Gunilla Wolde’s books about Totte and Emma played a part in the transformation which illustrated books underwent during the 1970s. Using new motifs taken from the everyday life of a small child, along with a cautious sense of humour and a robust pedagogic element, she connected with both younger and older readers.
Gunilla Wolde was born in Gothenburg in 1939. Her mother was Gunnel Brorsson, a nurse and freelance journalist. Her father was a former sailor, farmer, and merchant, Gabriel Brorsson. Gunilla Wolde grew up with her family on a farm in Roslagen. In 1955 she enrolled at the Berghs Reklamskola (advertising school) and from 1961–1965 she attended Konstfackskolan (now Konstfack, school of arts, crafts, and design). She then worked as a freelance illustrator and author. She also produced cartoons and illustrated children’s books written by other authors.
In 1969 Gunilla Wolde released her first two books, entitled Totte går ut, of which she was the author, and Totte badar, for which she produced both the text and illustrations. Another eight books about Totte came out. In 1974 Gunilla Wolde introduced a new series of books aimed at a very young readership with a new, somewhat older leading character, Emma. The first two books in the series were called Emma Tvärtemot and Emma och lillebror and, again, another eight books followed. Both of the round faced, dot-eyed, and pencil-drawn characters became pre-school favourites albeit critical acclaim was slow to follow. According to Gunilla Wolde Totte was directly inspired by her youngest son whilst Emma, in contrast, tends to reflect the author as a child. The books have subsequently been adapted for the silver screen.
The children’s literature scholar Maria Nikolajeva released a book in 2000 called Bilderbokens pusselbitar which emphasises the role of the first Totte book as a milestone in the history of Swedish illustrated books. Gunilla Wolde’s drawing style is often compared to that of Inger and Lasse Sandberg as well as Gunilla Bergström’s, whose children’s book characters are also associated with children’s drawings. This streamlined aesthetic can in turn be related to the Danes Grete and Bengt Janus Nielsen’s book Strit, published in 1943, which contains elements from illustrated series and cartoons.
The way in which Totte and Emma are presented reflects the ideals of equality and unisex fashion which emerged during the 1970s. The books challenge traditional gender roles beyond just in the lead characters. Household chores are shared between mothers and fathers, as is childcare, and the doctor who makes a housecall when the children are ill is a woman. In Annorlunda Emma och Per, published in 1975, the story reveals that Emma lives in an apartment with her mother and father whilst Per lives in a house with his single mother – the overarching moral is that different lifestyles are an enriching factor of life. The 1973 book Totte och Malin deals with the physical differences between girls and boys. Both children are portrayed as externally and behaviourally almost identical, apart from the fact that Malin’s hair is somewhat longer than Totte’s. However, there is one physical difference between them, which becomes apparent when they undress on a hot day: Totte has a ‘penis’ whilst Malin has a ‘slot’. The narrator explains that he “will become a daddy” whereas she “will become a mummy”. Once that has been stated they continue playing, but now conscious of their future roles. The language has been updated in the revised edition published in 2016 with the older terminology for genitals replaced by ‘willy’ and ‘fanny’. Similarly a case of measles has been replaced by the much more common childhood illness of chicken pox.
The Totte and Emma books have been released in several new editions and have been translated into about 15 different languages. Towards the late 1970s and during the 1980s Gunilla Wolde was one of the most borrowed children’s book authors at Swedish libraries, only sometimes surpassed by Astrid Lindgren and Elsa Beskow. In 2016 she ended up in 70th place within the Sveriges författarfond (Swedish authors’ fund) compilation of the most borrowed authors at national public- and school-libraries.
After completing the Totte and Emma books Gunilla Wolde went on to write a series of horse books for young readers, including books on her own family’s horses, named Twiggy and Contessa. She also published other works of her own and worked as an illustrator for other people in various contexts including as an investigative reporter, national enquiries, and self-help literature.
Gunilla Wolde had three children. The family lived in Stockholm, Södertälje and at a horse ranch in Enköping where she also provided riding lessons. During the 2000s she moved to a farm outside of Köpingsvik on Öland. Gunilla Wolde died at the Kalmar county hospital on 15 April 2015.