Mennään jo naapuriin
Let’s Go and Meet Our Neighbour
Illustrated by Salla Savolainen
Vellamo, the eight-year-old main character in the picture book Let’s Go and Meet Our Neighbour tells:
In kindergarten I’ve learned to say ’hi’ in many languages. Some children in my kindergarten speak different languages at home and in kindergarten. Also, in my school, some children have a different first language, religion, diet or skin colour than me. I wonder what it is like in those homes? I guess I have to ring the doorbell to find out.
The book introduces families with small children, whose ’cultural capital comes from many parts of the world’ that all live now in the Helsinki area. Families and their stories aren’t fiction; the writer Riina Katajavuori and illustrator Salla Savolainen have actually visited almost two dozen families in their homes. Interestingly, they have also written and illustrated themselves in the book. This adds to realistic nature of the book. The book includes information on different cultures and countries. Nevertheless, Let’s Go to Meet Our Neigbour is not non-fiction, either. It is a depiction of one-of-a-kind individuals with their unique life stories, not mere representations of their culture.
Vellamo, her mother and Salla go to visit Ghanaian, U.S., Syrian, Vietnamese, Latvian-Italian and Greek-Brazilian families. Each family has their own story to tell. The children in the families tell about their family history, combining the stories of all family members. The youngest child is just a baby. Philippine Lianne’s mother moved to Finland to become a cleaner when Lianne was 21 months old. Mother took Lianne to Finland when Lianne turned seven and could go to school in Finland. Eugene is originally from Ghana where his father was king of his tribe. He has a throne in the living room. Vy is from Vietnam and thinks Vietnam is a hot place with lots of people. Finland, on the other hand, is peaceful with lots of fresh air. Ahmed comes from Iraq. His journey to Finland took 34 days. Now he is interested in ice hockey and skating.
The children’s’ stories have many twists and turns just like oral story telling tends to have. First, the children tell about their family history and next they start to talk about visits to the swimming hall. Their points of interest are schoolwork, hobbies, toys, but also culture, food and identity. They think about their identity and what it is like that their parents have moved from one country to another. For example, Salsabiila’s father, a Somali, thinks that Africans will always be Africans no matter where they live. Salsabiila feels differently, she doesn’t think of herself as ’African’. Maybe she is something between a Finn and a Somali. Léona finds it curious that people talk to her Icelandic mother Finnish and her Iraqi father English, even though her dad has lived in Finland since he was seven years old.
The texts are rather long and incoherent. There is no distinctive red line to them. If younger children find it difficult to concentrate on the story, they can look for Vellamo’s toy hedgehog who is hidden in every spread.
The book begins with a map indicating the countries where children’s’ parents have come from. Each story bears a specific number which makes it easier to combine the story with the location on the map.
Savolainen sketched the illustrations in the homes as she visited them. This adds to the pictures’ realistic and tangible quality. Savolainen excels at depicting real people with their different characteristics, gestures and positions. One can almost sense the atmosphere, laughter, murmur and children’s’ voices in the homes. The homes are illustrated in great detail. They are a mixture of ordinary Finnish interior, Ikea furniture, and more exotic items, fabrics, and furniture. Katajavuori told in an interview for Kulttuuricocktail radio programme of Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE that the illustrator Savolainen had also anticipated colourful exotics and echoes from distant homes.
All homes had white walls like so many other homes in Finland, and furniture from a certain Swedish furniture company. There were empowering sentences written on the walls in English, such as ’Laugh every day’. They drank milk, dried out their rain bibs, did cross-country skiing and looked forward to the summer. Typical Finnish stuff.
Let’s Go to Meet Our Neighbour is an interesting journey to different homes with a wide range of various families. As Katajavuori notes: ’Everyone is excited to tell their own story when someone stops and asks them. Every encounter, every story is different and surprising.’ On the other hand, families aren’t only different, they are also very similar. All families wish to combine their culture with Finnishness. All families valued their homes, life in peace, going to work, day-care and school, routines, learning new things and having hobbies.
Let’s Go to Meet Our Neigbour is an independent sequel to the same writer-illustrator duo’s picture book Let’s Go Home (Mennään kotiin, Tammi 2007) in which they visited Finnish homes without immigration background.