Birgit Skarstein’s story told to children in new biography
The idea of ‘us” and “them”
Kristin Grue, known to large audiences through the NRK initiative “Entertainment Department,” is the author behind the children’s book, My first biography: Birgit Skarstein (Gyldendal Norsk Forlag). Min første biografi is a Gyldendal series for children between 3 and 6 years old. Currently, Grue can be seen in the NRK series Jordbrukerne (Farmers). The book is illustrated by Maren Tjelta Thu.
“I was asked by Gyldendal to write the book and was very honored and happy with the request,” Grue told NTB. “She has contributed a lot to the book with a wonderful Birgit character, playful and vivid images, where even the dark and sad fit. I think she, in a very special way, has managed to capture Birgit’s story.”
It was no coincidence that Grue was asked. Throughout her life, she has been close to the challenges people with disabilities face—and she has been committed to their rights. She is the sister of the well-known author and professor Jan Grue, who was diagnosed with a rare muscle disease as a child. The wheelchair became a natural part of the Grue family’s everyday life, but sister Kristin also experienced something ugly, which gives her a special perspective.
“This is the most discriminated group today, because it is the discrimination that is accepted by people and society to an excessive degree,” says Grue, who previously wrote My first biography: Gro Harlem Brundtland (2019), short story collection, 72 percent normal, 11 new voices (2011), and Pupp? – stories and facts about breastfeeding. “I have seen this discrimination and the challenges up close. Even though Birgit and Jan are two completely different people, with totally different forms of disabilities, and totally different wheelchairs, they still have different bodies than what is seen as normal.”
A feeling of fear
To write an easy-to-understand book for children about Birgit Skarstein became a task Grue tackled with zeal. After several conversations with Skarstein, as well as her friends and acquaintances, Grue started writing. But the process of the book was not without any challenges.
“It was especially difficult to talk about how Birgit actually became paralyzed,” said Grue. “I do not want to terrify children either about swimming, or hospitals or syringes, but still give them the story of what happened. Then, I would tell children that life is not over even if you’re in a wheelchair. It will just be different. There is something wrong with society, not them. People are different, and that’s just the way it is.”
Grue believes that the reason someone steps away, stares, or just overlooks people in wheelchairs is due to fear.
“I think it scares people,” she said. “I think many people look at people in wheelchairs as weak, sick, or needy. This goes back a long way in history. I think it is difficult to relate to because you have to acknowledge your own vulnerability. Then, I think it’s simply an inherently cruel and condescending mindset that still haunts many: a mindset that if you have a different body, you’re worth less.”
Grue notes the young disabled people today who drop out of upper secondary school and are told that it is probably best that they go on government-funded disability support.
“Then it is completely absurd that everyone accepts wheelchair users should not go on the tram or that they do not enter various nightclubs and restaurants. What if this was another minority? There would be an outcry.”
The idea of “us” and “them”
Now the author and the athlete hope that making children more enlightened and curious at an early age can help create positive changes.
“I believe that such books, creating new stories for children, are extremely important,” she said. “Many stories for children still present that if you have a ‘weird’ exterior, then you are ‘weird’ inside, like a troll, a witch, and a monster. I never think you can get completely out of it, but it’s all the more important to have books like this. We need something that can be a springboard for children and adults to reflect on how society actually treats difference.”
Asked what she hopes readers are left with after reading the book, she answers:
“I hope people are left with an understanding that life as a disabled person is a life like everyone else’s, it’s just demanding and challenging in another way. It can be as good as if you were functionally healthy. The more society facilitates for all people, the less difficult it will be for disabled, which in turn, I think, can lead to less stigmatization and thoughts about ‘us’ and ‘them.’”
She thinks the book has something in common to tell us:
“Even if life does not turn out exactly as you had thought, you can dare to think in new directions and create a different path.
“I would like to think that if a child–with or without a disability–has Birgit as their great role model, then maybe the book can make someone want to do something they did not think was possible. It would also be nice to hear about children starting a strike campaign where they refuse to take the tram before everyone is allowed on board. Something like that. That the book helped to make this everyone’s fight, on par with the gay rights fight and the fight against racism.”
Translated by Michael Kleiner
Birgit Skarstein has participated in the Summer and Winter Paralympics, winning a gold in rowing (PR1 W1X) in the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics and is the world record holder. She is a cross-country skier in the winter. She was the first wheelchair contestant in Norway’s version of Dancing with the Stars. She has become a strong advocate for people with disabilities. In 2008, Skarstein injured her leg jumping into a lake in Malaysia. In the 16th operation in Norway in 2009, the epidural anesthesia injection was not done properly. She was left paralyzed from the waist down.
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 4, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.