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Spring had come to the forest homeland. The wood anemones were raising their heads shyly from under the moss, large tears of joy were flowing down the spruce trees’ beards of lichen, and sky-ploughs of cranes were coming from the south. They bugled mightily on their trumpets and then landed in the Great Marsh to sample the cranberries.
The springtime elves danced every day on the sunny slopes and swept the last remnants of snow into the melting brooks. Birch leaves were opening their little ears, the grass began to grow green, and already the swallows were coming; but the great tits that had been wintering in the corners of the house escaped to the shadowy pine forests.
But I was supposed to be describing the forest folk and their trip to Helsinki…
During those days Reynard the Fox was hard at work. He was wearing greasy overalls, his pockets were stuffed with nuts, bolts and spanners, and his paws and whiskers were thick with engine grease. He was fixing up his old Ford, which had been tucked away under a fir tree for the winter. For last summer, at auction, Reynard had bought a Ford, with which he’d then been running a taxi-service up and down the forest paths.
Now, in the evening, after working away at his car all day, in, out, underneath and on top of it, he’d finally got it going. He switched on the engine, sat at the wheel, tooted his horn with the pride of a proper motorist and lauded the car:
‘Just like new it is, now…’
Well, there was a little truth in what he was saying: he’d painted his car till it was spick, span and shiny, and he’d patched up the tyres. But from its model you could see it was at least five years old, and everyone knows that cars that age are already over the top.
On the edge of a sunny forest-clearing there was also quite a bit going on. Mr and M rs Chaffinch had just become domiciled after their travels abroad and had been building a nest in the fork of a bird-cherry tree. When the nest was ready and Mrs Chaffinch had laid her eggs and settled down to hatch them out, the hares, Crosslip and Bobtail, turned up, wanting news of the great world. So did Samuel Squirrel, waving his bushy tail. And Mr Chaffinch, who now had lots of time on his claws, began to talk about the foreign lands he’d seen on his travels. He told them about the sea with the ships sailing across it, and the great cities where people swarmed like ants.
The pals sat with pricked ears, their eyes shining as they listened to Chaffinch’s chatter, and little by little they were overcome by a strange restlessness – travel fever.
‘I’d very much like to see a city,’ Crosslip said.
‘Me too,’ sighed Bobtail.
‘Listen, Chaffinch’ Samuel said. ‘We can’t go on long trips, because we haven’t got wings, but don’t you know of any city somewhere he ÷reabouts that we too could go and see?’
‘It’s not all that far from here to the country’s capital, Helsinki,’ Chaffinch pointed out. ‘If Reynard the Fox would give you a lift in his Ford, you’d be there in half a day. It’s certainly worth the trip, for it’s one of the loveliest cities I’ve ever seen. And then you ought to get him to drive you down to the harbour and have a look at the sea and the fountain in the marketplace, and then off to the Esplanade to look at the statue of Runeberg.’
The pals went dashing off to Reynard and told him their plan for travel.
‘Mjuh,’ said the fox, smoothing his whiskers thoughtfully. ‘Very long way it is, petrol’s expensive, and could be my licence’s not quite legal.’
The fox was uneasy about leaving the forest paths for the main road, since a few visits to hen runs were weighing on his conscience, and he was afraid they might get him into bother. But when the others had half pestered him to death and said they’d pay him handsom eely, the love of money brought him round, and he promised to take them. They decided they’d go the next day, and then they all went their own ways.
At dawn the next day the sun was shining particularly beautifully. The two bunnies had put together a big bundle of supplies for the journey, but Samuel had breakfasted so well he thought he’d be all right the whole way. The hares sat at the back, but Samuel hopped onto the tip of the radiator, as there’d be the best view from there. Reynard started the engine, tooted his horn, and they were off.
In a flash they were out of the forest paths and onto the highway and then they began to press on to Helsinki. The villages dropped behind them, the houses went by like the wind, and a lot of hens were in danger of being run over.
Not many hours went by before the travellers were whizzing in through the old customs gatehouse of Töölö. First they did a quick tour of the town, and then Reynard drove the car to the market place.
It happened to be Sunday and the market place was empty, but anyway there were lots of new and wonderful sights for the forest folk to see. For the first time they were looking at the sea glittering in the sunlight, the ships in the harbour, and white terns and seagulls sporting about over the water.
Then Reynard drove to the Esplanade and stopped near the statue of Runeberg. The travellers got out to stretch their legs and have a closer look at the statue.
‘Look at those lovely flowers growing over there!’ Crosslip said, pointing admiringly at the flower beds round the statue.
‘I bet they smell lovely,’ Bobtail cried, going closer.
‘And taste jolly good too,’ Crosslip said, unable to stop himself picking a tulip.
‘Hey, you chaps’ Samuel warned.’You mustn’t touch the flowers!’ But the hares were already into the beds, smacking their lips over the tulips.
But immediately something terrible happened. A huge policeman came running up, waving his arms and shouting:
‘What do you think you’re doing, you devils, spoiling the flowers! I’ll show you! Off to the clink, the two of you!’
The forest folk got a bad scare and all took to their paws. Samuel hopped onto Runeberg’s shoulder and then off to a lime tree. Reynard hid under his car. But the hares began leaping along the Esplanade.
It so happened that just now was the time for the annual spring races. The Helsinki Marathon was on. A long line of runners were bashing down the street, and the hares happened to find themselves just in the lead. They thought a whole gang were after them in major force. They speeded up till their ears lay flat on their fur. Now and again they took a look back but went bounding on, because there they were, the pursuers, still obstinately at their heels.
But finally, when their hearts were just about to burst, the hares arrived at Töölö. That was where the race ended, and the hares st ared wide-eyed when the crowd near the finishing post welcomed them with joy.
‘Bunnies, bunnies, bunnies! Hip hip hurray,’ cheered the crowd.
Crosslip and Bobtail realised they’d done a deed of prowess: they’d won the Helsinki Marathon.
The Judge who gave the prizes was just beginning his speech when Samuel Squirrel arrived. Samuel had in fact leaped along the Esplanade from lime tree to lime tree, and then climbed onto a roof and leaped from roof to roof. In this way he’d arrived at the finishing post almost at the same time as the hares.
Crosslip and Bobtail were rewarded with a big box of biscuits and rusks, and Samuel was awarded a bag of nut chocolates.
Finally Reynard, having recovered from his panic, turned up. The travellers climbed into the car amid loud applause and set off out of all this hubbub, back to their dear forest homeland.
This handsome non-fiction book is a lavishly illustrated biography of the 15th-century Italian artist genius Leonardo da Vinci. The title refers to the fact that he employed ‘mirror’ writing in his diaries and notebooks. Art historian Marjatta Levanto has published several works on art for children and young people, and many of them have been illustrated by Julia Vuori. Leonardo introduces to the reader the world of the Italian renaissance, the artist’s astonishing and unique inventions – such as various human flying devices – his philosophical writings, his anatomical studies and his magnificent paintings and drawings. Julia Vuori’s amusing little vignettes and larger, colourful illustrations comment on the narrative and mingle with the text and the reproductions of Leonardo’s artwork. Some pictures are printed on transparent pages. This beautiful book is a treasure trove to a reader of any age.
Timo Parvela has achieved acclaim and won readers both in Finland and abroad – in Germany in particular. His Maukka ja Väykkä (Purdy and Barker) series of children’s novels will also soon be published in Great Britain. The Ella series for beginning readers now includes no less than 17 books, and now Pate, one of Ella’s supporting characters, has got his own series. The international counterpart of Paten aikakirjat – abundantly illustrated by Pasi Pitkänen – might be someone like Jeff Kinney, illustrator for Diaries of a Wimpy Kid. After living aborad for many years, Pate’s Uncle Pentti makes a bustling entrance into Pate’s life. Timo Parvela delights as usual with his trademark contrasts between children and slightly weird adults. In between comic mishaps are tons of easy-to-read dialogue, comics and lists of silly things.
The picture book surprise of the year is Puuseppä, the first book in the Tales by trees trilogy, launched with fanfare by Books North, a new small press, and extremely polished in appearance. The story pays homage to the classic tales of Zacharias Topelius and H.C. Andersen. The carpenter of the story is under the special protection of the emperor, and has the time and money to make anything he wants. His chosen project is stupendous – to isolate himself for 30 years and build an enormous tree, using various types of wood and complicated construction techniques. He forgets his family and finally wears himself out in the process. The story closes with a sly moral reflective of Finnish contemporary society, about forced labour, the pressures of working life, and the value of work. Comics artist Ville Tietäväinen’s illustrations are tactile – the picture of tree rings makes you want to touch it and feel the rough texture of the cut wood. Books North is an offshoot of Agency North Oy, which specialises in promoting Finnish drama and film abroad.
Translated by Lola Rogers
Christmas-themed children’s books have a long tradition in Finland. Many new Christmas books appear every year to quench both children’s and adults’ Christmas fever. Japanese Tove Jansson fan Hiroko Motai (born 1972) approached Jansson’s Finnish publisher with her anarchic Santa Claus story with the hope that they would be interested in her idea. Motai’s story explains the miracle that happens every Christmas Eve: there are multiple Santas these days, because there’s no possible way that Santa could make it to the home of every child in the world in just one night. Versatile illustrator Marika Maijala has updated her image register by tightening up her earlier style. The rough chalk drawings brought to this reader’s mind drawings from her own school days. The sparse, naïve style is a excellent proof that a retro style can inspire an illustrator to create her own unique expressions.
Marja-Leena Mikkola (born 193x) has had a long career as a poet and translator. She has also written books for children and young adults, and Helmenkantaja shows her thorough familiarity with Anglo-Saxon fantasy fiction. Charles Kingsley’s Water Babies as well as H.C. Andersen’s little mermaid seem to glimmer in the background of this story. True to Mikkola’s ethos, the novel has a dose of ecocriticism in its theme of protection of a threatened pearl oyster. Reetta is fed up with looking out for her younger siblings at the family’s summer cabin; it feels as if the summer is slipping away. This everyday tale gradually breaks off into an exciting adventure in an underwater kingdom. The water boy, heir to the queen of the water, has to be rescued from the clutches of the water wizard. This difficult task requires a daredevil like Reetta, who, in additon to many other important qualities, has the gift of storytelling.
Suvi-Tuuli Junttila’s book combines assemblages and miniatures with winning originality. The exciting journey of the mitten, acorn and bottlecap from autumn to a new spring will inspire creative play and allows young readers to see everyday wonders from a new point of view. Illustration has always been more important than writing for designer and graphic artist Junttila (born 1979) – it is the pictures’ job to create their own story for the viewer. She always places her illustrations in the starring role and gives the text the task of suggestion. Junttila’s previous picture book, Missä, tässä, jossakin (‘Where, here, somewhere’, 2011) won first prize in the Mikkeli illustration triennial.
Réka Király, born in Hungary in 1977, has previously collaborated with fellow illustrator Marika Maijala. Her bright, harmonious fields of primary-colours are well suited to a story influenced by simple folk narratives that tells of animals coming one by one to stay in an uninhabited small cabin. As expected, the cabin creaks and cracks and finally breaks into a million pieces that fly into the air. Kiréaly’s simplified animal characters are very sympathetic. Yksi vielä is a good example of a picture book that develops a child’s sense of image and shape through clever visual inventiveness.
Bat boy is a compact picture book with sparse text and abundant pictures that are well-balanced – there is never too much or too little of either. A six-year-old named Ilmari changes into a bat boy who stalks people in the dim of evening. The book describes the feelings of a boy approaching school age with sensitivity – the story deals with defiance of adult authority, rules and restrictions. Ilmari can also be thought of as a special child who experiences the world differently than other kids his age. The day care he attends is presented in both text and pictures as a prison and the adult day care workers as guards. Maija Hurme’s watercolour illustrations have an anarchic energy. The comic strip narrative supports Ilmari’s feelings of aggression. His fantasies are presented as blue-toned photographs with white borders, but the colours of the home and park settings glow with a message of safety, caring and trust.
In recent years a large number of board books have appeared in Finland: many of the graphic artists and designers of the younger generation have taken an interest in them. The style is generally modern, but unfussy and easy for a child to make sense of. Graphic artist Jenni Erkintalo’s (born 1978) picture book debut is ebullient, in all its simplicity. With supple rhyming text and minimal drawings, little readers are guided through the beginnings of learning colours. The three primary colours give birth to new colours and the illustrations demonstrate the mixture of colours in a fun way. The book has thick cardboard pages that can stand up to even a two-year-old’s rough handling.
The adopted child’s story is already a familiar one from old classics of girl’s literature. This debut novel by Saku Heinänen, the story of Zaida, a girl adopted from India, draws on this tradition, yet Heinänen (born 1968), a professor in graphic design at Aalto University, succeeds in creating a fresh and original setting and sympathetic central characters. Zaida is used to talking openly with her parents, but bullying at school makes her withdraw into her shell. She gets her strength from a soul sister who understands her bad moods. This tension is what gives this novel its extraordinary suspense. Heinänen’s book doesn’t paint a child’s everyday life as idyllic – there are many kinds of secrets in one little family. Zaida’s uncle is prone to drink and melancholy, but the two are still close. Heinänen also illustrated the book and designed his own font – Freya – just for the book. His wife is children’s book author and illustrator Christel Rönns.
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