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I’ve happened upon this (Christmassy) text of mine – first published in Books from Finland back in 1995 – when sorting through my papers as I begin to contemplate my retirement. With it I would like to offer my goodbyes, and many thanks, to you – to our readers, for whom I have been commissioning, editing and writing texts for the past thirty-one years – it’s time to do other things; time to read the books that still remain unread…
A dusky winter’s afternoon. Outside, soft and grey, a little snow is falling. I am sitting in our living-room, in an armchair covered in a pale yellow boucle fabric, my legs curled up, eating a carrot. In my lap is a book which I have fetched from the library after school. Conversation, the faint clattering of crockery, a singing kettle, the smell of food: grandmother and mother are cooking supper in the kitchen. My little sister is asleep.
But these sounds and the room around me do not really exist: there is only the world of make-believe in which Tiina sets off on her adventures with the Blue Cat, the Tinsmith, the St Bernard dog, the star and the spider: that world is a magic box which is able to contain all of childhood.
In his fascinating book of memoirs, Laterna Magica, the Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman presents an astonishingly exact visual memory of a time when he was less than two years old: the appearance and colour of the kitchen tablecloth and of his porridge bowl (the moment before he was sick into it).
To tell the truth, I do not really remember a scene described above, even though at that time I must have been about nine. But the reconstruction is easy, and historically reasonably believable, too: a glance at Oiva Paloheimo’s children’s book Tinaseppä ja seitsemän (‘The Tinsmith and the Seven’) immediately takes me back to ca. 1960. I used to spen hours on end in that fashionably teak-legged boucle chair in our new, one-bedroom rented apartment in a Helsinki suburb – and I could have been reading exactly that book, for it made an indelible impression upon me.
I never owned the book, but some years ago it began to come to mind with a strange insistence, so I began to look for it in Helsinki’s second-hand bookshops. Time passed, but the book was nowhere to be found. Then, one day, I found it in a second-hand bookshop next door – and the owner gave it to me for free, because the spine was missing!
And the magic box opened at once. I remembered all Usko Laukkanen’s warmly humorous, succulent black-and-white line drawings. I had forgotten the details of the plot, but I remembered the story: just before Christmas, a poor tinsmith uses the last of his supplies of tin to cast Christmas bells in order to buy food, but because, sadly, his bells do not ring, no one buys them. But because of the miracle of Christmas, out of the tin seven creatures are born: a little girl, Tiina; a St Bernard, Duke (for whom the most important thing in life is food); a prince and a princess (who bring romance and adventure to the story); a tin soldier, Gustavus Inch; a star, which looks after lighting and various tasks of guidance, and Mr S. Spider, a real 1950s information engineer. Its job is to create radio contact, through a net it constructs in a corner of the ceiling, with wherever the plot of the story demands – and even transmit people from one place to another electronically.
Paloheimo writes mischievously and humorously, and for adult readers as well as children. The Blue Cat, which is discovered in a snowdrift on Christmas Eve and becomes the story’s prime mover, its deus ex machina, resourcefully arranges everyone else’s affairs and succeeds in securing for the impoverished Tinsmith an amazing, frightening fortune.
But what to do with the money, after a bone has been bought for Duke the dog, and a new school satchel for Tiina? ‘The Tinsmith suggested that a thousand million should be given to the state. The state could then distribute the money to sick and poor citizens. The idea was considered worth mulling over, and it was resolved to find out the state’s address. For it was necessary first to ask whether the state was at all prepared to go to the trouble of helping citizens who were in need of assistance.’
Gustavus Inch, the tin soldier, comments that there is no point in giving money for the cause of peace, for it would immediately be used to buy guns. ‘War cannot be held in check without guns. And peace cannot be financed in any way, for peace is the result of goodwill.’ Not shrinking from the naïvely innocent racism of the day, Paloheimo has Gustavus Inch suggest that all the negroes of Africa should be bought mouth-organs to amuse them and thus stop them boiling ‘honest Finnish soldiers’ alive in their pots: ‘negroes have such good lips for mouth-organs’.
Oiva Paloheimo (1910–1973) is best-known as a writer for a completely different children’s book. Tirlittan (1953) is a slightly sombre story of an orphan girl who loses her home in a fire; Tirlittan plays her ocarina and wanders the world alone. Tinaseppä has long since been sold out and forgotten.
Paloheimo, according to the biography written by his son, the poet Matti Paloheimo, was the grasshopper figure from the fable of the ant and the grasshopper: a lovable, kind-hearted hedonist who had children and wives and women friends and alcohol problems, but less often money or the energy to shoulder life’s responsibilities. He wrote prolifically and rapidly, novels, short stories, poems, articles, children’s books. Today, most people associate his name only with Tirlittan, and perhaps with his autobiographical novel Levoton lapsuus (‘A restless childhood’, 1942).
At the end of the Tinsmith adventure, the prince and princess are united and all ends in a wedding and general rejoicing: ‘S. Spider became so excited that it left its web and its antennae and its microphone and leaped into the centre of the room. It began to dance like a maniac, with all its legs; it danced all the wedding dances, which it had learned over millions of years.’ Tiina and the Tinsmith go on living in their idyll, but Gustavus Inch is attracted by war as if by a magnet, while the Blue Cat is driven by longing, so that both of them set out to wander through the world.
The Blue Cat says to Tiina: ‘Life is a fairytale, my dear, if only you know how to create it in the right way, with innocence and love. And the story of life is as long as longing, longing from happiness to happiness, from day to day, until the last sunset.’
Tinaseppä ja seitsemän is, for me, as an object, more than a 1950s fairytale: it is the magic box of childhood. Perhaps all those who have, as children, had a close relationship with books and their illustrations remember their favourite books as symbols that are deeply impressed on their minds.
A familiar picture is not just Seamus the sailor dog’s grass-lined bunk, in which Seamus sleeps happily, his white belly hairs as soft-looking as the green grass, but something more – the green of the grass is a room, decades ago, the patterns on the carpet, the smoothness of the arms of a rocking chair, a bird-cage on top of a kitchen cupboard, the smell of a plantain in the yard, the music played by an itinerant accordionist; it is always a sunny afternoon in a street that is paved with diagonal yellow stones, decorated with the cool shadows of lime trees.
It is something that cannot be apprehended, because it flees, something that cannot be completely described, because it is not whole, and something that cannot be shared with anyone else, because it is only your own.
When you open the book, you open the box and look inside: even if there is nothing definite there, it is full of experience without form, it is the after-image of enchanting moments of childhood – and it is always a delightful experience, always.
Translated by Hildi Hawkins
A new Finnish biography of Tove Jansson (1914–2001) was published in 2013; the artist and creator of the Moomins has been celebrated in 2014 in her centenary year. Tove Jansson. Tee tytötä ja rakasta by Tuula Karjalainen was published in English this autumn, translated by David McDuff, under the title Tove Jansson: Work and Love (Penguin Global, Particular Books).
The book was reviewed by The Economist newspaper on 22 November. Unsurprisingly, according to the review, Jansson was more interesting as a writer than as a painter:
’Jansson always saw herself first as a serious painter. She exhibited frequently in Finland, and won awards and commissions for large public murals. Her reputation there as a writer lagged far behind the rest of the world. Ms Karjalainen is a historian of Finnish art, and although she covers Jansson’s writing, it is the paintings that really interest her. This is a pity. Jansson was a more interesting writer than a painter, and her life sheds much light on her particular quality as a storyteller.’
Whereas Karjalainen concentrates on Jansson’s painting, another biography of Jansson, by the Swedish literary scholar Boel Westin (reviewed here) focuses on Jansson as a writer. Here, you can find a selection of Tove Jansson’s art.
A quotation from The Economist‘s review: ‘Her use of Moomins to defy the war is characteristic. Everywhere in her fiction there is the same sense of deflection and indirection. She hated ideologies, messages, answers. And it somehow fits that she fell in love with both men and women. Ambivalence was a kind of comfort to her. As one of her characters says, “Everything is very uncertain, and that is what makes me calm.’
Tove Jansson’s versatile brilliance as an artist, we think, is at its best in the way she combined illustration and text in her Moomin stories. Their (great) visual and philosophical value lies in the praise of freedom and independence of the mind: for everyone, young or old.
This year has been an eventful for Finnish literature in many ways, not least in terms of young adults’ and children’s books. The full ramifications of Finland’s turn as the theme country at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair will only be known with the passage of time, but more mega-success stories to stand alongside Salla Simukka’s Lumikki (Snow White, Tammi) trilogy for young adults – now sold to almost 50 countries – are eagerly awaited. Visitors to the Frankfurt Book Fair also got a look at Finland-Swedish illustration at the By/Kylä (‘Village’) stand, which presented varied works by nine illustrators and animators in a memorable exhibit.
Book sales continue to fall in Finland. The major general-interest publishers – WSOY, Tammi, and Otava – have cut back on Finnish titles and are concentrating on high-sellers and proven authors.
Books in series are now a dominant phenomenon in literature for children and young adults, aiming to win readers’ loyalty with their continuing stories and characters. Many longtime authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults have had to look for new contacts, and publishers are increasingly hesitant to launch debut artists.
Alternative forms of publishing have become more important in the quest to champion experimental and innovative children’s literature. Etana (‘Snail’) Editions, a new publishing house dedicated to books for small children, has used crowd funding to release two picture books, Yksi vielä (‘One more’) by Réka Király, and Värejä meressä (‘The colours in the sea’) by Jenni Erkintalo.
Building markets and professional networks is the greatest challenge for smaller publishers. Books North, formed in conjunction with Agency North, which specialises in drama, invested considerable resources in publicity for two picture books by Iiro Küttner and Ville Tietäväinen, an effort which resulted in ample media attention.
The Finlandia Junior, Finland’s largest prize for children’s literature, created a stir when one of the six nominees chosen was Min egen lilla liten (‘My own tiny little thing’, Schildts & Söderströms), a picture book by Linda Bondestam based on a text by Swedish author Ulf Stark. Helsingin Sanomat newspaper and the Lastenkirjahylly (‘Children’s bookshelf’) book blog criticised the selection for promoting a Swedish author when so many Finnish children’s authors receive little pay and less media attention.
Maria Turtschaninoff, this year’s Finlandia Junior Prize winner, has written five novels since 2006, and all have opened up new and captivating worlds for readers. Turtschaninoff treats her target audience with respect: ‘Writing for young people is special. When you’re young, literature affects you more powerfully than it does adults,’ the author said in an interview in Helsingin Sanomat.
On a visit to Finland in the autumn of 2014, the American author William G. Brozo sparked discussion of the need for better reading instruction for boys. Another author who is himself quite young, Aleksi Delikouras (born 1990), known for his Nörtti (‘Nerd’, Otava) trilogy, has campaigned on behalf of increased reading practice for boys in schools and libraries, pointing out that boys hooked on computer games from a young age need to experience the same success and reinforcement in reading that they get from game play.
Lukuinto (‘Passion to read’), a project funded by the Ministry of Education and Culture, will end in spring of 2015. Its objectives are to create practical models for developing the reading and writing skills of primary and secondary-school pupils and strengthening the media training, knowledge and methods used by teachers and librarians to support varied reading and writing skills and interests. The programme also emphasises the importance of media literacy.
Worries over the reduction in leisure time spent reading among children and youth also call for broad research on reading with an emphasis on providing literature education beginning in early childhood.
Translated by Lola Rogers
We will publish a selection of short reviews of particularly original and interesting books for children and young adults in 2014 in January after our winter break.
Once upon a time there was a boy called Sulo. Just a normal lad, more a middle-of-the-road character than winner material. And not even always brave, let alone cheerful. An ordinary sprog isn’t enough for Sulo’s parents, so they take the boy to a child repair shop. There, new parts are fitted to children: virtuoso fingers, football-feet and angel-faces.
In addition to Sulo, Alexandra Salmela’s Kirahviäiti ja muita hölmöjä aikuisia (‘The giraffe mummy and other silly adults’) introduces us to the misunderstood Flabby Monster, Adalmiina, who wings through trees like an ape, and a father who absentmindedly loses his head. The work is the second book by Alexandra Salmela, who was born in Bratislava, in what was then Czechoslovakia, and now lives in Tampere.
A-L E: How did the idea of a story-book come up?
A.S.: Sort of by accident. At first I hadn’t thought of writing the stories in Finnish – after all, I didn’t spend my childhood in Finland, so the imagery was foreign to me. But I had written stories for a Slovakian magazine and when I mentioned that to my editor, he wanted to see what I had done. Then I translated something for the publishers and they liked it.
A-L E: The book was published simultaneously in Finland and Slovakia. Were the stories born at the same time in the two languages?
A S Yes, I wrote the book simultaneously in Finnish and Slovakian, sometimes literarily, so that I had Finnish and Slovakian files open at the same time on my computer. It’s hard to say which book is the translation…. Writing in two languages was like a multiple sieve, it taught me to spot mistakes and inaccuracies effectively.
A-L E: You have two children. Are they trial readers for your stories?
A S: No, that never really occurred to me. It turns out that I am much better at writing stories than telling them. When I tell stories I tend to get stuck on some detail or I begin to meander.
A-L E: The richly detailed, colourful illustrations are by Martina Matlovičová. Could you describe your illustrator a little?
A S: The world today is a very global place, and many illustrators use the same generic style, wherever they’re from. Martina is a find, she has her own distinctive style. The pictures in the Finnish edition of Kirahviäiti, by the way, are slightly paler than those in the Slovakian edition – and they’re still very colourful by Finnish standards.
A-L E: Four years ago you rose like a comet in the Finnish literary world with your first novel, 27 eli kuolema tekee taiteilijan (‘27 or death makes the artist’). It was interesting, among other things, for the fact that you wrote in Finnish, even though Finnish is not your native language. The novel received the Helsingin Sanomat Prize for the best debut novel and was also on the shortlist for the Finlandia Prize. What do you think of the media circus that surrounded it now?
A S: Everything happened very quickly and at once. Suddenly there was too much attention, for me as well as, I’m sure, for the reading public. The media attention may actually have harmed the book. The hoo-ha ended as quickly as it had begun, and afterwards there was a long, long silence. The manuscript of my new novel has been stalled for a long time – but I have begun to find the right form.
A-L E: There’s a lot of absurd humour and dizzying twists of the plot in the stories of Kirahviäiti. But beneath the wildness there’s often a serious tone and themes – for example an ecological message and acceptance of difference.
A S: Certainly. I wanted to write a book that would be as readable and rewarding for adults as it is for children. But I tried to conceal deep and serious subjects in the stories in such a way that they wouldn’t seem too humourless or ranting. This balancing act sometimes caused headaches in the writing. It felt as if I was just pursuing my own agenda – the texts were too heavy, boring for children, ranting. A that point I just had to let imagination take control: the wilder and more absurd the story, the better and more digestible it became, the excess weight was dumped on the sharp bends. 1800 characters per story was my aim, and I didn’t exceed it by very much.
The short form is best, in my opinion – children can’t be bothered to read a couple of pages of description of the door that leads to Sleeping Beauty’s castle. My stories also begin and end abruptly: they invite the reader to imagine what happened before the start and what might happen after the end of the story.
Translated by Hildi Hawkins
Adalmiina’s life was not an easy one. Her parents decided to prepare her for her career as a princess when she was a little girl: when Adalmiina was three she was sent to ballet school, at four she started taking lute lessons and at five she went on a course in magic-mirror gazing.
When Adalmiina turned six, she received a giant suitcase full of princess clothes and shoes.
‘Put them on, darling, we want to see you in all your lovely beauty!’ her mother sparkled, waving a muslin veil.
‘I want to go to the jungle!’ Adalmiina demanded. ‘Without any clothes!’
‘Will we have to force you to dress in all your glory?’ her parents snapped.
‘You’ll have to catch me first!’ Adalmiina announced, running into the garden.
In the middle of the garden grew a spreading old oak. Adalmiina climbed into its branches. She jumped from branch to branch, sat down, swung her legs. When her exhausted parents dragged themselves under the tree with her heavy suitcase, Adalmiina swooped down to swing directly above their crowned heads.
‘Your arms will stretch like a monkey’s,’ her mummy sobbed.
‘We’ll sell you to a circus,’ her daddy threatened.
‘I can’t wait,’ Adalmiina laughed, hanging head down from a branch, like a bat.
‘This is the end of your princessing. No decent prince is going to let a monkey like you into his castle. We can get rid of all your fine dresses and your lute and ballet studies,’ her parents lamented.
‘And the mirror course,’ Adalmiina reminded them. ‘And I’m allowed to climb trees.’
Her parents had to admit that Adalmiina made a much better monkey than she did a princess. And because they really cared about her, they set the grand suitcase under the tree as padding so that Adalmiina would not hurt herself if she accidentally fell or a branch were to break beneath her.
You have to take good care not only of princesses and children, but also little monkeys.
Mimmi’s parents were building a palace. They thought only about gates and towers, and not at all about Mimmi. So Mimmi escaped with the first people who happened to wander past her future family castle. Mum was busy decorating the kitchen while Dad was just setting up the family crest in the courtyard, so neither of them even tried to stop their daughter.
The passers-by were pirates. They gave Mimmi an eye-patch, a tricorn hat and a sword and took her with them to sail the seas.
Mimmi liked the pirate life; it was fun. It was exciting to swish her sword and roar like a lion, although sometimes you also had to loot a merchant galleon. Treasure, and counting treasure, soon got boring. But one day, in the hold of a captured ship, they found a chest which did not contain gold or crown jewels – curled up inside the small treasure chest was a little weeping mermaid.
‘How dreadful!’ exclaimed Mimmi, quickly freeing the mermaid.
She was so weak and dried-out that Mimmi had to take her to the pirate ship to recover. The mermaid sat in the washbasin, ate empowering pearls and played draughts with Mimmi with gold and silver coins. The girls became inseparable friends. When it was time for the mermaid to return to the sea, both of them became very sad.
Luckily the pirate captain found on the horizon with his telescope a desert island and gave it to the girls as a present. The pirates built a cabin there, standing half in the water and half on dry land, so that the two friends could live under the same roof.
Mimmi and the mermaid live there still. They fish, eat coconuts and pineapple and play with the monkeys. And when the pirates come to visit, all of them dance on the beach, roaring for joy like lions and the mermaid splashes in her washbasin.
Sulo was not a very popular child. He did not get the main part in the school play. He did not win a single competition. And worst of all: he wasn’t always cheerful and good-humoured. It annoyed his parents, for they were perfect.
One day Sulo refused to smile and visitors and to perform the piece his mother Lempi had composed, I Am the Best. Instead, Sulo hid under the bed.
His parents dragged him into their fine car and drove to the Perfection Factory.
‘A faulty part for exchange.’ Sulo’s dad, Valio, lifted him onto the counter.
The assistant wrinkled his eyebrows:
‘This child’s warranty period is over. Take him to the Central Child Repair Shop.’
There was a queue at the Child Repair Shop. The reception clerk handed Sulo’s parents a catalogue, GREAT NEW FEATURES FOR YOUR CHILDREN and sat them down in a waiting room with a view straight into the repair shop.
The repairers unscrewed the children’s imperfect parts and replaced them with football feet, virtuoso fingers and angel-faces. Sulo’s parents followed this happily, wondering whether they should get Sulo wings or an engine, or perhaps both.
Sulo was appalled; he did not want to be a super-child. He wanted to go away, but instead he turned into a stick.
‘Wake up!’ Someone or something nudged him. It was hard to say who or what was speaking, because it changed all the time.
‘I’m Maryam, I’m running away from an operation to remove my chameleonism. Let’s get out of here. Pretend to be as perfect as you can and follow me.’
Sulo took a deep breath and marched after the chameleon girl out of the Child Repair Centre, as brashly as a peacock superman. But just round the corner Sulo was his own imperfect self again: he tripped on Maryam’s heels at the bus stop. The girl smiled broadly and Sulo felt nervous, as he’d never travelled by bus before.
The dinodonosaur Rororo was sleeping like a log in his warm cave. At least, until someone began to lick his snout.
‘Hey! I’m not food! I am the great fiery dinodonosaur!’ Rororo tried to shake the creature off, but it just giggled and bit him with its small, sharp teeth:
‘You sausage! Me Iii!’
Rororo was so badly startled that the strange creature dropped off his snout. Was this the frightening dinosaur told of in the dinodonosaurs’ old tales?
‘Are you a piranhosaur?’ Rororo was shaking with fright.
‘Me Iii,’ Iii declared stubbornly. ‘Me hungry. Me cold.’
Rororo sighed with relief. Of course Iii was hungry, otherwise it wouldn’t have even tried to eat the great fiery dinodonosaur! And it must be cold, it was completely naked and furless! Rororo gave Iii some grass and a winter overall and asked:
‘Where do you live?’
‘Here. Me sleep,’ Iii announced, making a nest in Rororo’s bed.
‘That’s my bed! My home!’ Rororo was angry. ‘Get out, you ungrateful marauder!’
Iii took off the overalls Rororo had lent it and plodded quietly out of the cave.
Nevertheless, Rororo had a slightly bad conscience. So bad that he didn’t even feel like playing.
Rororo went out for a walk. Iii was sitting outside the cave. When Rororo returned home, Iii was still sitting there. When Rororo went for a wee in the bushes at night, Iii was still sitting in the same place.
‘Why don’t you go home?’ Rororo wondered.
Iii’s mouth widened into a broad grin.
‘Home, home!’ it hollered, bouncing into the cave.
‘OK. You can live here with me,’ Rororo relented. ‘But you don’t eat me, is that clear?’
Iii nodded vigorously and soon fell asleep in Rororo’s bed. Rororo snorted and curled up around his new friend. Next day, Iii and Rororo gathered more hay, which they used to make the bed bigger, but at night they slept curled up together again.
Translated by Hildi Hawkins
Finnish picture books for children have long been reliable export goods around the world. In the last few years, a number of novels for children have come along in their wake: works by authors such as Timo Parvela and Siri Kolu have been translated into a good many languages.
Now young adult literature has also blazed a trail on to the international market – in what also seems to be almost a matter of precision timing with regard to the Frankfurt Book Fair 2014. Finnish publishers have been investing in their home-grown lists of children’s and young adult books ever since the turn of the millennium, and now the time has come to harvest the fruits of their long-term efforts.
Salla Simukka’s Lumikki (‘Snow White’, Tammi) trilogy made history even before its final instalment was published in Finland. In the space of six months, translation rights for the series had been sold to 37 countries in fiercely contested auctions – a completely unprecedented scenario for a Finnish author. The crowning moment in a triumphant year arrived in December 2013, when the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture awarded Simukka the Finland Prize, which is granted each year in recognition of a significant artistic achievement or breakthrough.
The first volume in the Lumikki trilogy, Punainen kuin veri (‘As red as blood’), combines a traditional coming-of-age portrayal with a gripping thriller-style plot via the character of Lumikki Andersson, a traumatised school bullying victim. Salla Simukka has made innovative use of classic tales, currently popular in the international media landscape, in her narrative in a way that is capable of entertaining adult readers as well.
The first recipients of the Nordic Council’s brand-new prize for children’s and young people’s literature, worth €43,000, were Seita Vuorela and Jani Ikonen for their novel Karikko (‘The reef,’ WSOY, 2012). Like Salla Simukka’s trilogy, Vuorela and Ikonen’s novels show a conscious wish to appeal across artificially imposed boundaries between reader demographics. Both works specifically mention two target audiences on their back covers: young adults as well as adults.
Meanwhile, slight confusion arose among observers of the young adult book world when the nominations for the Finlandia Junior prize were announced: half of the nominated titles were not primarily children’s or young adult literature. Aapine (‘ABC’, Otava), a collection of poems with alphabet-based rhymes written by poet Heli Laaksonen in the south-western Finnish dialect, Marja Björk’s Poika (‘The boy’, Like), depicting the experiences of a transgender youth, and Vain pahaa unta (‘Just a bad dream’, Otava) by Aino & Ville Tietäväinen, about children’s nightmares, have all enjoyed more popularity among adults than children.
Even so, the attention paid to children’s and young adult books in the media has become more random and patchy. Traditional visits by authors – ‘travelling preachers’ – to promote books at various educational events and libraries, nurseries and schools have taken on greater importance in spreading the word about the wide variety on offer.
Finnish children’s and young adult writing has its finger on the pulse of the modern world even more firmly than before, providing keen-eyed reflections of today’s society. Fathers with busy careers feature in Isä vaihtaa vapaalle (‘Dad takes time off’, WSOY), a picture book by Jukka Laajarinne and Timo Mänttäri, as well as Meidän isä on hammaspeikko (‘Our Dad is the Tooth Troll’, Otava), the debut work by journalist Saska Saarikoski, who is the son of the well-known poet and translator Pentti Saarikoski. In each of these books, a father is willing to make compromises for the sake of the well-being of his family as a whole. Children’s books do indeed still promote ideals: by and large, not many fathers with young children make such sacrifices on behalf of their families in real life.
On the other hand, two works by Kreetta Onkeli – her children’s novel Poika joka menetti muistinsa (‘The boy who lost his memory,’ Otava) and Selityspakki (‘The answer kit’, Otava), a collection of little stories and explanations – ensure that kids also have access to no-nonsense information about the real world and contemporary society. Onkeli does not sugar-coat issues such as exhausted parents, social inequality and the effects of social exclusion.
Finnish educators monitored the results of the latest PISA survey carried out in OECD nations with concern. Finnish pupils’ previous world-beating performance was hanging in the balance. The largest Finnish publishers have dramatically reduced their output of children’s books for beginning readers: a very short-sighted strategy.
Translated by Ruth Urbom
The four Pixon brothers spend their time watching the telly and eating cereals and sweets. Their mother, in desperation, constantly demands that they go out and play, but they just don’t. The thin brothers’ teeth are bad as they have no vitamins in their blood: indeed they are as fit as 90-year-olds. One day the telly goes bust and the brothers end up in their neighbours’ home, where the two ladies cook them a good meal. They finally do go out and play – until the point of exhaustion: the story presents the reader with sinister turns à la Grimm brothers or Hoffmann, which the gloomy, dark pictures, suddenly devoid of colours, comically illustrate. But colours return to the pictures as well as to the brothers, who are now as fit as any 64-year old! This is the authors’ second book for children. Kivelä’s lesson takes the mickey out of didacticism but does not lose the point, so fun is had by all. Bondestam’s detailed, graphic pictures spice the story with amusing horror.
Kreetta Onkeli, better known for her books for adults, was awarded the 2013 Finlandia Junior award for this book. Arto is a schoolboy who loses his memory, but goes off in search of himself with an open mind. He meets a number of people who are outsiders in various ways and learns important lessons from each of them. Onkeli portrays a child of around 11 to 13 who is confused by many things. Researchers consider this age group to fall into an in-between area: there aren’t enough appealing activities on offer for kids of this age, who are treated as an awkward bunch both at home and at school. This book contains some rule-breakers: the boys eat at a restaurant buffet without paying and ride the subway without a ticket while other characters hint at forging official documents. Adult readers with their eyes closed to reality might consider Arto’s odyssey an anxiety-inducing vision of the future, in which grown-ups are not shown in a flattering light. Children, however, will get wrapped up in this absurd adventure.
The first children’s book by Alexandra Salmela, who has previously published a novel for adults, brings some sorely needed anarchy to Finnish storybooks. The 21 brief stories encourage children to add to them, whether by drawing, writing or out loud. Salmela’s tales are populated by trolls, dragons, knights and princesses, as well as ordinary children with silly parents. A boy called Ossi has two mums: Little Mum and Big Mum. One night, Little Mum collapses under the Tree of Exhaustion, but Ossi and his little sister hug their mum better. Allu’s absent-minded dad manages to mislay his head, and two perfect parents trade in their defective son Sulo at the child repair shop. The collage images by Slovakian illustrator Martina Matlovičová will work their way straight into your subconscious and start to bubble away.
Isä vaihtaa vapaalle is a picture book infused with wry humour which lends itself to both realistic and fanciful readings. In the story, a girl’s father is a secret agent. He’d like to reduce his working hours to spend more time with his daughter, but his employer has other ideas. This book provides an amusing reflection of its time: parents’ job titles often do not mean much to children, so their strange roles and the heavy briefcases parents lug home start to take on a life of their own in children’s minds. The story is free from clichés about gender roles and will entertain boys and girls alike. Timo Mänttäri, making his debut as a children’s book illustrator here, depicts fast-paced, dangerous situations and amusing details. The comic book-style narrative and large, double-page illustrations create suspense in this zippy story. The words and pictures are seamlessly integrated, and the not-overlong text is balanced by the exceptionally strong, expressive visuals.
The duo of Riitta Jalonen and Kristiina Louhi has come up with yet another well-rounded picture book trilogy. Aatos and Sofia are sensitive, independent preschoolers, each with a good imagination and the ability to savour fleeting moments. It is rare for children’s books to contain such a nuanced yet natural portrayal of companionship and devoted friendship between children. Sofia has her feet more firmly planted on the ground that Aatos, who is more prone to let his emotions run free. Sofia’s mum’s aerobics sessions are a fun contrast with the children’s slower-paced lifestyle, in which they hold on to individual moments. This book champions children’s free, creative play and their right to a long childhood. Kristiina Louhi’s illustration style is both traditional and extremely modern.
Minerva is a cartoon character who has appeared in two previous volumes (2006, 2009) by Juba, a.k.a. Jussi Tuomola. Juba is the creator of an extremely popular comics series for adults about the woman and the pig (both male chauvinist and porcine), Viivi and Wagner. Minerva is a brave and extremely resourceful little heroine who is never daunted by even the wildest adventures she experiences after leaving home to fly around in weird lands. Petra, the floating dumpling of the Lower Reaches, is a woman with magical powers who likes to travel in a flying gondola. In this volume Minerva also meets other old friends on her journey under water, underground, on a river and in the air above a jungle, in pursuit of a rare ingredient for a perfume that Petra has determined to acquire no matter what. The comedy in the uninhibitedly fantastic adventures, illustrated effectively in cartoon squares of different sizes, will amuse readers of many ages.
Even early-years education is packed with activities these days. Pentti has a large extended family who really know how to have fun. He wants to learn how to play the guitar as well as his uncle Jaska. His mum tries to suggest an instrument she thinks would be more appropriate, but Pentti will not be put off. The Pentti picture book series is attractive for its nostalgic style; you can never be quite sure whether the era depicted is in the past or the present day. In this story, Riina Katajavuori focuses on what’s essential, yet still manages to convey the basics of playing the guitar – including dissonance and Jimi Hendrix. Salla Savolainen’s illustrations effectively capture the excitement of a child’s new hobby.
Most Finnish board books have been following the contemporary trend for strong colour palettes with pared-down character designs. Toivon talvi is a refreshing exception to the rule, dealing with everyday things children experience in their lives. One-year-old Toivo loves being outdoors. What’s most fun is when his mum comes out and plays with him. The first snowfall of the year causes him some confusion, but gradually Toivo learns to get the best out of the joys of winter. Katri Tapola’s story, with its child-friendly pacing which genuinely empathises with little ones’ fickle emotions, focuses on the boy’s everyday routines, thus conveying a sense of security. Karoliina Pertamo’s characters are simple sketches yet expressive enough to suit small children.
In Ville Hytönen’s gently educational tale, some woodland creatures poke fun at a wheezy donkey and an oddball monkey. In the end, the animals who were the target of derision turn their unusual characteristics into strengths. Then they all make up, all the residents of the forest launch into an exuberant dance, and the earlier teasing is forgotten. Matti Pikkujämsä has been an extraordinarily productive in recent years: his illustrations have appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines as well as children’s books. Hipinäaasi, apinahiisi, which is his first solo picture book, features rhythm and movement; sometimes he creates extremely elaborate ornamentation, while other images calm the eye with spare yet colourful scraffito techniques.