Current trends in Finnish illustrations – Modern and retro?

Jaana Pesonen

Esitys on pidetty Bratislavan kuvitusbiennaalissa 2019: ”Cult of the original illustration in the world of digital technology”.

Introduction to current trends in Finnish children’s literature illustrations

The technical processes of printing, including increasingly sophisticated ways of producing picturebooks, has been with us for quite a while, as Lawrence Sipe has argued already in 2010. Finland is quite known for the technology. Nokia, was, and still is, a Finnish company producing cellphones and other new technologies. Currently Finland is also known for its game industry. Companies such as Rovio and Supercell have become the ‘new Nokia’, producing games that have became global phenomena, examples of this are Angry birds and Clash of Clans, among others.

21st century is the century of digitalization. This, of course, has had its effects on illustrations. In Finland, among the most sold and borrowed picturebooks of the past decade are Tatu and Patu –series, by Aino Havukainen and Sami Toivonen. This series of books started in 2003,and now  includes more than 20 books, is created partly as drawn, and partly as digital work.

In Finnish education, the digitalization in learning and teaching has been a trend, some even believe, the solution, for the past decades. Our national curriculum, in both early childhood education, as well as in primary school, includes contents related to digital literacies and new technologies.

Having said all this, one might assume that I’m going showcase a cavalcade of illustrations done only with the newest technology. However, I will examine some of the current trends in Finnish children’s literature illustrations, and I will focus on illustrations that are both, modern and retro. I will further elaborate my talk with examining whether these trends showcase traditional or nostalgic styles. The examples that I will show, will be focusing, on, for example, colors, shapes and forms.

Retro – nostalgia – modern?

I will start by introducing a book called Ava ja oikukas trumpetti / Ava and the moody trumpet (2017). The text is by Anja Portin and illustration by Aino-Maija Metsola.  The book is about Ava, who is a little girl, who does not understand other children. She is lonely, but then she starts playing an old trumpet, that her grandmother has left for her.  She wants to find someone who would listen to her play the trumpet.


Metsola’s illustrations are colorful and graphical. The watercolor and ink drawings are soft, as well as powerful. Ava and the moody trumpet is also about loneliness and externality. For Ava, Finnish words are still strange and, and she is learning the new language. The importance of a voice is illustrated in a beautiful way.  Metsola’s style is original, however, there is an interesting resemblance to classical Marimekko’s color and shape.

Marimekko is a Finnish lifestyle design company renowned for its original prints and colors. The company’s product portfolio includes clothing, bags and accessories as well as home décor items ranging from textiles to tableware. When Marimekko was founded in 1951, its memorable printed fabrics gave it a strong and unique identity. Marimekko is known for bold stripes, as well as simple flowered prints such as the Unikko/ Poppy. It is interesting to examine some of Marimekko’s prints alongside with the illustrations, since Marimekko could be said to currently exemplify retro and nostalgia, but also modern style. In addition, some of Marimekko’s well-known prints, such as Juhannustaika / Midsummer spell, are designed Aino-Maija Metsola. The colours and, for example, shapes, in Aino-Maija Metsola’s work exemplify quite well how in illustrations retro and nostalgia combine with modern and current.

Another example of beautiful watercolor illustrations is Pallen ja Monkon kumma päivä/ Palle and Monko’s strange day by Jenni Rope (2017). Palle and Monko are little mushrooms, who feel bored in the quiet forest. They start painting trees, and then also each other, as well as all the other mushrooms. Rope uses pastel colors, and her style is distinctive and playful. With simple brush strokes she creates a simple, but lively world.

palle and monko

Also Jenni Rope has done prints for Marimekko. It is actually rather common in Finland, that the illustrators of children’s books have also done prints for clothing labels.  Retro style, here meaning specifically bold prints, have become more popular also among other clothing companies.  In the past years, also Finnish children’s clothing companies have utilized the retro style coming mostly from the 1960’s and 1970’s. As such, the nostalgia as a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past, is visible in many of these illustrations.

Marika Maijala is one of the current Finnish illustrators, whose style could be described to be retro. I will examine two books illustrated by her. Numerosoppa/ Number Soup (2018), is written by Juha Virta, and it is a book introducing the secrets of numbers, in a form of poems.

The bold use of color is a common feature in the illustrations by Marika Maijala. As Scandinavian design is often seen as sleek and minimalist, the bold patterns and colors stand out. However, despite the English word retro deriving from the Latin prefix retro, meaning backwards, or in past times, the current style in both examples here, book illustrations as well as prints, are not old-fashioned, but rather current


Marika Maijala has done also other books with Juha Virta. Another beautiful example is Piano karkaa/ The Piano’s Great Escape (2015). The book was nominated as one of the most beautiful books of the year. In The Piano’s great escape, the illustrations are fresh, and inspired by the 1960’s and 1970’s color scheme. According to the Finnish book art committee, it is a fantastic story, which starts from the special printed colors on the cover as well as on the sleeve. This is a fresh and fertile way to use today´s retro iconography and encapsulate the reader inside its world with every page.

According to a Finnish literature critic, Päivi Heikkilä-Halttunen (2016), the shapes, forms and colors in Finnish picturebooks  have already for a while been inspired by 1960’s and 1970’s. Examples of this are collage technique, flat color palettes, and simplified style.

Great examples of this retro and nostalgia are picturebooks Jellona suuri/ Lion the Great (2010) and Jellona toinen/ Lion the Second (2012) by Anne Vasko. The illustrations are done as fabric collage. The material used is old textiles from the 1970’s.

jellona toinen

As the second last example, I will introduce a book called Sorsa Aaltonen ja lentämisen oireet/ The Duck who was afraid to fly (2019).  The text is by Veera Aalto and the colorful illustrations done as acrylic on paper are by Matti Pikkujämsä. In short, the book is about a Duck, who lives in a city where everyone else’s lives are so interesting and important, they seem to have a purpose even in their everyday life.  The Duck, however, is having strange symptoms and anxiety, and the doctor diagnoses the condition as fear of flying. The Duck’s journey is about gaining confidence and forgetting about what others think.

Matti Pikkujämsä was also chosen as the illustrator of year in 2019. His style is described as combining decades of Nordic design with a fresh perspective. Also Pikkujämsä, like many of the illustrators introduced, has done prints for clothing labels, such as Marimekko.

sorsa aaltonen

As the last example, I will introduce a book called Mur, eli karhu / A Bear called Mur (2016), which is written Kaisa Happonen, and illustrated by Anne Vasko. Mur is a different kind of bear: s/he does not want to sleep during the winter. That’s how Mur’s long, dark and boring winter begins.  The illustrations are very colorful, and done with a collage technique. Vasko explains (2017), that for her, the focus is in the shapes, not in the outlines. The atmosphere is created with the composition, and with different surfaces and textures. The world of Mur shares similar, bold colors and patterns such as Marimekko’s famous Unikko/Poppy.

With the examples, I have aimed to display how in Finnish illustrations, the retro and modern collaborate in many interesting ways.  One fascinating example of such collaboration is the Mur –application, created by Step in Books (SIB). The application is interactive, and it is created to complement the picturebook, to ’bring to life’, with the help of augmented reality, the world of Mur. This means, that the child, and the adult too, can step in to the forest with Mur the bear. Mur-application won the Bologna Ragazzi Digital Award), and the Japanse Digital Ehon Award in 2017. Mur shows, how such collaboration, which utilizes the new technology, can still emphasize the role of the book, but also honor the esthetic experience. In all, it seems that traditions have not disappeared from the illustrations, but they appear through nostalgia.


(Short video about the function of the Mur-application accessible:

Introduced books

Ava ja oikukas trumpetti / Ava and the moody trumpet (2017). Portin A and illustration by Metsola, A-M.

Jellona suuri/ Lion the Great (2010) and Jellona toinen/ Lion the Second (2012) by Anne Vasko.

Mur, eli karhu / A Bear called Mur (2016). Happonen K and illustration by Vasko A.

Numerosoppa/ Number Soup (2018).  Virta, J. and illustration by Maijala, M.

Pallen ja Monkon kumma päivä/ Palle and Monko’s strange day (2017). Rope, J.

Piano karkaa/ The Piano’s Great Escape (2015). Virta, J. and illustration by Maijala, M.

Sorsa Aaltonen ja lentämisen oireet/ The Duck who was afraid to fly (2019).  Aalto, V and illustration by Pikkujämsä, M.

Other literature

Heikkilä-Halttunen, P. (2016) Kuvakirja tulvii svengiä ja kahvilakulttuuria. Helsingin Sanomat.

Sipe L. (2010). The art of the picturebook. In Shelby A. Wolf, Karen Coats, Patricia Enciso, & Christine Jenkins (Eds.) Handbook of Research on Children’s and Young Adult Literature.

Vasko, A (2017) MUR, eli karhu, joka siirtyi paperilta ruudulle. Virikkeitä 2,2017.


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