibrant matter and life that they also carry. Himalayan rivers used to bring fine silt to north Bihar from Nepal which would be deposited across the plains, making it one of the most fertile agricultural regions in the subcontinent. Embankments cut off this efficient transport of nutrients, making the land poorer and agribusiness corporations richer. It has been calculated that each year the Kosi carries 19 cubic metres of sediment per hectare, five times higher than any other river in Bihar. Unable to deposit this sediment, the Kosi is forced to retain it. This raises its bed, making floods an inevitability, not an accident.

Amitangshu Acharya
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Hygge is the word English needs to describe children’s literature

Illustration by John Clymer, 1958

Danes are scratching their heads about why an everyday word they’ve been using privately for generations is suddenly taking the English-speaking world by storm. See for example articles such as 11 Ways To Make Your Life More Hygge.

The round house, partially hidden, the smell of tobacco, the nearby river and surrounding rural setting: This is 'Hygge'.
The round house, partially hidden, the smell of tobacco, the nearby river and surrounding rural setting: This is ‘Hygge’.

Hygge is pronounced more like hoo-ga. 

‘Hygge’ is not just a word — it is part of Scandinavian culture. From Wikipedia:

Hygge, meaning ‘snug’; is a concept that evokes “coziness”, particularly when relaxing with good friends or loved ones and while enjoying good food. Christmas time, when loved ones sit close together on a cold rainy night, is a true moment of hygge, as is grilling a pølse (Danish sausage) and drinking a beer on a long summer evening.[4][dubious – discuss] It is suspected the concept of Hygge is part of the reason Danes and other Scandinavians score high on happiness.

A similar concept exists in German.

Gemütlichkeit describes a space or state of warmth, friendliness, and good cheer. Other qualities include coziness, peace of mind, belonging, well being, and social acceptance.

These concepts don’t exactly match the closest English has, which is something like ‘cosy’:

“Hygge” as noun includes a feeling, a social atmosphere, and an action. The word is also used in compositions as “Julehygge” (Christmas-hygge). “Hygge” is also a verb eg. “Lets hygge” and as an adjective eg. “A small, hyggeligt house with grass on the roof”.

Note the grassy roof. Illustration from Martha B. Rabbit and the Unexpected Guests by Shirley Barber, an expert in hygge
Note the grassy roof. Illustration from Martha B. Rabbit and the Unexpected Guests by Shirley Barber, an expert in hygge
"The fruits of the earth" 1910 ~ Edward Julius Detmold (1883-1957), illustrator of Victorian books may have influenced modern picture book illustrators such as Jill Barklem (Brambly Hedge)
“The fruits of the earth” 1910 ~ Edward Julius Detmold (1883-1957), illustrator of Victorian books may have influenced modern picture book illustrators such as Jill Barklem (Brambly Hedge)
from Brambly Hedge by Jill Barklem
from Brambly Hedge by Jill Barklem

The noun “Hygge” includes something nice, cozy, safe and known, but it should not be confused with the English, Dutch, German or Polish synonym. That word is more a physical state, instead the Danish and the Norwegian word focus on a psychological state.“Hygge” is a state where all psychological needs are in balance.

The antonym of hygge is uhyggelig, which translates as “scary”.

Winter Games (1950’s) Medici Society, Molly Brett, English Children’s Book Illustrator/Artist

Hygge Picturebooks

Various conventions contribute to the hygge of picturebooks and chapter books for young readers:

Jerry Griswold has his own word to describe this feeling: ‘snugness’:

I am engaged in a book-length study of pleasures particular to childhood. To explain what I mean, I often point to the joy children get from playing under tables or behind couches or in tents made of chairs and blankets. I know few adults who enjoy playing under tables.

That particular example has led me to explore, among others, the topic or poetics of snugness in Children’s Literature. I should also add that my studies began shortly after September 11 when I was haunted by stories my daughter, a schoolteacher, told about her first graders’ drawings after that event: What those pictures seem to indicate was a deep concern with vulnerability. So, in an essay (“Reading Differently After September 11”) for an Irish journal, I explored “vulnerability” as an opposite of snugness or coziness.

Jerry Griswold, Snugness in The Secret Garden

Hygge is more apparent in picture books aimed at girl readers. This is no doubt because hygge is associated with home, and certainly throughout the 20th century, girls in stories stayed home.

Illustrators can evoke hygge with:

  • Yellow, diffuse light coming from lamps and candles
  • Storybook farms
  • Cottages, log cabins, decor reminiscent of pioneer times
  • Well-stocked kitchens (which are metonyms for familial happiness)
  • Houses in rural/semi-rural areas near bodies of water and good trees for climbing (see the work of philosopher Denis Dutton for more on that)
  • Permanently sunny and temperate weather
  • Moons which light up the night as effectively as suns light up the day
  • Beds with lots of covers and plush pillows
  • Grandfather clocks, cuckoo clocks, standalone wardrobes, children’s art on the walls, loaves of unsliced bread, homemade jam in pottery jars, dining room furniture made out of roughhewn wood, fabrics of paisley and gingham, kitchen appliances at least 20 years behind the modern era, shag pile rugs, open fires with yellow flames, bedheads with metal bars on them
  • Aprons, reading glasses, slippers, suspenders on trousers
  • Parents with big bellies and stout constitutions
  • Hedgehogs (in English stories), owls (at night), cats, docile old dogs, robins, sparrows, ‘good insects’ like grasshoppers and ladybugs and ants (not Huntsman spiders)
  • An emphasis on storeys and attics, and away from basements.

Hygge Toys


Sylvanian Families are Japanese design (though made in China these days). They were created by a company called Epoch in 1985.

The Japanese are also very good at hygge. (And also very good at horror, a discussion for another day!)


Pronounced igokochi, the characters transliterate to ‘where the heart is’. (It translates into English as ‘cosiness’. In Japanese you can then say ‘the cosiness is good’ to get ‘cosy’.)

The Problematic Flipside of Hygge Children’s Literature

There is definitely a place/need for hygge in children’s books. Picturebooks are most likely to be read to children just as they fall asleep, and there is a strong preference among consumers — particularly American consumers — to buy hygge books rather than scary ones. (Interestingly, this isn’t a trend shared by the Scandinavians, who have a higher tolerance for scary stories — possibly because their children’s lives themselves are quite hygge.)

  1. In children’s books, a hygge home almost always glorifies the nuclear family in which the father goes out to work and the mother — probably wearing an apron — stays home and keeps house. We are now living in a world where we should be careful of glorifying such a household.
  2. Keepers of hygge are much more likely to be female characters, underscoring the notion that girls and mothers are the natural caretakers and boys don’t have a role there except to enjoy the spoils of a clean house and home cooking.

Header painting: Illustration by John Clymer, 1958

Lemon girl young adult novella


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