What is – or could be – ‘normal Finland’? – Examining anti-racism in Finnish children’s books

Jaana Pesonen

‘Then someone standing next to the skiing tract yells: – Hey, look at that black boy! He’s going fast. Is he trying to win or what? – It’s a deep voice, must be someone’s dad or brother. It sounds as if he thinks it would be bad if Marius won. The winner should be someone white, like everyone else.‘ (Aurinkopoika, [The Sunboy] 1986: 79, UllaMari Kellomäki)

‘Once on a bus, a man said, look at that boy, speaking Finnish so well, despite being black.  Iiris-Lilja got angry and said to him that speaking a language is not related to skin colour. At home, mum said it was well put. Luckily, that man didn’t say any more. Sometimes, when Eric and I are in the city, people stare a lot. And sometimes they say mean things, but I don’t want to talk about it.’ (Sikuriinan Salaisuudet, [Sikuriina’s secrets] 2004: 9, Anne-Mau Lehikoinen)

‘Well, he doesn´t look healthy, and must have been ill often. – Marius has not been ill even once this year, mum says. The bee lady doesn’t seem to hear her. She just stands there and examines them with her eyes. – So, what kind of problems have you have had? – We don’t have any problems, mum says. The lady looks almost disappointed.  – There must have been something, like sleeping problems, bedwetting and so on. Mum shakes her head. (–) I was just thinking because he is an only child et cetera. He could go to a Steiner school. My children went there too. They do international education there. Actually, he would fit in well there, being such a small exotic creature. (The Sunboy, 1986: 23-25)

‘At the beginning of the week, Felix told me about how some woman on the bus had yelled at him to go back to the jungle. That he was not a real Finn. Felix got scared and didn’t answer the woman. Neither did anyone else on the bus. Everyone just looked at their phones or turned their heads away. Felix’s parents moved from Dar es Salaam to work in Helsinki. There is no jungle in Dar es Salaam, only a concrete jungle; Dar es Salaam is a big city in Tanzania, much bigger than Helsinki. Moreover, Felix was two when he moved to Finland. He doesn’t remember Tanzania. He’s been there on holiday couple of times, but otherwise he has lived in Helsinki. (–). Nobody has yelled at me on a bus, even though I was not born in Finland. (–) Because of my white skin, am I somehow more of a Finn than Felix, who has lived here four years longer than I have? (–) We are real Finns, not some ‘pretend Finns’ [‘läpällä suomalaisia’]’. (Kahden maan Ebba, [Ebba of Two Homes] 2017: 56-57, Riikka Ala-Harja)

These quotes describe children in a skiing contest, on a visit to a child health centre, and on two journeys on a bus. The examples are from Finnish children’s books published between 1986 and 2017, with more than 30 years between them. All these books depict stories of children who are belittled, excluded and insulted because of their appearance, which does not fit in with the stereotypical image and understanding of a Finn.

Often, the main discourse in Finland claims that we are an equal country, where all people are treated the same. However, according to the Second European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey (2017) by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, Finland is among the most discriminating countries in Europe. The survey shows that in Finland, second-generation immigrants experience discrimination even more often than first-generation immigrants. This discrimination occurs especially at the workplace or in public services, but also in private services such as shops, hotels, restaurants and banks – just as the examples from the books above describe.

In Finland, public racist and xenophobic hate speech has become more common. Hate-motivated crimes are also increasing. Accordingly, hatred towards those seen as ‘foreign’ – such as Muslims, Somalians, Russians, and Swedish-speaking minorities – is growing. However, racism is not a new phenomenon in Finland. Traditional minorities such as the Sami, Roma and Russians have also suffered harsh discrimination in the past. In general, it is argued that the focus of racism has now shifted from race to cultural differences. This means that the earlier biological notions of race have been displaced by a cultural definition of race, which emphasizes cultural differentiation between people.

Consequently, anti-racism, meaning identifying racism and acting against it, is desperately needed. Anti-racism can offer a critique and a response to discrimination, homogenization and stereotyping. However, this requires admitting that racism exists in our society in multiple forms. Racism is present not only as everyday discrimination which marginalized people must deal with in public and private places, but also as institutionalized racism in hierarchies and societal power structures. This article discusses racism in Finnish society and in Finnish children’s literature. Its focus is on examining the strategies of children’s books in promoting anti-racism.

Exclusion, fear and internalized racism

The above examples from children’s books highlight some of the discrimination that racialized individuals, as well as groups, experience in Finland. In Kuka pelkää mustaa poikaa? (Who’s afraid of the black boy?, 1991, Riikonen), the name of the book refers to an old racist children’s game called ‘who’s afraid of the black man’. At the centre of this story is the friendship of two small brothers, Ana and Allu. It is also a story about fear: ‘Am I brave enough?’ ponders Ana, when her mother suggests they go to a party together. ‘Yippee, yelled Allu. Ana was not as excited. – Do people know me there? For sure they will stare at me.’ (31)

Fear and insecurity are common feelings for many racialized children, but also for the people around them. Nine year-old Sikuriina tries to prepare for the racist bulling her little brother might face: ‘Eric had enjoyed the camp [for adopted children and their families]. Mum told us that there had been many families from all around Finland. One mother had cried because her son was called a Niger’s kiss [neekerinpusu] at school. That’s disgusting. Why bully others? If someone starts bullying Eric at school, I’ll get involved. Luckily, it’s still few years away, since I don’t know what I could do then.’ (Sikuriinan kesäjutut [Sikuriina’s Summerstories] 2005: 60)

Sikuriina is afraid, because she knows that her brother, who is adopted from Tanzania, might get bullied at school.  She tries to cope with helplessness by pondering her own role: Will I be able to keep my brother safe? As the Sikuriina series is written in the form of a diary, the reader is invited to share very intimate feelings experienced by this nine-year-old.

In addition to the fear these children experience, another result of discrimination is internalized racism. Children who do not fit the stereotypical image and understanding of a white, blonde, blue-eyed Finn, can as a result even try to hurt themselves. Both Ana (from Who’s afraid of the black boy?) and Marius (from The Sunboy) have internalized the racism, and thus try to wash their skin and hair to become white. Both examples, with similar illustrations, aim to show how hurtful and damaging the discourse of physical appearance as an indicator of nationality is. By doing this, the books actively use anti-racist strategies. As part of these strategies, these books depict racism in forms of verbal and non-verbal insults, but also as physical actions. Name-calling, racist jokes, staring, and unwillingness to touch (because of dark skin colour) are just a few samples of racist actions that children seen as ‘different’ encounter.

Anti-racism in children’s books can educate readers against the various forms of discrimination, homogenization and stereotyping of marginalized people. However, do such stories also keep the discourse of white as the norm alive? By showing the harmfulness of the paradigms related to the binary oppositions of black/white and dirty/clean, the stories also reinforce these categorizations.  Stories, of course, depict their time. Both The Sunboy (Kellomäki 1986) and Who’s Afraid of the Black Boy? (Riikonen 1991) – were published decades ago and were marginal texts at the time of their publication. Being among the first children’s books to describe experiences of racism in Finnish society, they also paved the way for more contemporary books about multiculturalism.

What is – or could be – ‘normal Finland’?

Racialized children like Ana, Marius and Felix, and their close ones, are afraid of physical, as well as verbal violence. As shown above, these children face racist hate speech everywhere – on the street, in shops, on a bus, as well as at daycare and schools. All the books introduced here discuss in one way or another the power words have to hurt, marginalize and cause fear. In Ana and Marius’ cases, the words result in them internalizing the racism to such an extent that they try to hurt themselves.

Mari Matsuda, a professor in law, activist and researcher from the United States, has written about the power of words in Words that wound (1993). Matsuda’s ideas prompt us to ask why is hate speech still allowed through freedom of speech, and how can we change this? When Toni Morrison received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993 she had a similar message: ‘Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.’ Thus, such language – whether in the media, academia, or in cultural products, such as children’s literature – needs to be rejected, altered and exposed.

Laura Huhtasaari’s slogan in the Finnish presidential election in 2018 was ‘Take back Finland’. During her campaign, Huhtasaari kept repeating that Finland needs to be made normal again. In general, the True Finns party, which Huhtasaari is a member of, is known for using the rhetoric of ‘normal Finland’ in their right-wing nationalist populism. This populistic and political rhetoric about ‘normal Finland’ also exercises the power of words to hurt and exclude, as described above. Next, I will discuss challenging and changing such hegemonic discourses in children’s literature. Two picture books published in 2017, Päiväkoti Heippakamu: Pablo ja heiluvat hampaat (Heybuddy Nursery: Pablo and the Wobbly Tooth, Veera Salmi) and Avain hukassa (The Lost Key, Sanna Mander) are interesting examples of Finnish contemporary children’s literature. Both represent a multicultural Finland, yet have other themes as the centre of the story. The whole Heybuddy Nursery series represents a diverse group of children and adults. However, in the story, neither Pablo or any other child, is excluded on the basis of assumptions about their nationalities. Pablo and the Wobbly Tooth (2017) is mainly a story about the fear of growing up.

The Lost Key (2017) takes the reader to different homes in an apartment building. It introduces different families and their ways of living. One of the families is described as: ‘Ossi and Ray are spending their retirement days listening to jazz. When the day grows into night, mint tea is put to simmer, and the recorder plays Billie Holiday. In love, enjoying the evening.’

warsta_painokelpoinen kuva_lupa käyttää
Päiväkoti Heippakamu – Pablo ja heiluvat hampaat, Kuvitus Elina Warsta, 2017, numeroimaton, Otava)
ossi ja ray_sanna mander
Avain hukassa, Sanna Mander, 2017, numeroimaton, Kustantamo S&S

These books include representations of everyday life that can challenge but also change how ‘normal Finland’, as well as ‘normal Finns’, are understood. Through their subtle approach, the traditional, even fixed understandings of social categories – such as white Finnishness – are undone. Thus, these stories can create more inclusive representations of Finnish people. Through their diverse images of Finnish people, they also challenge the traditional heteronormative understanding of a family. The Lost Key represents many diverse families, including same-sex couple Ossi and Ray mentioned in the quote above.

When stories challenge the traditional, often exclusive ways of portraying Finland and Finnish people, illustrations play a central role. However, here the illustrations do not convey meanings alone. It is the word-picture dynamics, and especially the ‘disunity’ of the texts and illustrations that challenges traditional narratives. Such expanding picture books have the most transformative power in challenging the conventional understanding of ‘normal’. When books promote plurality of voices, and present human differences as ‘normal’, they convey anti-racist strategies. Such children’s books can promote active empathy and solidarity, instead of passive ‘tolerance education’.

When contemporary children’s literature displays a diverse Finland as the new norm, do they disregard the prevalence of racism? I suggest that, since anti-racism includes the ideas of denaturalizing and problematizing taken-for-granted assumptions about human differences, representations that normalize diversity can be seen as challenging the dominant discourses about ‘difference’ and ‘normality’. As such, the representations of children, as well as adults, with diverse immigrant, refugee or adopted backgrounds, can create new ways of viewing individuals who would often become marginalized in dominant discourses. According to Oikarinen-Jabai (2009: 132), Finnish children’s books normalize childhood as white, middle-class and eurocentric. Thus, new, different textual and visual representations can open up ‘diverse approaches of epistemology and understanding of the different subjects and subject positions in the narratives that are directed to children’. (Oikarinen-Jabai 2009: 138–139)

A recent example of books representing diverse families and ways of living in Finland, is Mennään jo naapuriin (Let’s Go and Visit Our Neighbour, 2017, Riina Katajavuori). The story has a similar narrative to that of The Lost Key, and visiting different homes creates a story in which different and similar, ordinary and unordinary, blend together. One of the families is that of eight-year-old Livija, whose Latvian-Italian family is pictured at the embassy of Latvia, where her mother works. In polished and wealthy-looking surroundings, Livija explains how she recently went to Italy for a two-week holiday. The next spread introduces 10-year-old Ibrahim and his family, who came from Yemen and now live at the reception centre for refugees. Life is on hold, as all their belongings are packed away, and they wait for news about being accepted to a school. Ibrahim explains: ‘Once we went ice skating at the Helsinki Central railway square.’ (42) By placing these two narratives one after the other, the reader is invited to ponder – without underlining or overtly patronizing – how people do not share same possibilities and rights. The stories also raise questions about inequality in our society. Moreover, the story can invite us to consider the arbitrariness of national borders, and the freedom of movement in the modern world.

Everyone has their own story

Often, especially in older children’s literature, the ‘different child’ becomes a victim, even patronized. Due to different societal discourses, the older books – as the stories of Ana and Marius show – suggest that children who face racism just have to overcome these obstacles by being strong and believing in themselves. All the books examined here call for anti-racist actions, recognizing racism in our society, and the need to intervene and change this. However, these anti-racist strategies emphasize differently whose responsibility it is to intervene and act against injustice. Increasingly, the literature from this millennium portrays Finland as a diverse country in which different languages, ethnicities, nationalities, genders and sexual orientations, are part of ‘normal Finnish’ society. Thus, children with ‘different’ backgrounds are no longer alone, or ‘odd and excluded’. Nevertheless, despite the general view of Finland as more diverse, minorities are still left with a marginal status.

As the last example, I will discuss one more home introduced in The Lost Key (Mander, 2017), as it highlights a very different approach to racism and anti-racism in children’s books. One of the spreads shows Erkki, who: ‘[C]omplains and whines online, unleashes his bad mood. Erkki hates pink stuff, would get rid of all unicorns.’ The illustration shows a big man hunched over a computer, with a black cloud above his head. On the table, there is a jar of quark, a stereotypical protein used in bodybuilding, as well as a sausage with a knife punched through it. Erkki’s anger does not only seem pitiful, but also sad. The medal hanging on the wall claims: ‘great achievement in sports 1976’, highlighting his long-ago success. Here the one making fun of others, presumably even spreading hate speech, is made fun of.

Those producing hate speech, or justifying any form of racism, do not need to be defended. They should be made responsible for their actions. However, one of the currently biggest threads in our society, is that of growing inequality. This has social, cultural and political impacts, and fosters increasing polarization. Thus, it also increases racism. Literature can narrow down this social, cultural and political gap. Books have the power to introduce new ways of thinking, doing and being. Activist and journalist Mariam Abdulkarim (2017) says that by writing about the experiences, thoughts and feelings of an immigrant, or, for example, of Roma people, their lives become visible and whole. This makes the unordinary ordinary, and familiar overtakes strange. People start to pay attention to things that connect rather than separate them. According to Abdulkarim, one way in which to change the world is to change the world of books, since stories makes things real. With multiple strategies, children’s books can encourage understanding, describing and acting for a more anti-racist society. In practice this can be done by, for example, reminding us to see the human, not just the category of nationality, language, gender, age, or dis/ability:

‘People are quite nice when you just get to know them. It shouldn’t matter where everyone is from. At least for us kids. We can play tag and build things with Lego. (–) Now I know a bit more about the people in the capital of Finland. I also learned that each family and everyone you meet, has their own story.’ (Let’s Go and Visit the Neighbor 2017:46)

Although Finnish children’s books address racism, they could do so in even bolder ways. Books can be radical, and thus make real a Finland which does not yet exist.


The article is based on a speech given at the IBBY Finland seminar on 27.3.2018: Rasismi Suomessa ja suomalaisissa lastenkirjoissa – yksilön asia vai yhteiskunnan ongelma? [Racism in Finland and in Finnish children’s literature – Problem of the individual or of the society?]  and on a PhD dissertation: Pesonen, J. 2015. Multiculturalism as a Challenge in Contemporary Finnish Picturebooks – Reimagining sociocultural categories.

Childen’s literature sources:

  • Ala-Harja, R. 2017.  Kahden maan Ebba [Ebba of Two Homes]. Helsinki: Otava
  • Katajavuori, R. 2017. Mennään jo naapuriin [Let’s Go and Visit Our Neighbour]. Helsinki: Tammi
  • Kellomäki, UM. 1986. Aurinkopoika [The Sunboy]. Porvoo: WSOY
  • Lehikoinen, A-M. 2003. Sikuriinan salaisuudet [Sikuriina’s Secrets]. Porvoo: WSOY
  • Lehikoinen, A-M. 2005. Sikuriinan kesäjutut [Sikuriina’s Summerstories]. Porvoo: WSOY
  • Mander, S. 2017. Avain hukassa [The Lost Key]. Kustantamo S&S
  • Riikonen, T. 1991. Kuka pelkää mustaa poikaa? [Who’s Afraid of the Black Boy?] Helsinki: Tammi.
  • Salmi, V. 2017. Pablo ja heiluvat hampaat [Pablo and the Wobbly Tooth]. Helsinki: Otava

Other sources:


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