The story of Ilon

ARKIV 1981 - Bonnierarkivet. Tecknaren Ilon Wikland med några av sina figurer. Photo: Lennart Edling
Photo: Lennart Edling



Ilon Wikland is one of Sweden’s most popular illustrators of children’s books. Strangely enough, Wikland is rather unknown to the general public, despite the fact that she illustrated the beloved figures in the majority of Astrid Lindgren’s most-read books. Ilon Wikland is a versatile artist whose pictures span a wide range, from the safe idyll on Troublemaker Street to the breathtaking black depths at the Karma Falls in The Brothers Lionheart.

Wikland came as a refugee to Sweden from Estonia during the Second World War and was later trained at the art school Konstfack in Stockholm. In addition to Astrid Lindgren’s books, she has also illustrated many other authors’ works, including Edith Unnerstad’s children’s books, as well as written and illustrated her own children’s books.

Ilon Wikland has been awarded awards, prizes and other honors for her artistry and collective output. But the road to success was long and sometimes very dramatic.

Ilon with her mother Viida and the dog Tito in the end of 1930s
Ilon with her mother Viida and the dog Tito in the end of 1930s


Life in Estonia

In 1930 in Tartu, Estonia, Ilon Wikland was born. The family then moved to Tallinn, but Wikland’s parents, as she put it herself, had no time for her. Therefore, she spent three happy childhood years with her grandmother in Tartu, reuniting with her parents in Tallinn when she started school. When Ilon is eight years old, it is once again time to move and now it is grandma and grandpa who take care of her after her parent’s divorce.

Ilon’s grandmother and grandfather lived in the yellow house by the church in the idyllic town of Haapsalu. Many of the motifs for “The Children in Noisy Village” are inspired by Ilon’s own childhood in Haapsalu and her grandmother’s flamboyant garden. Ilon remembers that she often picked berries from the raspberry bushes behind her grandmother’s house. It was close to the beach, Haapsalu is a seaside resort with ancient origins, and there were plenty of playmates. Grandma, grandpa and her big dog Tito were the most important things in Ilon’s life. Tito was a Great Dane who was always by Ilon’s side.

Wikland started drawing as a child in Estonia. She discovered that she was always allowed to be in peace and did not have to help around the house when she sat and drew.

Ilon with her mother Viida and the dog Tito in the end of 1930s
Ilon with her mother Viida and the dog Tito in the end of 1930s

Ilons hometown Haapsalu in Estonia depicted in the book "My grandmothers house"

Ilon Wikland and her dog Tito. Ilon Wikland och hennes hund Tito.
Ilon Wikland and her dog Tito. Ilon Wikland och hennes hund Tito.
Ilon Wikland 14 years old
Ilon in school 14 years old


Life as a refugee

As a 14-year-old refugee, Ilon arrived in Sweden at the end of World War II. The Russians had set up an air base in Haapsalu early in the war and then the Red Army marched into Estonia in 1944. Wikland’s grandmother made sure that Ilon escaped on one of the very last boats leaving – on a boat called The Sea star (“Meritäht”). The last months in Estonia were very traumatic, especially for Ilon who lost her beloved dog Tito. One day when Tito came home, he had been shot by a Russian soldier in his paw. Ilon and her grandmother took care of him, but later when he was feeling better and could be let outside again, he disappeared forever.

On September 22, 1944, Grandmother Julie took the 14-year-old Ilon and left the yellow house in Haapsalu. It would take 45 years before Ilon would ever see that house again. That same day the Red Army conquered Tallinn and a few days later they had occupied the entire Estonian mainland. As far as it is known, The Sea star was the last boat that managed to leave for Sweden and the free world.

Already after two years in Sweden, at the age of sixteen, Ilon took various jobs to support herself and to afford to study. At the beginning of her time in Sweden, Ilon lived with her aunt in Stockholm, but after that, she fended for herself and lived as an unregistered person at different addresses. The aunt, herself an artist, was the one who first noticed Ilon’s talent for drawing and made sure that she immediately started at Akke Kumlien’s Book and Advertising school. An education she greatly benefited from; she worked at a bookbindery, decoration studio and then as a designer for magazines at Bonnier. Wikland also trained at Konstfack and Signe Barth’s painting school.

When the war came to Haapsalu depicted in "The long long journey"

Ilon Wikland and Astrid Lindgren


A life-changing connection

In 1953 Ilon applied for a job as an illustrator at Rabén & Sjögren. It was a transformative meeting when the 23-year-old Ilon Wikland and the 45-year-old Astrid Lindgren, who by then had already published several books, met at the publisher. Astrid Lindgren had just finished writing “Mio, my Son” and saw that Ilon could “draw fairy tales” and Ilon, therefore, got to illustrate the new book. The rest is history, as they say.

Children’s rights and the importance of childhood as well as being allowed to dream and play, joined Astrid and Ilon’s visions of storytelling. Ilon once said that Astrid’s writing makes her see inner pictures. In the same way, Astrid Lindgren wrote for “the child within her”, Ilon often draws for the child within.

Astrid Lindgren’s work is unique and significant. She wrote 34 chapter books and 41 picture books. Her books have been translated into over 100 languages and sold over 165 million copies worldwide. Astrid was a committed humanist and fought for the rights of children, equality and animal rights. Ilon Wikland is the artist who has illustrated the greatest number of Astrid Lindgren’s books

“The meeting with Astrid Lindgren became pivotal for my life” Ilon has said several times.

Ilon Wikland and Astrid Lindgren
Ilon Wikland and Astrid Lindgren

"The children of The noisy village" written by Astrid Lindgren and illustrated by Ilon Wikland

Ilon Wikland visiting her hometown Haapsalu in Estonia 2004
På besök i Haapsalu, med Astrid Lindgren och Sveriges konsul. Ilon Wikland and Astrid Lindgren visiting Haapsalu in Estonia.
Ilon Wikland visiting her hometown Haapsalu in Estonia 2004
Ilon Wikland visiting her hometown Haapsalu in Estonia 2004


Returning home

n 1990, Ilon’s career takes a new direction after the collaboration with Rabén & Sjögren ends. Ilon decides to visit Estonia again, after a 45-year hiatus. The trip will be the starting point for a new creative creation and Wikland makes several trips to her old homeland of Estonia.

The result is a suite of her own picture books, published between 1995 and 2007, in which Ilon Wikland describes her upbringing in Estonia and escape to Sweden. The children’s book “The long, long journey” was published in 1995 with text by Rose Lagercrantz. The book tells the story of a child fleeing a ruthless war, but also the happiness of coming to a peaceful Sweden.

In the book “Sammeli, Epp and Me” (”Sammeli, Epp och jag”) Wikland wrote the texts herself. The dog Sammeli is a faithful companion and a dog that Ilon owned in real life, and Sammeli is featured in several of her books and stories. For the books “In my grandmother’s house” (”I min farmors hus”) from 2005 and “Potatisbarnen” from 2007, Ilon worked with the acknowledged writer Barbro Lindgren.

Ilon Wikland puts an incredible amount of effort into all the details of her illustrations. She wants to be sure to accurately capture people’s characters and is very aware of the emotions her photos convey. The goal of getting the illustration on the paper to match the image in her head is achieved by redrawing the same image many times, first through pencil sketches and then in clean drawings made in marker.

In 2004 Ilon Wikland donated her book illustrations to the Estonian government. Two years later “Ilons Wonderland” opens in Haapsalu, very close to what used to be her grandmother’s house where she lived for a long time during her childhood. In 2009 the gallery was expanded in coordination with Ilon’s wishes, with a large center for children’s creation and creativity. Each year, the museum has thousands of visiting children and families. 

Ilon and Sammeli at the trainstation in Haapsalu in "The long long journey"


The family

In 1951, when Ilon was 21 years old, she got married to Stig Wikland. In 1953 her first daughter, Helene, was born. Ilon and Stig managed to get a larger apartment in Stockholm and filled it with more children.

Growing up as an only child, Ilon wanted to make sure that her child wouldn’t experience that feeling of loneliness that she sometimes had. She gave birth to three more daughters – Birgitta, Fredrika and Anna. Due to the four children and their friends being around all the time, Ilon never had to look for models when drawing. The way they played, interacted and showed emotions became a great source of inspiration, which Ilon captured so well in her illustrations.

Today, Ilon Wikland’s daughters, Helene, Fredrika, Anna and Birgitta Wikland, manage Design Ilon Wikland AB to preserve and develop Ilon’s fantastic art treasure.

Ilon and her daughters, Helene, Fredrika, Anna and Birgitta Wikland
Ilon and her daughters, Helene, Fredrika, Anna and Birgitta Wikland

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