The Brothers Lionheart: My Favorite Children's Book

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cover of the paperback book The Brothers Lionheart
Truly great books are exceptional creations that don't follow rules.

The Brothers Lionheart is one of these gems - completely unique.

In fact, I dare to single out this Astrid Lindgren (of Pippi Longstocking fame) classic as the best children's book ever - for me.

It is a children's book about the big issues in life.

Life & death. Sacrifice & heroism. Love & courage.

Topics that are difficult to approach in a sensitive, yet non-preachy manner.

The main character of this novel is Karl Lion - called affectionately Rusky by his older brother Jonathan Lion.

Karl is a sickly, bed-ridden boy plagued by a exhausting cough that is eating his life away.

Karl is also the narrator of the story and a masterful observer of the surreal events that surround him.

Oh yes, I forgot to mention - Karl dies on page 14.

Yep, it's tough to read it aloud.

And then at the end of the book .. he dies again. Oh boy.

His amazing brother, dashing Jonathan Lion (a.k.a. Jonathan Lionheart) is a heroic figure. He dotes over his sick younger brother Karl.

Jonathan looks like a "prince in a saga", with his golden hair and beautiful dark blue eyes, perfectly white teeth and straight legs.


Jonathan dies on page 9.

And he dies once again in the book.


I know what you are thinking - "This isn't for me. And this is too heavy handed for my kid."

Don't make that mistake.

The Brothers Lionheart is for children and the child in you.

It is a saga, an adventure ... a heroic quest.

If children today do not know that life is much more than having the latest iPad, flastscreen TV or toy, it is because we have not allowed them to sample, to taste the richness of life that can be accessed in books.

Children's books are here to let children explore the full magnitude of life - in a safe environment.

Children's books are the sandbox of reality.

They are a way of ensuring that children are emotionally prepared to face hurdles that life will lay in front of them.

The Brothers Lionheart is here to help them experience the widest range of human emotions - together with you.

It is a read-aloud book par excellence.

Adventures From Morning to Evening

I don't mind dying, I'll gladly do that, but not right now, I need to clean the house first.       Astrid Lindgren
I read this book 30 years ago. It stayed with me forever.

I bought it years ago, but it languished in our bookshelf as I was wondering when could I read this book to my twins (now they are two charming 7-year olds).

Would the dark beginning of this story overwhelm them?
image by Ilon Wikland from the book The Brothers Lionheart

Ilon Wikland's heart-wrenching image of the two brothers

Let's go back to the beginning.

The story begins with a very young Karl (Rusky) Lion very sick, confined to bed. His family is very poor and Karl lives with his brother Jonathan and their mom.

Their father Axel Lion went to sea one day, when the boys were little, and never returned. 

To make things worse, Karl accidentally finds out that everyone around him knows that he is terminally ill. 

Karl learns that the end is near. 

But sick and unhappy Karl is not confined to a melancholic world thanks to the magic influence of his amazing older brother Jonathan who is a picture of health and youth. 

Jonathan is the Sun in poor little Karl's dark universe. 

He explains to Karl that he will not die in the classic sense - in fact he will go to the magic land of Nangiyala, a secret land of heroism and adventures that lies beyond the stars, where you go after you pass away.

Jonathan explains that there is no time in Nangiyala, which means that even if he lived until the age of 90 on Earth, Rusky would wait no more than 2 days in Nangiyala before being reunited with his big brother.

As Jonathan puts it "You could manage two days on your own, couldn't you?", adding that Rusky could spend the time climbing trees and making a campfire, sitting by a stream and fishing until his big brother arrives.

"And just as you are sitting there, catching a perch, then I'll come flying in and you'll say: "Good heavens Jonathan, are you here already?"

The first two chapters of the book may be difficult for a parent to read aloud to a child... yet, children enjoy hearing about big life issues and they take it in their stride. They know it is a story.

Brace yourselves - for Astrid Lindgren's story will take you on a roller-coaster ride to the end.

Adventure replaces adventure. Emotion riding high on a previous emotion.
image by Ilon Wikland from the book The Brothers Lionheart
"In Nangiyala you have adventures from morning to evening..."

In one of the most heroic acts of children's literature - brave Jonathan saves his sickly young brother Karl from a house fire and in the process sacrifices his own life by jumping through an open window from the blazing home. Jonathan holds his young brother Karl in his arms to protect Karl, but Jonathan dies in the heroic act. 

Jonathan goes to Nangiyala and from Nangiyala he sends a message to his young sickly brother to let Karl know that Jonathan awaits for him in this magic land. Karl writes down the address:

The Lionheart Brothers
Knights Farm 
Cherry Valley

In the words of Karl: Then it happened. And I've never been in on anything so strange. Suddenly I was standing in front of the gate, reading that green notice: THE LIONHEART BROTHERS

And you, the reader, find yourself with tears in your eyes ... disbelievingly looking at the page number - you are still on page 14.

With the two main characters dead.

A Thriller About Brotherly Love
We love life, not because we are used to living but because we are used to loving.
Friedrich Nietzsche 

My twins were mesmerized by this book.

We read this book, day in, day out.

No requests for a change of story. Namely, we are usually reading 3-4 books concurrently and we keep switching between books every day, to have several stories going on.

I could hardly stop my kids from listening - it was a fight to get them to bed.

The Brothers Lionheart almost hypnotized them with its honesty and purity and endless adventure.

It focused on all the topics that are exciting and some of which are usually off the table (death, illness, danger, traitors - yes, children are interested!!)

The true action begins in Nangiyala.

Now that he reached Nangiyala, Karl is no longer sickly  - he is a normal boy that is able to move around as any other boy.

The two brothers have their own horses - Grim and Fyalar at Knights Farm, even the clothes they wear are evocative of the times of knights and heroes.
The boys with two horses, image by Ilon Wikland from the book The Brothers Lionheart
The boys with Grim and Fyalar

But idyllic times do not last long, as Karl finds out that his older brother Jonathan is involved in a much bigger cause.

Both boys now find themselves thrust into a classic sage of good vs. evil, a classic saga with horseback riding, monsters, traitors, occupiers, freedom-fighters.

Cherry Valley in Nangiyala is under threat from the army of Tengil who rules over the once free Wild Rose Valley. 

Only Cherry Valley remains free and Jonathan is one of the leaders of the resistance against Tengil and his soldiers who even planted a spy in the midst of the freedom-loving citizens of Cherry Valley.

Jonathan leaves for Wild Rose Valley to try to help the resistance against Tengil, while Karl stays at Knights Farm aware that a traitor in Cherry Valley is putting Jonathan's life in danger. 

After discovering who the traitor is, Karl saddles his horse and rides over the mountains alone to try to find Jonathan. 

But Karl is wrong, the tension becomes so thick that you can cut it with a knife. 
an image of Katla the terrible dragon by Ilon Wikland from the book The Brothers Lionheart

Lindgren raises the tension masterfully by gradually introducing references to a certain Katla. We later find out that this ominous sounding creature is in the power of the the black knight Tengil. 

Katla, we also find out, is a female dragon that terrorizes the inhabitants of Nangiyala. The two brothers join forces to fight the evil Tengil and his dragon Katla to free the oppressed people of Nangijala.

Grim and Fyalar are killed and the brothers have their work cut out for them as Katla is so strong that no weapon can damage her or even leave a scratch. 

Jonathan manages to outsmart Katla, yet ends up paralyzed in the process.

Jonathan explains to Karl that there is no reason to be sad as a magic land named Nangilima, awaits him. Yet, due to the paralysis he will be unable to go there where Apple Valley awaits the boys and their old friends who died in Nangiyala and the two horses.

In a poignant reversal of roles, Karl picks up Jonathan and jumps with him ...

Oh, Nangilima! Yes Jonathan, yes. I can see the light. I can see the light.

The Brothers Lionheart is available from bookstores in the US:

Amazon USA

The Book Depository (free worldwide shipping)

and around the world:

Amazon UK   

Amazon CA  
Amazon DE


    1. At what age were your twins when you first read this to them? Our eldest is 4.5 yrs old and I'm re-reading one of my own childhood favourites -- Watership Down (beautifully illustrated by Aldo Galli! Unfortunately only 20 illustrations in whole book) -- and I told her I'd read it to her in a year or two despite her interest. The men poisoning the rabbits in their own home might be too horrible of a death for her right now.

      I'll have to find a copy of Brothers Lionheart. I love Ronia, and our 4.5yr old finally has her own copy of Adventures of Pippi after checking it out from library all the time :-)

    2. (On re-reading your post, I guess this is the first time your kids are reading this, at age 7. Sorry, sleep-deprived and muddle-brained with younger, teething kiddo!)

    3. Hi echomyst,

      Ronia is fabulous indeed, I know my twins loved it - my wife read it aloud to them last year and they enjoyed it immensely.

      We have a copy of Watership Down, but I haven't read it yet to the kids.

      Sometimes, if a scene is too strong - and there are a couple in The Brothers Lionheart - I water it down a bit. Every parent has to take into account the sensitivities of their child - just like you mentioned - the part about the rabbit poisoning...

      Thanks for telling me about the illustrated version of Watership Down by Aldo Galli (, it looks fabulous indeed!!

      I have a non-illustrated pocket book version of Watership Down (which is really unsuitable for reading aloud).

      Really grateful for your tip.

      Read Aloud Dad

    4. I have seen many other titles from this author, but not this one. Now I cant wait to go look for it.

      And welcome back!! Looking forward to many more fantastic reviews this new year..

    5. Hi Reshama,

      Happy New Year!

      So glad to hear from you again too and thanks for the kind words!

      Do check it out - The Brothers Lionheart is a diamond. :-)

      Read Aloud Dad

    6. Great to have you back again! Can't wait for more recommendations.

    7. Hi Kimberly,

      Thanks so much - its very nice to hear from you again too!

      I wish you a very very happy 2015!

      Read Aloud Dad

    8. Thank *you* for your amazing blog! I've discovered many beautifully illustrated classics on here, and now Innocenti, Inga Moore, etc. are familiar names to me.

      The edition I'm re-reading is Not sure how that compares with the edition you'd linked to above aside from price and cover illustration?

    9. Hi echomyst,

      Thanks for the kind words.

      It seems that I linked to the UK edition and that you sent me the (correct) link to the US version with Galli's illustrations (, I would say that is the main difference.

      Just highlights the fact how careful you must be when ordering a book - there are often so many variations!

      Read Aloud Dad