Finnish Children’s Literature Mirrors Reality in Society and Keeps the Flag High for Multiculturalism

Päivi Heikkilä-Halttunen

Recently, the world has been in awe about the Finnish maternity package (see f. e. Lee 2013). The package has been provided by Kela since 1938 for the poor and later, from 1949 onwards, for every expectant mother in Finland. The package includes clothes and other necessities for the newborn. According to Kela webpages: “A maternity grant is, as you prefer, a maternity package or a tax-free sum of money totalling 140 euros” (Kela 1). “As a rule, Kela provides financial assistance to families with children in accordance with the same principles regardless of the type of family” (Kela 2). Maternity grant is available also to adoptive parents who live in Finland or are covered by the Finnish social security system (see Kela 3). (For more information, see Kela 1).

Since 1982, the maternity package has included a cardboard book. This is meant to encourage the parents to read to the child from early on. Until the beginning of the current millennium, the majority of cardboard books available in Finland were translations, but lately a new generation of designers and graphic designers have excitedly produced picture books for the smallest in the family, often utilising retro-inspired artistic styles and colour schemes.Erkintalo_värejä meressä

Aino-Maija Metsola, famous for the prints she has designed for Marimekko, has made two cardboard books, Colours and Counting (originally published in English by Wide Eyed Editions, translated into Finnish as Värit and Numerot, Nemo 2015). The Etana Editions publishing house, which is small and has an interesting profile (, has focused on graphically plain but vividly colourful picture books for small children (for example, Réka Kiraly, Yksi vielä, ’One more’, 2014; Jenni Erkintalo, Värejä meressä, ’Colours an Creatures’, 2014; Hanna Konola, Tuulen vuosi, ’A Year with the Wind’, 2016).

Many of the new generation children’s book illustrators have chosen to use variations of the graphic form and colour schemes familiar from their own childhood in the 1970s and 1980s. This retro-inspired look is also strongly present in Finnish design, as many of the old fabric prints and designer artefacts have been taken back into production.

The transition years of the Finnish society have set new challenges for the education of literature. Unemployment, financial insecurity and social exclusion affects an increasing number of people. During the last few years, a large number of refugees has arrived in Finland, many of them families with children. Additionally, the number of children born in Finland who are in need of special support has been growing steadily. Only recently, the Finnish society has woken up to the ways exclusion, often beginning in early childhood, affects the person’s entire life. According to the international reading skill experiments (PISA and PIRLS) executed in the OECD countries, Finnish children and young people have a reputation as good readers. The experiments in question measure reading comprehension and reading skills instead of reading for fun. When leisure reading is being monitored, the results reveal that Finnish children have almost completely lost their motivation to read. Bearing this in mind, it is especially worrying that many of the big publishers have radically reduced the number of easy-reading children’s novels meant for those starting to learn to read.

Finland should not deceive itself with the good ranking results in the PISA and PIRLS experiments. It is necessary to react rapidly to the digitalisation of society, the weakening of reading skill results and the transformations of book markets. During the fall of 2014, a pilot project called “Finland’s new reading skills” started, supported by the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture (OKM). The project seeks to find out how reading with electronic devices affects the reading enthusiasm of fourth-graders.

The Ministry’s previous three-year-project (2012–2015) “The Joy of Reading” ( mapped and developed methods for motivating pupils between the age of 6 to 16 to read in schools and libraries. In accordance with its name, the aim of the project was to increase the joy of reading while also acknowledging multi-literacy.

In 2017, Finland celebrates its 100th year of independence and a major project for the year is “The Big Reading Adventure” by The Finnish Reading Center and the Institute of Children’s Literature. The project is part of the national program of celebrations. It highlights children’s literature and the joy of reading through events that take place throughout the year and are organised in collaboration with different agents. The Reading Center has also started a project called “Read to the Child”, which seeks to make more information on the benefits and joys of early reading for children available at maternity clinics and included in the maternity package.

In spite of the many Finnish campaigns aiming to support the reading of children and young people, there is a need for a new wide-ranging reading study that would cover all ages from babies to young adults. The last broad reading study was made at the break of the new millennium, just before the breakthrough of internet and digitalisation. I am proposing a study that will focus on the everyday reading habits of families and children and on parents’ attitudes towards reading. The harsh fact is that if the child does not read, the parent should take a long hard look in the mirror. A new study would provide more concrete information on the direction the reading of the new generation, which is educated in multi-literacy, will develop.

In Niina Hakalahti’s novels about Tuukka-Omar, multicultural identity and multilingualism are important.

For decades, adults have worried about the decrease in leisure reading and these discussions are shown in multiple ways in new children’s books. Contemporary Finnish authors of children’s and youth literature are innovatively representing – intentionally or unconsciously – the joys following from leisure reading. Their books often have main characters that have started literary hobbies at an early age, enabling them to enjoy their mother tongue and profit from their reading and writing skills. Maria Turtschaninoff’s Maresi, the heroine of Maresi. The Red Abbey Chronicle (Pushkin Press 2015, orig. Maresi. Krönikor från röda klostret, Schilds & Söderströms 2014) states matter-of-factly: “Reading has always helped me to understand the world better”. In Niina Hakalahti’s children’s novel Tuukka-Omar ja superkielitaito (’Tuukka-Omar and the Super Language Skill’, Tammi 2016, ill. Jukka Lemmetty), during the visit of his father’s relatives, the son of a Syrian father and a Finnish mother understands that multicultural identity and multilingualism form an important heritage. In Hannu Hirvonen’s and Virpi Penna’s picture book Pullopostia tietenkin! (’Message in a Bottle, of Course!’, Karisto 2015), the animals of the forest are delighted to finally understand the letter of invitation they have received.

The visibility in media of children’s and youth literature has decreased during the new millennium. Very few works receive expert, focused critique. The marketing is focused on the well-known, best-selling pieces and book stores accept in their collection an increasingly smaller portion of the yearly supply of over 1000 items of children’s and youth literature. At the same time, because of the economic depression, libraries in small municipalities are being closed. For a children’s book to find a reader, has become a question of luck.

The good news regarding book sales in 2015 was, however, that the book store sales of children’s and youth literature increased as much as 13 per cent, which resulted in an increase in overall book sales. This was the first time in eight years for book sales to increase in Finland.

Professionals following the developments in children’s literature know that many social phenomena appear in children’s books before they are dealt with in adult literature. It seems that the authors and illustrators of children’s books have an inborn ability to tackle current phenomena and bring issues connected to children’s everyday life into the daylight without hesitation. However, this is not about the general social political agenda of the 1970s and the 1980s that brought all the world’s problem for the children to bear. Contemporary children’s literature does not underestimate children’s ability to understand its topics, yet, compared to the previous decades, the unequivocal message of new children’s literature is that adults will always have the main responsibility for the child’s well-being. For example, Veera Salmi’s Mauri ja vähä-älypuhelin (’Mauri and The Dumb Phone’, Otava 2015, self-illustrated) is a universal description of everyday life, but at the same time it emphasises the increasingly multicultural social reality. The little boy Mauri’s best friend Bashir has to move back to Egypt to take care of his grandmother and their turtle. Mauri decides to dig a direct route from their yard to the housing complex in Egypt. The boy is also concerned about the future of rain forests.

Early education and primary school professionals have noticed that children have more and more difficulties with interaction and emotional skills. That is why contemporary children’s books teach children to recognize either their own feelings or the feelings of others and to function in a group. Children with special needs are increasingly integrated into regular day care groups and classes in schools, which has presented completely new challenges for maintaining peace for working. A good example of this is Satu Kontinen’s graphically plain lookbook Mokomaki – mikä tunne (’Mo-ko-ma-ki! What a Feeling!’, Myllylahti 2015), which encourages interaction and the recognition of different emotions.

The diversity of families has also been more widely present in recent children’s books. The subject has been approached in nonfiction picture books with documentary photo illustrations (see Katri Vuorinen, Tiina Eskola & Martti Lintunen, Meidän perhe, ’Our Family’, Pieni Karhu 2016); picture books (see Riina Katajavuori, Riikka Toivanen, Maiju Tokola & Christel Rönns, Meidän pihan perhesoppa, ’Pontus the Penguin Goes Visiting – How We Made Our Families’, Tammi 2015); and even in books for children who are only learning to read (see Tittamari Marttinen, Ikioma perheeni, ’My Very Own Family’, ill. Aiju Salminen, Pieni Karhu 2014). The last one tells the story of a child called Moon in an LGBT family. The child’s gender is not revealed to the reader in advance. In addition to the representations of different types of families, there is talk about maintaining family ties, the importance of friends and the joys of simply spending time together with loved ones.

The Finnish children’s literature aimed at 10-year-olds has a tradition of depicting goofing around and mishaps with word play and humour (for example, Timo Parvela’s Ella series and Sinikka and Tiina Nopola’s Richie Rapper series, Tammi). Adult colouring books and hobby books for the whole family, such as a book containing instructions for braiding hair, were top sellers in Finland in 2015. A similar kind of meditative slowing down has been found in children’s so-called books of silence. At best, they provide the child and the adult, reading together, a moment of rest in the middle of all the hurry and different demands imposed upon them. These kind of books also increase the self-knowledge and social skills of the child.

Hämärinkäinen is a good example of books of silence.

In the books of silence, the illustrations are in a dominant position: the wide landscapes can spread out as wide, calming surfaces of colour. Mila Teräs’s and Karoliina Pertamo’s Olga Orava ja metsän salaisuus (’Selma the Squirrel and the Secret of the Forest’, Lasten keskus 2014) and Hämärinkäinen (’Dimlin’, Karisto 2015) are good examples of picture books that meet the criteria for books of silence and are aimed at smaller children.

Tomi Kontio’s and Elina Warsta’s picture book Koira nimeltä kissa (’The Dog Called Cat’, Teos 2015), which has been nominated for the international honour list by IBBY Finland, is a book of silence suitable for different ages. The work was published in April 2015, just before the first wave of refugees reached Finland. The picture book reflected, in advance, the contemporary social situation: the widening of the gap between the rich and the poor and the economical downhill. Elina Warsta’s illustration plays a leading role in the story’s nuances: the pictures tell us things, which are marginal in the text. The book is evidence of the loving relationship between pictures and words, of the author and the illustrator respecting each other’s expression. This relationship is very rare in contemporary Finnish picture book art. The entity is harmonic, although the story and the illustrations form a constant, dynamic movement.

Visual expression is clearly increasing in novels directed at children and tweens. Even older children and the youth, already advanced in their reading hobby, prefer illustrated texts. Layout and typography play an increasingly important role in book selection. In Timo Parvela’s and Bjørn Sortland’s series Kepler62 (since 2015, WSOY), Pasi Pitkänen’s four-colour illustrations dominate the books in a good way. The illustrations, inspired by comic books and especially by manga, drive the story forward rapidly, sometimes even utilising spreads without text. In the scifi-adventure, which will grow up to a six-piece series released at a rapid pace, a group of children from all around the world are gathered to inhabit a faraway planet called Kepler62. In the first volume of the series, written by Timo Parvela and titled Kutsu (’The Call’), the story focuses on two brothers from Finland, who get invited to participate in an adventure via a videogame. The motto of the series is, “Be a part of the story”.

More and more ways, external to literature, are nowadays used to commit children and young people to read. The heroes of children’s novels can be familiar from TV-series, songs for children, movies, internet, theatre or digital games (for example, Rovio Entertainment’s Angry Birds cardboard books, Tammi 2012).

erikoiskoira-affeCelebrity actors, athletes or design professionals have excelled in becoming authors of children’s literature. An interesting precedent in this genre are Paola and Pirjo Suhonen, the sisters behind the brand Ivana Helsinki, whose children’s book debut is titled Erikoiskoira Affe: Talviseikkailu Lapissa (’Affe the Adventure Dog: A Winter Trip to Lapland’, Tammi 2015). The book contains open product placement: in addition to Paola Suhonen’s Ivana Helsinki collection, other Finnish design products and international brands are displayed prominently.

Contemporary family life is more and more concentrated on consumption, making items and brands a solid part of everyday life, even for the smallest of children. One might think that the picture book by Paola and Pirjo Suhonen boosts Finnish design, but it is nevertheless justified to ask what kind of marketing should be allowed to happen through children’s literature.

Nowadays the majority of Finnish children’s novels are published as a part of a series. The practice has pedagogical means: a child who has recently learned to read loves redundancy, predictability and continuation, spending time with their favourite heroes. The aim is to commit the children to a specific series by ending each part with a cliff-hanger. The series format also has its downsides: a full story, one with a clear beginning, a middle and an end, has become increasingly rare. The series format also means that books are published on a tight schedule. As readers, children and young people are not as loyal to a specific author or genre as adults, so they need to be committed to a new series through a very tight publishing schedule.

After Siri Kolu’s Me Rosvolat series (’The Robbersons’, since 2010, Otava), Tuutikki Tolonen’s Mörkövahti (’Monster Nanny’, Tammi 2015) seems to be the latest black horse in exported Finnish children’s literature. The translation rights have been sold to eight translation areas, including the United States and China. Monster Nanny praises the innovativeness and cleverness of children. The three siblings do not get distressed even when they find a non-speaking monster in a closet in their foyer. And it does not take long for even more monsters to appear in the neighbourhood. The narration in Monster Nanny is joyful and sparkling. The grumpy monsters and their story of origin sets themselves into a continuum with the wildlings of folktales, the Groke from Tove Jansson’s Moomin series and Maurice Sendak’s monsters in the picture book Where the Wild Things Are.

Soiva_metsa_kansiThe anniversary of the end of the WWII in 2015 was not addressed in Finnish children’s literature. However, the 150th year since the birth of Jean Sibelius produced three different children’s books revolving around his life and work. One of the books, Katri Kirkkopelto’s picture book Soiva metsä – Jean Sibeliuksen matkassa (’Melody Forest – Jean Sibelius’, Lasten Keskus 2015), was distributed to all Finnish primary schools with support from the Ministry of Education and Culture. The book included a CD of the pianist Nazig Azezian’s and cellist Jussi Makkonen’s interpretations of Sibelius’s music. The duo has toured Finnish schools with this repertoire. This makes it interesting to see what the 100th anniversary of Finnish independence brings to children’s and youth literature.

FT, docent Päivi Heikkilä-Halttunen works as a freelancer researcher of children’s and youth literature. She is also a critic, an educator and a non-fiction author. Her criticism of children’s and youth literature appears regularly in Helsingin Sanomat, Kuvittajat-magazine and her blog, Lastenkirjahylly ( Heikkilä-Halttunen is an assisting member of the Finnish jury of the Nordiska rådet’s Nordic children’s and youth literature prize. Her latest book, ’Read to the Child, a Guide to Children’s Literature Education’ (orig. Lue lapselle. Opas lasten kirjallisuuskasvatukseen, Atena 2015), deals with the subject of children’s pleasure reading from the age of 0 to 12. The book combines the latest research and practical tips, encouraging children to encounter books at home, in daycare, at school and in hobbies.


  • Erkintalo, Jenni 2014: Värejä meressä. (’Colours and Creatures’.) Etana Editions.
  • Hakalahti, Niina & Lemmetty, Jukka 2016: Tuukka-Omar ja superkielitaito. (’Tuukka-Omar and the Super Language Skill’.) Tammi.
  • Heikkilä-Halttunen, Päivi 2015: Lue lapselle. Opas lasten kirjallisuuskasvatukseen. (’Read to the Child, a Guide to Children’s Literature Education’.) Atena.
  • Hirvonen, Hannu & Penna, Virpi 2015: Pullopostia tietenkin! (’Message in a Bottle, of Course!’.) Karisto.
  • Katajavuori, Riina & Toivanen, Riikka & Tokola, Maiju & Rönns, Christel 2015: Meidän pihan perhesoppa. (’Pontus the Penguin Goes Visiting – How We Made Our Families’.) Tammi.
  • Kela 1:
  • Kela 2:
  • Kela 3:
  • Kiraly, Réka 2014: Yksi vielä. (’One more’.) Etana Editions.
  • Kirkkopelto, Katri 2015: Soiva metsä – Jean Sibeliuksen matkassa. (’Melody Forest – Jean Sibelius’.) Lasten Keskus.
  • Kolu, Siri 2010: Me Rosvolat. (’The Robbersons’, since 2010) Otava.
  • Konola, Hanna 2016: Tuulen vuosi. (’A Year with the Wind’.) Etana Editions.
  • Kontinen, Satu 2015: Mokomaki – mikä tunne. (’Mo-ko-ma-ki! What a Feeling!’.) Myllylahti.
  • Kontio, Tomi & Warsta, Elina 2015: Koira nimeltään Kissa. (’The Dog Called Cat’.) Teos.
  • Lee, Helena 2013: Why Finnish babies sleep in carbboard boxes. BBC News Magazine, June 4 2013,
  • Marttinen, Tittamari & Salminen, Aiju 2014: Ikioma perheeni. (’My Very Own Family’.) Pieni Karhu.
  • Metsola, Aino-Maija 2015: Colours. Wide Eyed Editions. Finnish translation: Värit. Nemo.
  • Metsola, Aino-Maija 2015: Counting. Wide Eyed Editions. Finnish translation: Numerot. Nemo.
  • Parvela, Timo & Sortland, Bjørn & Pitkänen, Pasi 2015: Kepler62: Kutsu. (’Kepler62: The Call.’) Tammi.
  • Salmi, Veera 2015: Mauri ja vähä-älypuhelin. (’Mauri and The Dumb Phone’.) Otava.
  • Sendak, Maurice 1963: Where the Wild Things Are.
  • Suhonen, Paola & Suhonen, Pirjo 2015: Erikoiskoira Affe: Talviseikkailu Lapissa. (’Affe the Adventure Dog: A Winter Trip to Lapland’.) Tammi
  • Teräs, Mila & Pertamo, Karoliina 2015: Hämärinkäinen. (’Dimlin’.) Karisto.
  • Teräs, Mila & Pertamo, Karoliina 2014: Olga Orava ja metsän salaisuus. (’Selma the Squirrel and the Secret of the Forest’.) Lasten Keskus.
  • Tolonen, Tuutikki & Pitkänen, Pasi 2015: Mörkövahti. (’Monster Nanny’.) Tammi.
  • Turtschaninoff, Maria 2014: Maresi. Krönikor från Röda klostret. (Maresi. The Red Abbey Chronicle, Pushkin Press 2015.) Schilds & Söderströms.
  • Vuorinen, Katri & Eskola, Tiina & Martti Lintunen 2016: Meidän perhe. (’Our family.’) Pieni Karhu.


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