According to a celebrated 2003 report, Finnish schoolchildren emerged as world leaders in mathematics, science, literacy and problem-solving. In his books for children, the writer Timo Parvela, himself a former teacher, reveals a keen understanding of the mayhem that must lie behind such assessments. Interview by Anna-Leena Ekroos
Timo Parvela (born 1964) has received a particularly enthusiastic response to his Ella series for primary school-aged readers. Parvela has written picture books, CD-Rom scripts, books for young people and scripts for television and radio. His popular Ella series records the adventures of second-grader Ella and companions, including Pate, the headteacher’s son who’s fond of disguises, Tuukka, the young genius, Samppa, the copious weeper, and the pugnacious Buster. The gang of kids means well, but somehow, through misunderstandings, things always end in chaos.
In Varokaa lapsia! (‘Look out for children!’), the newest Ella book and eleventh in the series, they end up in the soup again. The mess begins when the children suspect that their teacher is ill, and a yarn unfolds that mixes, among other things, a giant duck-billed flying squirrel, school inspectors, a pilfered doctor’s coat, and a teaching teepee.
A-L E Where do the steady stream of Ella stories come from?
T P I wish I knew. Maybe there’s an eight-year-old living inside me. Or, even more worrying, maybe there are several.
A-L E Do you get a lot of feedback from the Ella stories? What kind of feedback do you get?
T P I do. According to the feedback I receive, they’re rather silly books.
A-L E Is it different writing for children than it is writing for adults, generally speaking?
T P If you think about the work – blood, sweat and tears – the answer is no. My own language contains a lot of humour, and putting it together is a considerable puzzle, grinding it out, tightening it up. I certainly don’t experience it as easy in any way. On the other hand, I don’t believe the claim you often hear that children are a particularly demanding audience to write for, either. You can write trash just as well for them as you can for adults, and do fine. The challenge is to write well, all the time, every time. You wreck your head, neck and nerves in the process, but it’s rewarding, too, whether your audience is adults or children.
A-L E That sort of comedy is undoubtedly the elixir of the Ella series. Is writing something funny a cheerful task?
T P At its best, yes. A new insight, a surprising turn, Pate, or the teacher often makes me smile, sometimes even laugh out loud. But sometimes making comedy is a strenuous and demanding task that starts out making you smile and ends up being a slog and a grind. In the Ella books there are a lot of scenes that took off flying as soon as they were born, but there are even more that were the result of a tough give and take, grinding it out.
A-L E Is it possible to predict what will make young readers laugh?
T P Pee and poo are funny, but farts are the funniest of all. Kids the same age may laugh at very different things, depending on their language at the moment and other developmental factors. But yes, you can make children laugh in a very calculating way by sticking with bathroom humour. There are abundant examples of that kind of book in existence. I myself would hope that in my books there is no separation between comedy for children and comedy for adults. There’s just good comedy, humour in fact, because that’s a language that can speak to people of many different ages at the same time. I don’t fret over whether children can understand everything in my books. Perhaps the best situation is when they end up asking their parents and each other questions now and then – and hey presto, a literary discussion ensues.
A-L E Over the course of the series Ella has moved up from first to second grade – the whole gang actually was held back at one time. Will Ella and her friends continue to grow up?
T P No. Ella will be a second-grader forever. If we make it to the end of the school year again, Ella, her friends, and her teacher will stay in the same class again, I’m sure. And it’s right for them. No, but seriously, third graders are big enough that the style of the Ella books won’t feel true to their experience any more. As time goes on, the series has changed until, in the last four books, there is about three or four times as much text as there was before. It comes from my desire for broader stories, deeper truths, and more readers.
A-L E You’re a schoolteacher by education, and before you became a freelance writer you worked for six years as a teacher. Does your former profession show in your books?
T P I’m sure I never would have created the Ella books if I didn’t have a background as a teacher. It’s only recently that I’ve realised that I’ve continued my career as a teacher virtually, by becoming a writer. It’s better this way, though. If I had become a teacher like the one in the Ella books, I’m sure Finland would have fared much worse in the PISA study of learning.*
A-L E What do you think about instructional children’s books? Are there reasons they should be that way?
T P No reasons, but in my opinion they can be instructional. It’s sometimes a pain in children’s books when people try to use brute force to find something instructive, some moral or something else to justify the book’s existence. A children’s book can be, as they say, entertainment. I’ve written both sorts, and every sort in between.
A-L E You have two children. Does your family do a lot of reading at home?
T P We used to read bedtime stories, until my daughter Hilma started middle school. I recently borrowed Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and I’m trying to sell it as our new evening project. I’ve also hung a string from the ceiling and I’ve fastened two-euro coins to it with clothes-pins. I put a stack of books on both my kid’s desks, and whenever a book gets read, they can take a coin from the string. All’s fair in love, war, and stimulating your children’s interest in reading.
A-L E Books do have a lot of competitors now, fighting for children’s leisure time – do you believe that the printed word will hold its own?
T P We’ll always need stories. Without stories there wouldn’t be any history of today, or any future time. Without stories we would be like dogs whose masters have left them at home. They sit behind the closed door and they can’t understand what’s on the other side. The world ends at that door, because dogs don’t have any stories. For us people, the other side of the door is Narnia.
A-L E If you could be a character from a story, what character would you be?
T P Winnie the Pooh. Then I’d be a good and loyal friend.
Translated by Lola Rogers
* The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an internationally standardised assessment that was jointly developed by participating countries and administered to 15-year-olds in schools. At least 58 countries will participate in the third assessment in 2006.
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About the writer
Anna-Leena Nissilä (née Ekroos, born 1968) is a journalist and literary critic who lives in Vaasa.
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