Ævar Þór Benediktsson, occasionally better known as Ævar vísindamaður (Ævar the Scientist), is a champion of Icelandic children’s literature.
He publishes three ongoing book series every year, a staggering figure considering that he also stars in a television show and podcast, and spearheads initiatives to cultivate strong reading habits in kids and teens.
He’s also a playwright: his Your Very Own-series will premiere at the National Theater in January—and audiences will decide what happens in the show, so no two performances will be the same.
And all of that?
It’s for the Kids.
“Hearing stories from parents about my books sparking interest in kids that normally don’t like to read keeps me writing,” he says.
Benediktsson’s Your Very Own series uses the choose-your-own-adventure format of Goosebumps books, but it brings more to bear: each book has over 50 different endings and multiple plot lines, meaning that the reader has a greater stake in each decision, and a good outcome isn’t guaranteed. His books are keys into the difficult reality of independent decision-making, and they’re twofold in their pedagogical value: as logic puzzles, they help kids to develop strong reasoning skills and coping mechanisms when things don’t go according to plan. As works of fiction with thematic ties to Norse mythology, fairy tales, folklore, and even time travel, they’re keys into Icelandic history and culture.
“And, of course,” Benediktsson laughs, “[I like] meeting kids that are furious that their choice resulted in something quite horrible. ‘Well,” is my standard answer, ‘it was your fault. Not mine.’”
The Cardinal Rule: Fun
Gameplay folds into his practice of writing a novel, which is built on the notion of an infinite narrative. “These books can get quite confusing to write, especially when you find a fantastic way to end one version of the story, and then have to try to top yourself when writing the other version[s], but it’s a lot of fun.”
He adds, “I have one rule: If I myself am not entertained I can’t expect the audience/reader to be.”
He also writes shorter versions of each book, often focusing on a particular figure in folklore, with bigger fonts, simpler language, and more illustrations for younger readers, though the buck doesn’t stop there: his books are printed in a font that’s specifically designed to make reading easier for individuals with dyslexia.
Getting into Character
In a creative approach to bolstering reading culture in Icelandic children’s literature, Benediktsson hosts a nationwide reading challenge that’s open to every school kid in Iceland. The President of Iceland chooses five children from a pool of the biggest readers, and those kids become characters in the newest book of another of Ævar’s series: The Young Adventures of Ævar the Scientist.
Benediktsson’s adventure stories use improbable situations—like dinosaurs and robots running amuck in Reykjavik—to introduce kids to science. He situates these strange events within an evocative narrative of his own growing pains. For that series, he collaborates with experts to pin down the core science of each piece, so that he’s not spreading entirely false information.
The Idea of a New Idea
“I really like finding what I call ‘keys’ in the story, the ‘aha!-moment’; something I can use to make the story more complex that also fits within the world I’m trying to create,” he adds.
Those rare moments of imaginative brilliance are markers of a lifelong pursuit: few feelings are more compelling than the anticipation of a new idea, and, in that new idea, the possibility of change.
Benediktsson emphasizes that a cornerstone of his work in Icelandic children’s literature “is simply the idea of a new idea,” adding that, “if I get an idea and it won’t leave me alone I’ll have to write it out. Some ideas stay in my head for years, while others are more demanding and have to be written right away. I have notebooks filled with ideas that are just waiting to jump out at me the next time I open them.”
His continually active mind has reinvigorated not only Icelandic children’s literature, but also world literature more broadly, in its endless wellspring of off-the-wall approaches to reader engagement at a young age.
Words to Live by?
Benediktsson says, echoing the wise words of Lemony Snicket, “Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.”