There’s a parenting philosophy out there which touts the benefits of letting your children do what they want—within reason, of course. I’m not terribly familiar with it and could get myself in trouble here for trying to give it a name, lest I get it wrong (I think some advocates might call it “peaceful parenting”), but to put it in very broad strokes: It emphasizes letting children engage in their own problem-solving, and advocates say it results in less nagging at, pleading with, and even punishing your child.
I don’t know if this parenting philosophy is a phenomenon in Sweden, where Lisen Adbåge’s Koko and Bo was first published seven years ago. Americans can now read the English-language edition of this picture book, translated by Annie Prime and currently on shelves. Parents who are big believers in discipline in the name of managing a child’s behavior may be baffled by this one. (I’m imagining the disgruntled Amazon customer reviews now.) But I do hope they give it a second read, because I think it’s a breath of fresh air.
The exact relationship between Koko and Bo isn’t made clear, and Koko’s gender (the child) isn’t clear either. Could be a boy or a girl. (I’m going to use the pronoun “she” in the name of simplicity.) Is Bo the child’s father? Grandfather? Uncle? Guardian? No matter. They live together, and Koko is fond of repeatedly saying “I DON’T WANT TO!” Your first clue that this isn’t a typical American picture book is Bo’s response on the very first page, when he tells Koko it’s time to leave the playground and she yells her typical refusal. “Don’t then,” says Bo.
That’s right: “Don’t then.” End of story.
On the next spread, we see that Koko arrives home later – on her own and when it’s already dark. Bo has one eye on the door, and if you look closely at every spread, he’s always got one eye on the child. He may let her make her own decisions about what or what not to do, but he’s always aware—and, one senses, always going to be ready to jump in, if needed, and especially if Koko is unsafe.
When Bo tells her it’s time for bed, Koko yells—you guessed it—“I DON’T WANT TO!” This isn’t a problem for Bo, who tells her to stay where she is. So, Koko remains there in the kitchen “stubbornly for 15 whole minutes.” (I love it.) When she eventually sneaks into the big bed she shares with Bo, look closely again: Bo has one eye open, pretending to sleep. In the best, most “peaceful” kind of parenting, he’s letting her make her own decisions, yet always has a handle on whether or not she’s succeeding at it.
Bo lets Koko sleep all day, but if you decide to do that, your oatmeal gets cold. Also, it was “boring lying in bed,” we read. When, at the grocery store, Koko insists on taking some hats and marshmallows without paying, Bo goes so far as to let her exit and set off the store alarm. “BUT I DON’T WANT TO!” doesn’t exactly work with the store guards, who tell Koko she has to put everything back. The presence of alarms and security guards is certainly taking things to an extreme, but Bo didn’t have to fuss, nag, plead, or punish, now did he? And Koko has certainly learned a lesson. Or two.
It all adds up to a refreshing take on modern parenthood, Adbåge filling the spreads with vivid colors—there are plenty of intense reds to match Koko’s intense moods—and these endearing, expressive characters. Koko may experience spiky moods, as all children that young do, but one gets the sense that she is cognizant of the great respect her caretaker has for her in the name of the freedom he affords, trusting her to make the right decisions and to learn from the bad ones.
So, what looks like a stand-off on the book’s front cover? Nope, it’s not. No disputes here. Bo’s got it all under control. And I think child readers will be mesmerized by how it all plays out.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
KOKO AND BO. Copyright © 2011 by Lisen Adbåge and Natur & Kultur. First English-language edition published in 2018 by Enchanted Lion Books. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher.