Poetry Box review: Ulf Stark’s Can you whistle, Johanna?

Poetry Box April poetry challenge

Can you whistle, Johanna? Ulf Stark, illustrated by Anna Höglund, Gecko Press, 2021

One of my favourite memories as a children’s poet was taking children to read their poems to old people in retirement villages. It was so very special. The young and the old loved it equally, especially talking to each other at the end. There were warm glows on everyone’s cheeks! Wide smiles. Sadly I just don’t seem to have time to do it at the moment but I do hope some other energetic poet gives it a go.

I think this shiny memory added to my delight in reading Ulf Stark’s Can you whistle, Johanna.

Ulf has a grandfather whom he loves dearly. They eat cake together on birthdays, go out to tea, and swap presents (five dollars and a cigar). The grandfather always eats pigs’ trotters. Ulf’s best friend Berra doesn’t have a grandfather and that feels like one terrible aching impossible-to-fill gap even though he doesn’t exactly know what grandfathers do.

Ulf comes up with a cunning plan and they go visit a retirement village where there are truckloads of old men. The boys definitely want one who eats pigs’ trotters and takes you out to tea and can teach you to whistle.

Ah, this is the sweetest most heartwarming story you can imagine. I laughed out loud and I felt good inside as I read. I especially love the bit about eating cherries from Mr Gustavsson’s extremely high tree in the dark. Oh and wanting to fish when there is no lake for miles but making something wonderful by making do with what is nearby (something rather special).

Sometimes you read a story and it sticks with you for days and you stop hanging out the clothes and writing the poem and weeding the garden and a little bit of the story lights up inside you. That’s how I feel with this glorious book.

I adore Anna Höglund‘s illustrations with their exquisite textures and colour palettes. I do wish children’s books included more details on the illustrations. It reminded me of the smell of crayons and pastels. Anna also illustrated the heavenly The Stone Giant.

Julia Marshall both translated and published the story. The sentences flow like clover honey and the book feels just right in your hand. Can you whistle, Johanna? was originally published in 1992 and made into a film. I can see why it is an international classic. I am so grateful to Gecko Press for continuing to publish books for children that are so very precious, and that always uplift stories with wisdom, verve and humour. When you read a Gecko Press book you get to feel the world.

I do hope loads of grandchildren read this to loads of grandparents – oh and truckoads of grandparents read it to truckloads of grandchildren.

Gecko Press page

Ulf Stark was a much-loved, award-winning Swedish writer. He has written around thirty books for children and young adults, and has been translated into more than twenty languages.

Anna Höglund is a Swedish illustrator and author. Her work has been recognized with Swedish and international awards. She has worked with many well-known authors including Barbro Lindgren and Ulf Stark.

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