Growing together. New Finnish children’s books

28 January 2011 | Articles

Hulda knows what she wants! From the cover of a new picture book by Markus Majaluoma (see mini reviews*)

What to choose? A mum or dad buys a book hoping it will be an enjoyable read at bedtime – adults presume a book is a ‘good’ one if they themselves genuinely enjoy it, but children’s opinions may differ. Päivi Heikkilä-Halttunen reviews the trends in children’s literature published in Finland in 2010, and in the review section we’ve picked out a handful of the best on offer

Judging by the sheer number and variety of titles published, Finnish children’s and young people’s fiction is alive and well. If I had to describe the selection of books published in 2010 in just a few words, I would have to point to the abundance of titles and subject matters, and the awareness of international trends.

Since 2000 the number of books for children and young people published in Finland each year – including both translated and Finnish titles – has been well in excess of 1,500, and increasing, and this growth shows no signs of slowing down.

Little boys, ten-year-olds who don’t read very much and teenage boys, however, were paid very little attention last year. Although gender-specificity has never been a requirement of children’s fiction, boys are notably pickier when it comes to long, wordy books, especially those that might be considered ‘girly’.

Despite its female protagonist, Siri Kolu’s novel Me Rosvolat (‘Me and the Robbersons’) defies such strict pigeonholes. The book is an example of successful ‘branding’, a feature increasingly common in contemporary children’s literature. The manuscript won a competition organised jointly by the publisher Otava and Kinoproduction Oy, and the book is currently being turned into a film due for release in 2012. Part of the rubric for competition entrants was to come up with a pre-prepared marketing strategy and a brand that could be easily transferred to different media, principally film.

Young people’s fiction has offered only a pale reflection of recent debates surrounding societal and individual values; authors seem content merely to repeast the old clichés of youth. At their most interesting, young people’s novels have examined current ecological topics, as in one of the subplots in Marja-Leena Tiainen’s depiction of a young man growing up in the novel Päin mäntyä (‘Messed up’).

The unfortunate lack of interaction between young people’s literature and ‘adult’ literature is reflected in the fact that the adult author Leena Lehtolainen’s latest crime novel Minne tytöt kadonneet (‘Where have all the girls gone?’), and Anja Snellman’s Parvekejumalat (‘The balcony gods’), were lauded as being among the first realistic depictions of immigrant life in Finnish literature, when in fact the subject was tackled in numerous books for children and young people published during the 1990s!

Nowadays there are far fewer independent novels for young people: the majority of young people’s novels form part of a larger series, which may lead to a watering down of the intensity of the narration. That said, many authors have come up with interesting variations to the series format, good examples of which are Salla Simukka’s Tapio and Moona series (published since 2006) and Terhi Rannela’s Kerttu and Mira series (2008–10).

With the rise in interest in international fantasy literature, Finnish fantasy for young people has been picked up by several foreign publishers. Seita Parkkola’s Viima (‘Chill’, 2006), a novel for young adults combining magic realism and urban fantasy, has crossed the publishing threshold in the United States (The School of Possibilities, Sourcebooks Inc, 2010) and France (Actes Sud Junior, forthcoming spring 2011). Underfors (‘Underville’), a modern troll story by Maria Turtschaninoff, is a natural continuation of strong tradition of fantasy based on quirky and lively depictions of nature established in Finland-Swedish children’s literature by Irmelin Sandman Lilius.

The world of picture books seems rich and diverse: established illustrators Kristiina Louhi, Leena Lumme and Markus Majaluoma are all in fine form, and their success is helping many younger illustrators to come to prominence. The success of picture books can often be explained through the intensive collaborative work common to the genre: author and illustrator work together to create the best possible final product. The collaboration between Riitta Jalonen and Kristiina Louhi has continued since Tyttö (‘Girl’), a trilogy of picture books, with their new book Aatos ja Sofia (‘Aatos and Sofia’), an excellent example of the modern picture book: aesthetically honed down to the last detail, it is a work that transcends all age barriers.

*) Markus Majaluoma: Hulda kulta, luetaan iltasatu! (‘Hulda dear, let’s read a bedtime story’)

Translated by David Hackston

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