[review] Laura Ruohonen & Erika Kallasmaa: A Stalactite Case

9789511310006Laura Ruohonen
A Stalactite Case
Illustrated by Erika Kallasmaa
Otava 2017
ISBN 978-951-1-31000-6

A Stalactite Case is a much-awaited event on the Finnish children’s literature front! It is the third work of anarchistic children’s poetry by Laura Ruohonen and Erika Kallasmaa, authors of Allakka Pullakka (Otava 2004) ja Yökyöpelit (”Night Owls”, 2008). Its predecessors have been turned to a musical play at Helsinki City Theatre, a TV programme by Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE, a CD and a series of concerts. The characters of Allakka Pullakka and Yökyöpelit lead a life of their own. Also, A Stalactite Case has been turned into a musical play at the Finnish National Theatre Main Stage starting August of 2017.

A Stalactite Case consists of 33 amusing, anarchistic and somewhat sorrowful poems, the shortest being the “Sock Haiku”, a poem in three verses, and the longest comprising of six stanzas. Some poems have a distinctive meter, others do not. Nevertheless, all poems are highly repetitive, rich in end rhymes, word plays and puns, layouts and typography. Titles are handwritten as are some keywords and complete verses. Embedded in the illustrations, there are exclamations, notes and other bits of writing that support the actual poem.

Each poem forms its own individual entity with its own milieu, story and characters. Illustrations are closely connected to the poems. If two poems are placed on the same spread, illustration connect and combine them into one curious world. For example, there is a poem ”Vasta vastaan vihta” (”Vasta versus vihta”) that plays with a famous dialectic variations in the Finnish language, concerning the word used for a bath broom (made out of dried branches and leaves of a birch tree that are tied at one end into a handpiece). To put it very roughly, western part of Finland says vihta whereas the eastern part prefers vasta. On the same spread, there is a poem called ”Haaparannan Tapani” (”Stephen of Haparanda”, Tapani is both the Finnish equivalent of the name Stephen and the nominative form of  tapa ”habit” to which the possessive suffix ”ni” ”mine” is attached). Haparanda is a locality and the seat of Haparanda Municipality in Norrbotten County, Sweden. It is adjacent to Tornio, Finland. At the first glance, the two poems seem to be completely separate, but illustration binds them together to create a new meaning to the poems. The illustrations portray people on the Swedish side of the gulf (Gulf of Bothnia) dancing around a maypole and the Finnish side in the sauna.

A Stalactite Case introduces a whole range of bizarre, surprising, sympathetic and annoying characters, such as Ali-olio (Lowly creature), Manu Maaninen (Manu the Manic), Diktaatta the Dictator, Haaparannan Tapani, kutterikuski (cutterdriver) and Rämeämmä (old swamp woman). A few poems deal with ordinary children and their mothers, as in the realistic sounding poem ”Nirson lounas” (”A picky eater’s lunch”):

Mommy, are you death?
I’m sick and tired of rice porridge
and French fries make me mad.

I hate boiled eggs and butter
pizza pasta herrings
don’t you push your buns to me.

Milk is wet
beef I dread
meat soup is too fatty.

Mommy, don’t you even think about it
eat your icky porridge yourself
I want something better.

The jam is mellow
the cheese is gross
noodles taste stale.

Mommy, stop being so pushy!
I insist on having only
flying pancakes for dinner!

Illustrations make no creature, place or event look ordinary or predictable. Kallasmaa turns every curious character into an even more imaginative and distinctive creation. Illustrations take a few words of the poem and create completely new, surprising and weird situations out of them. Sometimes illustrations cover events that are not mentioned in the text, for example you can find two characters from the duo’s first book Allakka Pullakka: a yellow bean, Seija the Soya Bean, and a strange brown turd who turns out to be a Swedish raisin, or rather råisin doing their thing on the pages of the book.

Themes, motives and style vary in every poem. Some poems make use of old, traditional verses and updates them to the 21st century. Some poems convey a story, such as the melancholic Rämeämmä.

The old woman of the forestry swamp
groans and snaps
grunts and brawls
bubbles and boils
gargles a grudge
with every grunt
she swallows more mud.

Nobody knows
why she makes such a noise.

Sometimes in the night she sobs
and no one can hear her.

Behind Rämeämmä’s crude facade is a lonely and vulnerable person. Similarly, the silly nonsense on the surface hides many layers and depth of the poems in A Stalactite Case. This is a book that lights up every time it is read aloud -over and over again!

Jutta Setälä


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