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All new mothers in Finland receive a ‘maternity package’ from the state containing items for the baby (including bedding, clothing and various childcare products) intended to give each baby a good start in life. This tradition, which started in 1938, is believed to be the only such programme in the world.
Each package also contains the baby’s first book, traditionally a sturdy board book by a Finnish author. The past few years have seen more original board books published in Finland than ever before: they are doing well in competition alongside books translated from other languages. Board books for babies have become a focus for Finnish illustrators and graphic artists. These books, with their simple visual language, have taken on a retro look.
History was made with the Finlandia Junior award, when for the first time the prestigious prize was given to a picture book originally written in Finland-Swedish: Det vindunderliga ägget (‘A most extraordinary egg’, Schildts & Söderströms) by Christel Rönns. The award can also be seen as an acknowledgement of the brave, experimental Finland-Swedish children’s picture books that are being published these days. Finnish-language picture books, on the other hand, are still crying out for more figures to shake up traditional practices.
Novels for beginning readers often carry an indication of the publisher’s recommended age range on the front cover. This has led to confusion among young readers as well as library staff who recommend books to readers. The first decade of the 21st century was a time of upheaval in Finnish reading culture, with diagnoses of various reading disorders, more entertainment options competing for children’s attention and the increase in the number of children from immigrant backgrounds all putting new demands on children’s literature. Some boys aged 10 or over may still prefer short, pithy stories, but if those books carry a notice saying they are intended for 6- to 9-year-olds, boys older than that will refuse to touch them, even though they may well still be of interest otherwise (e.g. Ansu Kivekäs: Ykkösjätkät, ‘The No. 1 lads’, Tammi).
The Lukuinto (‘Joy of reading’) project is a three-year programme launched in the autumn of 2012 by Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture aimed at improving the reading and writing skills of children aged 6 to 16 and promoting reading for pleasure. The aims of the project include improving cooperation between schools and libraries by establishing operating models that develop reading and writing skills and promote a positive reading culture.
A number of writers already known as authors of books for adults made their first forays into children’s literature in the past year. Some of these names are Essi Kummu (author of Puhelias Elias, ‘Talkative Elias’, illustrated by Marika Maijala), Jarkko Tontti (author of children’s fantasy title Vedeeran taru,‘Vedeera’s tale’, Otava) and Juhani Känkänen (author of Hyvää huomenta, Apo Apponen!, ‘Good morning, Apo Apponen!’, Teos). Tontti’s book is a fresh addition to the fantasy genre, while Känkänen gives his picture book a comic book-style narrative.
Sci-fi/fantasy writing now appears to be taking over from realism in Finnish young adult literature. A number of authors who previously favoured realism (Salla Simukka, Laura Lähteenmäki, Anne Leinonen & Eija Lappalainen) have now turned their attention to dystopias, though the themes of independence and growth are still present in their new works. Supernatural romances with vampires and trolls are also making their presence felt in Finnish literature.
The timescale for book publishing is becoming even more squeezed wherever things can be speeded up. Salla Simukka’s dystopian novels Viimeiset (The last ones’, Tammi) and Jäljellä (‘Left behind’, Tammi) were published just a few months apart. Smaller intervals between publication dates are becoming more common with picture-book series as well.
Familiar heroes from children’s books are also conquering new age groups and media channels. The popular Heinähattu ja Vilttitossu (‘Hayhat and Fluffshoe’, illustrated by Markus Majaluoma, Tammi) series of children’s novels by the sisters Sinikka and Tiina Nopola has now been relaunched for picture-book readers: the idyllic village setting has been designed by Salla Savolainen. Timo Parvela’s novel Ella ja Äf Yksi (‘Ella and F One’, Tammi), part of his Ella series set in a primary school, reached the silver screen last year in a film version directed by Taneli Mustonen.
There is no sign of a downturn in the number of titles published. Publishers are focusing on fewer books in their advertising and marketing efforts, preferring to concentrate on guaranteed sales successes. The ranges stocked by bookstore chains are becoming more limited, and less space is devoted to reviews of literature for children and young adults in the media. Some young adult authors have already started making their own book trailer videos and marketing their books themselves in a variety of ways, as they can no longer count on their publishers to do it for them.
Translated by Ruth Urbom
[Sweet haven of nightmares]
[The Beggar Princess]
North End: Niskaan putoava taivas
[North End: Falling Sky]
Katarina von Numers-Ekman:
Maukka, Väykkä ja Karhu Murhinen
[Meowser, Barker and Killington Bear]
Onni-poika saa uuden ystävän
[Onni gets a new friend]
Gattonautti ja muita arkisatuja
[The cattonaut and other everyday tales]
Det vidunderliga ägget
[A most extraordinary egg]
Mila Teräs & Karoliina Pertamo:
Elli ja tuttisuu
[Elli and the dummy]
Esko-Pekka Tiitinen & Nikolai Tiitinen:
Jätti ja jänöset
[The giant and the bunnies]
The new Elli series of picture books continues the tradition in Finnish children’s literature of giving an idyllic portrayal of the natural world: even a small child and her parents have time to marvel at nature together. In reality, more and more children are becoming estranged from their natural surroundings. Elli is an energetic little two-year-old whose mother encourages her to give away her beloved dummy (pacifier) to a young squirrel in the garden. This book tells a typical story about everyday life that will reinforce children’s self-esteem and sense of identity, but fortunately Elli is also allowed to be a little girl who needs looking after by her parents. Our performance-obsessed society expects nearly superhuman effort and skills even from children, so it is important that kids are allowed to be kids – in children’s literature, at least. Karoliina Pertamo’s illustrations glow with warm, invigorating colours. Pertamo (b. 1971) has quickly established a highly individual illustration style for herself.
Translated by Ruth Urbom
This powerful allegory set in the animal kingdom is a tale of global inequality – with a lovely, take-it-easy, imaginative approach that emphasises tolerance and respect for nature. The rabbit community is shaken up when an arrogant giant barges into their territory. At first, the rabbits try to take an understanding view of the interloper, but he ends up in grave danger as a result of his own actions. Only the actions of the kind-hearted rabbits can save him. The calm tone and engaging pace of Esko-Pekka Tiitinen’s story make it ideal for reading out loud. It has the timeless enchantment of traditional animal fairy tales. The mixed-media illustrations by Esko-Pekka Tiitinen’s son Nikolai radiate warmth and a sense of togetherness, but also power, hatred and estrangement where necessary. The seamlessly integrated text and illustrations create an enjoyable reading and visual experience for children and adults in much the same vein as Herra Kuningas (‘Mister King’, Otava, 1986) by Raija Siekkinen and Hannu Taina, which has already joined the ranks of classic Finnish children’s titles.’
Translated by Ruth Urbom
This is the third work that the graphic designer and illustrator Christel Rönns (born 1960) has written in her own right. With her relaxed and humorous illustration style, Rönns has provided the visual component of some 60 children’s books. This story portrays a family – parents, two little girls and a dog (the author has dedicated her book to the memory of her hovawart dog Freja who died at 14). One summer’s day they find a large egg on the beach and bring it home. But the egg, dropped by accident, reveals a little four-legged creature: named Koi-Koi, it turns out to be delightfully friendly and playful. Nobody actually knows what it is – not even a professor of zoology – but it eats and grows to an enormous size, so the house becomes very cramped (and Koi-Koi’s massive farts send the family running…). But then Koi-Koi begins to disappear at night, and one day he doesn’t come back. Missing a lost pet is a new feeling for the girls (their parents must be secretly relieved, as must the dog!). The story is both funny and gently melancholy, the illustrations detailed and humorous. The book was awarded the Finlandia Junior Prize in 2012.
There has been a desperate shortage of short stories and fairy tales for a long time. Now Sari Peltoniemi has bravely risen to this challenge. In her previous young adult novels, she cultivated the ‘new weird’ genre, in which strange and fantastical elements encroach on everyday life. This collection can be categorised as the first Finnish children’s book that makes use of that fantasy subgenre. Peltoniemi’s ten stories also pay homage to traditional Finnish folk tales: a deceased grandfather makes a reappearance to his grandson at midnight; a little sister imagines her teenage sister changing from a fairy into a troll, as in folk tales about changelings. Everyday life is wrenched into strange or absurd situations without warning. Peltoniemi’s portrayals of children display real psychological understanding and insight. The age range for this book, for reading aloud as well as independent reading, extends from preschool to older school-aged children, as the age of the main characters is not emphasised. Liisa Kallio’s child-like, rounded illustration style does indicate, however, that the intended target group is children under 10.
Translated by Ruth Urbom
The series about a boy named Onni has become a firm favourite among preschool-aged children. Even small children’s picture books are alert to real-life changes in society; in this book – the seventh in the series – Onni gets a new neighbour: a little boy named Aram and Onni quickly become firm friends, even though they do not speak the same language at first. Their friendship across cultural barriers is explained in a straightforward manner that children can grasp. It says something about the introversion of Finnish society and about cultural differences that the friendship is initiated by Aram, who brings some rice pudding made by his mother as a treat for his new neighbours. Pelliccioni’s round-headed figures, characteristic of her style, are suitably simple. She manages to convey fine nuances in their expressions and body language.
Translated by Ruth Urbom
This novel in the Maukka ja Väykkä series tells about friendship among a cat, a dog and a shrew. There is a need for more children’s books for the whole family that can be read aloud. The award-winning duo behind this title have created a book with brief chapters and an engaging setting. Maukka is an attention-seeking cat with a quick temper, while Väykkä is a laid-back, worldly-wise dog. Their life together seems to be a constant squabble over which one of them is right. The latest arrival in the animal community is a little shrew, who has a heart of pure gold despite his fearsome name. He manages to teach the cat-and-dog duo a few things about life. The shrew’s life span is much shorter than that of the cat and dog; Murhinen himself has a sanguine attitude to the matter and teaches Maukka, Väykkä and the reader a number of important things about life and death.
Translated by Ruth Urbom
Tove Jansson’s Moomin books are widely cherished by children and adults alike. They are funny and charming yet haunting and profound. Lovable Moomintroll; practical and sensible Moominmama; spiky Little My; the terrifying yet complex monster, Groke – Jansson’s creations linger in the mind.
The first ever Moomin book – The Moomins and the Great Flood (Småtrollen och den stora översvämningen, 1945) – was published in the UK in October by Sort Of Books, but Jansson’s writing for adults is also achieving recognition in the English-speaking world.
A Winter Book, a selection of 20 stories by Jansson (Sort Of Books, 2006) was the trigger for a recent event on London’s South Bank. Along with journalist Suzi Feay and writer Philip Ardagh, I was invited to talk about Jansson’s work in general and about these stories in particular.
As Ali Smith notes in her fine introduction to the collection, the texts are ‘beautifully crafted and deceptively simple-seeming’. They are, as she puts it ‘like pieces of scattered light’. She also refers to the stories’ ‘suppleness’ and ‘childlike wilfulness’.
‘The Dark’, for example, offers an apparently random set of snapshots of childhood. Arresting images abound – swaying lamps over an ice rink, swirls in the pattern of a carpet that turn into terrible snakes – to create a tapestry of childhood. It’s like a dream: of ice and fire, fear and safety, a mixture that recalls the secure yet scary world of Moomin valley.
‘Snow’, too, conjures childhood fear. The house that features in this story is unhomely or uncanny, to refer to Freud, and seems haunted by the ghosts of other families. The story ends with the shared resolution between mother and child to return to a place of safety: ‘So we went home.’
The combination of scariness and safety, of comfort and unease, is one of the things that makes Jansson (1914–2001) such a powerful writer, not only for children – although questions of security and fear might have especial resonance in early life – but also for adults, who continue to be haunted by the unknown, but also tempted by it.
The South Bank event also gave participants and audience the chance to talk about other works by Jansson. The Summer Book (Sommarboken, 1972) notably, is a delicate and deft evocation of a summer spent on an island.
The narrative charts the relationship between a grandmother and granddaughter, and at the same time probes such profoundly human questions as love and loss, hope and change and continuity. As always in Jansson, the descriptions are sharp and crisp, and the writing is at once spare and suggestive.
Novels like Fair Play (Rent spel, 1989) and The True Deceiver (Den ärliga bedragaren, 1982) reveal Jansson’s subversive, sly, and subtle sides, which sit alongside her playfulness, warmth, and humour to create a unique aesthetic. Fair Play is a book about the relationship between two women; it’s tender, funny and thoughtful. Never sentimental, it is nonetheless moving. And it’s quietly subversive in its matter-of-fact depiction of a same-sex relationship.
The True Deceiver is set in a snowbound hamlet. A young woman fakes a break-in at the house of an elderly artist, a children’s book illustrator, and a strange dynamic develops between the two women. It’s a book about being outside, about not belonging. The relationship between the women, which is never fully resolved or explained, is especially fascinating.
Jansson excels at showing the human need for both company and privacy, intimacy and autonomy. And her work is profoundly philosophical. In very light, nimble narratives, Jansson explores the meanings of our lives.
The Finlandia Junior Prize 2012 went to the illustrator and writer Christel Rönns for her book Det vidunderliga ägget (‘The extraordinary egg’, Söderströms & BonnierCarlsen).
The winner was chosen from the shortlist of six by the film director and actor Mari Rantasila. Awarding the prize, worth €30,000, on 29 November she said:
‘The book has masterly, original and clear illustrations that support the story; the drawings include amusing details. It is refreshing to read a story about a family that all pulls in the same direction.
‘Det vidunderliga ägget deals with important matters, in a way that is suitable for small children: toleration of difference and the difficulty of loss, underlining that difference is not frightening or negative.’
The following five books also made it to the shortlist: Nörtti: new game (‘The nerd: new game’, Otava), about a schoolboy, bullying and social media by Aleksi Delikouras, Tatu ja Patu pihalla (‘Tatu and Patu on the yard’, Otava), a new picture book in the series about two curious little boys by Aino Havukainen and Sami Toivonen, Hurraa Helsinki! (‘Hurrah Helsinki!’, Tammi), a picture book about Helsinki by Karo Hämäläinen and Salla Savolainen, Puhelias Elias (‘Talkative Elias’, Tammi), an illustrated story about a little boy and his parent’s separation by Essi Kummu and Marika Maijala, and Kirkkaalla liekillä (‘With a bright flame’, Robustos), about 15-year-old Maaria, who lives through difficult times, by Venla Saalo.
‘What reigns in Moomin Valley is a rock-hard hierarchy of those who are cool (Snufkin, Moominmamma, Little My), those who need to be those who are cool (Moomintroll, the Snork Maiden, Sniff, one or two Whompers and Toffles), and those who are absurd (the Hemulen, the Fillyjonk, the Muskrat)’, noted Pia Ingström in her review (Books from Finland 2/2008) of Sirke Happonen’s dissertation on Tove Jansson’s characters.
Snufkin? Fillyjonk? The Moomin world, created by the versatile Finland-Swedish writer and artist Tove Jansson (1914–2001), is peopled with funny-shaped Moomins and a great variety of other creatures who may look a bit odd at first but who are very… human. Jansson’s books have been translated into more than 40 languages.
The Fillyjonk, for example, is a tall and thin female character who, according to Pia Ingström, ‘represents petty-bourgeois meanness, the absurdly neurotic and trivial, the ultimate in un-cool, with her cleaning mania and invitations to stiff and formal dinners….’ A boring character indeed – but she is capable of transforming herself completely at utter distress, such as the great storm that wipes away all her porcelain ornaments, liberating her for ever!
Sirke Happonen’s new Moomin character book is entitled Muumiopas (‘The Moomin guide’), and it is for adults rather than children. ‘In this world you cannot live without being one of the Moomin characters’, she claims – and this applies not only to Finns, who now drink even their mother’s milk from Moomin mugs and eat their porridge with a Moomin spoon: the branding of Moomin universe now includes almost everything, from apps to mitts, mouse mats to duvets, cookies to socks.
Muumiopas lists more than a hundred characters from the Moomin storybooks for children (1945–1977, about a dozen) and the Moomin comics series (1947–1975): these, 73 in all, created mostly by Tove’s brother Lars Jansson, were published in the English daily The Evening News, and were intended for adult readers.
Some of the best-known characters, such as Moomin family members, Snufkin, Fillyjonk, Little My and the Hemulen, Happonen provides with psychological interpretations: claiming there are human Fillyjonks and Snufkins, she gives instructions for the reader to recognise the type and/or to transform him- or herself into one.
Stinky, for example, is a villain of the Moomin world, a hairy and smelly creature whose attempted crimes nevertheless usually flop. If, however, you would like to try being Stinky, Happonen gives the following (‘aromatic’) advice: ‘Get an old fur vest and backcomb it as well as the rest of your hair. You can imitate Stinky’s smell by draining a bag of frozen shrimps and pouring the liquid into a spray bottle. Let stew for three days in room temperature. Spray evenly and abundantly into hair, onto skin and clothes. An extra quick result can be achieved by sprinkling Thai fish sauce all over yourself.’
Perhaps most readers would rather like to try being a Mymble, though: ‘If you have long hair, tie it into a bun that points straight up. If you haven’t got enough hair or you are, for example, a bald man, concentrate on thinking of your spine. Imagine a plumbline that points up to heaven. You rely on it, light and strong. When you go jogging or hurry along the streets or paths, open your eyes to note: this is how it is here – and just let it be. For you every step is a physical pleasure, the world is your big living room. Forget career prospects or at least thinking about them. Be glad, that’s all.’
Free your inner Moomin!
‘Here’s little Moomintroll, none other,
Hurrying home with milk for Mother,’
are the opening lines of Tove Jansson’s classic 1952 illustrated children’s tale of a sister lost and found, The Book about Moomintroll, Mymble and Little My, in the English poet and novelist Sophie Hannah’s beguiling translation. (Swedish original: Hur gick det sen? Boken om Mymlan, Mumintrollet och Lilla My; illustration: the Finnish version.)
The book has now been released as a smartphone app by the London publisher Sort Of Books and Helsinki’s WSOY in collaboration with the Finnish developer Spinfy.
At the tap of a finger, birds fly, forest creatures crawl up and down tree-trunks, flowers open and close, fish jump and hattifatteners wiggle. Unlike in the Japanese animated cartoons that have done so much to make the Moomins well-known worldwide, this is achieved without doing any violence to Jansson’s original graphics.
The app can be played either in text or, for very small children, read-to mode, voiced by the actor Sam West. Three more Moomin apps are scheduled for release later this year.
The style of Maria Vuorio’s books demands quiet concentration – but you could get quite hooked on their slow, thoughtful, gentle story-telling. Vuorio carries on the tradition of classic animal fables, following in the footsteps of Hans Christian Andersen, but with a personal twist. She is masterful in describing different emotional states – whether evoking the inner lives of humans or of anthropomorphised animals. Her stories and fairy tales hand the reader a magnifying glass that brings into view even the smallest, most insignificant creature or thing. The entire universe is present in the stories, for example when an earthworm ponders the meaning of life, a bear breaks into the National Museum, or a noxious insect imperils cultural exchange between Finland and Denmark. Talvitie has drawn an allegorical picture for each tale.
Translated by Fleur Jeremiah and Emily Jeremiah
This non-fiction book, intended for 8- to 14-year-olds, takes as its main character Charles Darwin, who as a child begins to ponder where people came from. Various myths about the origins of the world, achievements of European natural historians and problems of early evolutionary theorists are explored briefly but elucidatingly; they are linked to the acquisition of new knowledge as the church fathers continue to trust in the Bible. The prehistory of the Earth, evolution and natural selection, animal populations, man and his ancestors are explained with the aid of plentiful and humorous illustrations. Scientific results are interestingly presented, but a separate fact box, for example, on the structure of the cell or the nature of DNA might have been useful. In the last picture, the 200,000-year-old Homo sapiens is seen scrawling his cave paintings: ‘so long as we are genetically unique individuals, our evolution will never cease’.
Translated by Hildi Hawkins
Hannele Huovi and Kristiina Louhi, two eminent professionals in the field of children’s literature, have been collaborating for a long time. Their mutual trust is reflected in the way they grant each other artistic freedom, at times submitting to the text, at others to the illustrations. The depiction of the love story between a giant girl and a tiny man was an exceptional challenge for the illustrator; Tyyne’s tears nearly drown her tiny friend, and to see him properly, she needs a magnifying glass! Louhi has again kept her style economical, and she boldly paints large expanses of colour and forms. Alongside the unequal but happy love story, this picture book deals with tolerance. Tyyne’s enormous size effectively manifests her feeling that she is an outsider. The book also advocates a relaxed attitude to life and the avoidance of unnecessary strain. The example of the giant girl helps the reader to develop a sense of proportion and to realise the value of the everyday.
Translated by Fleur Jeremiah and Emily Jeremiah
It is great news that Leena Krohn has not abandoned the young readership she first addressed through her first book Vihreä vallankumous (‘The green revolution’, 1970), an ecocritical title that also touched on active citizenship. This novel, too, is about the encounter between man and nature. Ten-year-old Orvokki (Violet) is a delivery girl for a florist; like her, the reader is incited to marvel with naive curiosity at life’s various wonders. Krohn is supremely good at writing literature that knows no age limits. Nothing here will go over a child’s head; the essence of the book is accessible to all. In this nicely old-fashioned children’s novel the measured language and expression are pleasing both to the eye and the ear. The hand-coloured graphic prints by the artist (and writer’s sister) Inari Krohn are a homage to Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717), the German natural scientist and illustrator who produced life-like paintings of insects and plants.
Translated by Fleur Jeremiah and Emily Jeremiah