Swedish picture book author and illustrator Eva Lindström was selected from among 282 nominees from 71 countries as this year’s recipient of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the world’s largest children’s book award, containing a purse of five million Swedish krona (approximately $525,000 USD at current exchange rates). The award, founded by the Swedish government in 2002, and now in its 20th year, is administered by Sweden’s Arts Council.

Lindström, 70, is the author and illustrator of five picture books, beginning with The Cat Hat, published in 1989. She has also illustrated books written by other authors and produced several animated short films.

The awards ceremony was livestreamed this morning from Stockholm, with cultural columnist Stefan Ingvarsson serving as emcee. The program began with an official greeting to the audience from Sweden’s cultural minister, Jeanette Gustafsdotter, who noted that “reading is a way of reducing distances and crossing borders” and that “the book is one of the strongest symbols of freedom of expression.”

Gustafsdotter did not mince words in connecting Lindgren's life and work to the current political climate. “Astrid Lindgren was a great author," she declared, "but also a great defender of civil rights, democracy, and every child’s right to be a child. We live in times that are uncertain and in many ways, scary. How can we explain to our children what is happening when we barely understand it ourselves?"

“Free speech is fundamental to an open and democratic society," she added. "But we are constantly reminded that free speech is not a matter of course in our world. Perhaps, most of all, a book is one of the strongest symbols of the freedom of expression. The notion that anything can be written or said no matter how much we dislike it, protecting democracy and strengthening respect for human rights and for freedom is a matter for all of us. The power of literature makes it evident why reading promotion is one of the most important priorities for the Swedish Ministry for Culture and why the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award is so important.”

ALMA chair Boel Westin announced Lindström as the winner, first in Swedish and then in English. She then presented a recording of a telephone conversation Westin made earlier in the day to Lindström, informing her that she was this year’s prize winner.

“Lindström’s enigmatic picture book is constantly transforming. Trees move abroad, dogs take on giant proportions,” she said, “and objects vanish, suddenly to reappear. With rapid brush strokes and dense coloration, Lindström creates an ambiguous dialogue of text and image. The border between children, adults, and animals is fluid. With great gravity and wild humor, they wrestle with the eternal questions: Who are we? Where are we going? Who took our hats?”

The 18-minute ceremony concluded with ALMA jury member Johan Palmberg, who is also Lindgren’s great-grandchild, lauding Lindström for her expertise and accomplishments.

Lindström, Palmberg said, possesses a “unique profile” among Swedish picture book artists. “Her unusual narrative world, in which lost characters wander, possesses enormous originality. In both words and images, she portrays atmospheres, and emotions, that relate equally to big life questions as they do to every day events.”

“From her very first comic strips in the 1980s," he noted, "Lindstrm’s work displays the intersection between absurd comedy and rapid caricature that has become her hallmark. She often takes her point of departure in the world of children’s experiences and logic. In a number of books, she captures the kinds of exciting drama that play out among children. Humor exists side by side with absurd mystery.“

Lindström’s stories, Palmgren pointed out, “offer multiple interpretations and meanings, and perhaps offer new ways of understanding a child’s feelings and relationships. Through the lens of a child’s imagination, the world appears in a different light. This naivete of a child’s gaze also offers a certain skepticism towards grown-ups.The lines that separate children from adults often vanish, and the same applies to people and animals.”

The ceremony, which was livestreamed in the Illustrators Café at Bologna, featured Kajsa Ravin, director general of the Swedish Arts Council performing the official greeting, followed by a speech by Jan Bjorklund, Sweden’s ambassador to Italy.

This story has been updated with more information.