Working towards International Equality – Outstanding Books from Finland

Teresia Volotinen

Every two years the IBBY National Sections nominate books for young people with disabilities to be added to the IBBY Collection of Books for Young People with Disabilities. A selection of Outstanding Books is then made, and the selection is summarized in a catalogue.

The nominees were chosen by IBBY Finland’s special education working committee. The committee’s members are librarian Marke Könönen who is also the chairperson of the committee, teacher Kaarina Kolu and a special education teacher Teresia Volotinen.

IBBY Finland’s newest Outstanding books nominees

voihan_vammainen_kansiVoihan vammainen – lasten kuvasanakirja vammaisuudesta [Oh Disability – a Children’s Picture Dictionary] is written by Heini Saraste and Kalle Könkkölä and illustrated by Väinö Heinonen. It is a picture dictionary about disabilities which provides its reader with useful information in a clear and simple way. It replaces old-fashioned words and terms with updated ones and says goodbye to words that should not be used. This book emphasizes the power of words. Depending on the word choices, one can either speak about disabilities neutrally or be offensive. It is important to get rid of preconceptions as schools are becoming increasingly integrating.

The picture dictionary is in alphabetical order. Six children are introduced in the book and they enliven the keywords. The book is a plain-language book and both adult experts and children have been part of the editorial team. Väinö Heinonen’s illustrations help to absorb the information and work as an important element in balancing text and illustration. (Publisher: Into Kustannus 2017, ISBN 978-952-264-831-0).


Metsän pieni kansa – puunhaltijoiden opintoretki [The Tiny Forest People – a Fairy Field Trip] will get you acquainted with Finnish art and folklore. The book continues the tradition of children’s non-fiction books, combining fact and fiction in an interesting way. The tree fairies and Väinämöinen, the main character in the Finnish national epic Kalevala, tell about secret powers and creatures in Finnish folklore. The reader is introduced to gnomes, fairies and many other wonderful creatures. Julia Vuori skilfully combines her own illustrations with the works of some of the most famous Finnish painters, bringing together art and mythology. The plain-language text is written by Marjatta Levanto.  (Publisher: Maahenki 2016, ISBN 978-952-301-070-3).

Emman ja Eetun yllätyslöytö – suomi-arabiaThe author Marita Hauhia has written a plain-language book Emman ja Eetun yllätyslöytö [Emma and Eetu Find a Surprise]. It is a book about a Finnish girl and a boy and their family, their everyday life joys and sorrows. Emma and Eetu find a bird that cannot fly, and they try to help it. The family knows how important freedom is for the bird. The realistic story is brought to life with the beautiful and skilful illustrations by Anne Randén. In the bilingual version of the easy-to-read book, there is also a translation in Arabic by Maria Pakkala. (Publisher: Avain 2016, ISBN 978-952-304-093-9).

2. Mur eli karhuThe exception proves the rule! This is also true when it comes to bears, confirms the wonderful book, Mur, eli karhu, [Growl, the Bear] by producer and author Kaisa Happonen and illustrator Anne Vasko. The power of this stylish picture book is in its story, it tells about a kind bear (also the national animal of Finland), who cannot fall asleep in the winter like other bears and has to fight against stereotypes. Happonen’s vivid, but at the same time admirably compact text utilizes typographic means which enhance the functional dialogue, supported by Vasko’s excellent illustrations that are made with collage technique. It works just like a high-quality picturebook should: the text supports the illustration, and the illustration supports the text. Neither one of them steals the show from another! The message of the book highlights the importance of accepting differences in yourself as well as in others, the uniqueness of your own identity and finding your own strengths in a magnificent way. All this comes together when the uncommonly sleepless Growl-bear realizes proudly that he is a winter bear! (Publisher: Tammi 2016, ISBN 978-951-31-9078-1).

1. tuulenvuosiHenna Konola has both written and illustrated the book Tuulen vuosi [The Year of the Wind]. The story of the wind starts with a few words said by blowing kites in April, petals in May and soft clouds in June. In July the wind gives help to sail boats and brings rain clouds in August. The wind takes birds to south in September, takes the leaves away from trees in October and masses them in November. In December the wind helps snowflakes to dance and in January it helps people to skate. In February the wind is mostly silent and in March it blows against the cheeks and waits for a new spring to come. (Publisher: Etana Editions, 2016 ISBN 978-952-7105-08-5).

Collection’s history

The IBBY Collection of Books for Young People with Disabilities and the IBBY Documentation Centre of Books for Disabled Young People were established in 1985 at the Norwegian Institute for Special Education at the University of Oslo, under the direction of Nina Askvig.

In 2002 Heidi Boiesen took over as the Director and the collection moved to the Haug Municipal School and Resource Centre (HSRC) in Baerum, just outside Oslo. The Nordic IBBY sections had their annual meeting in Norway in 2005. The Finnish deputes in the meeting were Heidi Kiiskinen, Kaarina Kolu, Liisa Korhonen and Teresia Volotinen.

We met in Haug Resource Centre on the international Book Day in April. We were given a guided tour of the premises by Heidi Boiesen and then studied the exhibition Outstanding Books for Young People with Disability.

The newest chapter to the collection’s history started in 2013 when the complete IBBY collection of books and documentation moved to the Children’s Department of the North York Central Library at Toronto Public Library and was re-opened to the public in early 2014. The IBBY Collection located at the Toronto Public Library features a large international selection of books for and about young people with disabilities. The books are chosen by the IBBY National Sections, as well as by independent experts and publishers.

Disabled child or young adult characters in books

What are the Finnish special education books that have made it to the collection like? The first IBBY catalogues, called Books and Disabled Children and Books for language-retarded children, as well as in the documentation-centre’s collection, all include many Finnish books written in Finnish and Swedish language. These books have disabled or special needs children, or young adults depicted in them, they have been written in plain-language or are otherwise easy to read.

Bo Carpelani’s Bågen [Bow Island] (Holger Schildt 1968) and Paradiset [The Paradise] (Holger Schildt 1973) are written in Swedish and tell about the friendship between a boy and a disabled young man. Marita Lindquist’s Kottens bakvända b [Kotten and the Backward B] (Söderströms 1972) tells the story of an 8-year-old girl with reading and writing difficulties. A television series called Tuuti and kirjaimet (Tuuti and letters of the alphabet) was produced based on the book.

Paul von Martens’s Glädjen [The Happiness] (Söderströms 1979) is a novel about a dad and his adulthood-reaching disabled daughter. Paul von Martens makes the reader acknowledge different possibilities and recognise differentness. Jukka Kemppinen’s Finnish translation of this book is called Pieni onni (Small happiness) (Otava 1979).

Eino Koivistoinen’s children’s novel Mä voitan kaikki [I’ll Beat them All] (WSOY 1974) tells about a boy who loses one of his legs in an accident. He comes to terms with his disability with the support of his parents, his own strong will and vivid imagination.

Tuomaskin käy koulua [Thomas Goes to School] (Karisto 1980) is a non-fiction book by Pirkko Linna and is illustrated with Jaakko Luhtala’s wonderful photographs. The book tells about the everyday life of a mentally challenged child. The wonderful non-fiction book by Inkeri Numminen called Vammainen lapsi – anna minun olla ihminen is also included in the collection [The Handicapped Child – Let Me Be a Human Being] (Tammi 1977).

Kaija Pakkanen’s Sebastianin tytär [Sebastian’s Daughter] (WSOY 1976) was published as a part of the popular Nuorten Toivekirjsto (Young people’s Wishlist for books)-series and tells about a girl with epilepsy whose family is suffering from depression, unemployment and money troubles. Despite all the obstacles, the protagonist is able to achieve her goals. Mä olen kummitus [I’m a Ghost] (Lasten Keskus 1980) is written by Marja Liisa Puputti and illustrated by Kikka Nyrén. The book won the Tauno Karilas literary prize in 1981.

Anneli Tempakka produced a popular tv-series for the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) in the 1970’s. The series, called Olen erilainen nuori (I am different from other young people), interviews teens and young adults with serious illnesses or those who otherwise break the norm. Based on her series, Tempakka also wrote a non-fiction book Olen erilainen nuori (Otava 1980), which is also part of the collection.

sakuFrom the 2015 Outstanding books-nominees, Marianne Kulmala’s and Kirsti Tapani’s Saku, spesiaali lapsi [Saku, a Special Kid] (Aivoliitto 2014) was selected to the collection. It is a book full of humour and warmth, written about a sweet and energetic, 9-year-old boy called Saku. The book tells about a spring’s day, filled with mishaps and tricky situations. There is an informative section at the back of the book meant for adults. In this section Saku’s mother tells how Saku’s differences showcase themselves in day-to-day life and also how rich the life with a special child is.

Maijaliisa Dieckmann has written many historical novels for children and young people.  Väläys pimeässä – Louis Braille ja pistekirjoituksen tarina [Light in the Darkness: The Story of Braille] (BTJ Kustannus 2010) skilfully ties the story of the Frenchman Louis Braille (1809-1852), the creator of the writing system for the blind, to modern times. She depicts the integrated schooling of Leo, a blind Finnish boy. The story of Louis Braille is incorporated to the story by Leo’s teacher who gives his pupils lessons on him.  What connects Leo and Louis’s school lives is a sense of community, their dedication to learn and their love for music. Through this book, it is possible to compare the difficulties disabled people faced in the past and the challenges they face now, and also to realize how important it is to bring happiness and light in disabled people’s life.

Easy to read picture books

One requirement for picture dictionaries for Outstanding Books for Young People with Disabilities -selection is that they are in public distribution and through their clarity and plain language serve different groups of people with disabilities.


Decade after decade, Maikki Harjanne’s Minttu-books continue to delight readers of all ages. Mintun kiva päivä [Minttu’s Special day] (WSOY 1983) tells about Minttu’s birthday, how she decorates her cake and receives birthday wishes. Minttu’s friend Ville gives Minttu a special birthday present, a ticket for a theatre play. Similarly, Leena Juutilainen’s Liina ja tatti [Liina and the Mushrooms] (Weilin&Göös 1982) and photographer Matti Pitkänen’s Peten onkimatka [Pete Goes Fishing] (Otava 1983) both tell about everyday life, mushroom picking and fishing trips. Peten onkimatka has been published in Germany, Sweden, Norway and Denmark.

Sanna Pelliccioni’s Onni-pojan kierrätyskirja [Onni’s Book about Recycling] (Minerva Kustannus 2009) is a part of a popular series that tells about the everyday life of a young boy named Onni. This book’s topic is recycling. After having breakfast with his parents, Onni sorts waste and recycles the different materials. Onni and his father find a cardboard box in the dumpster and they decide to turn into a sailboat. The whole family is in involved in the crafting process. In the evening there is a flea market at Onni’s yard, where the neighbours come to sell or exchange their old belongings. Children argue over a singing mole toy and Onni buys himself a sailor cap. In the evening he falls asleep and dreams about great adventures at the sea… and a about a singing mole. The book’s wonderful illustrations and joyful text help the reader to see recycling from a child’s point of view. Large letters, clear shapes, strong colour contrasts and sharp outline markings make sure that the book is also popular among children with disabilities.

Plain-language, sign-language, Bliss-symbols and tactile books

The collection also includes books aimed at children with special needs, these are either in plain-language or they are supported by the use of sign language or BLISS-symbols.

The oldest Finnish book in the collection is Camilla Mickwitz’s ja Marina Motaleff’s Hei [Hello!] (Weilin&Göös 1982), a colourful picture book written both in Finnish and in sign language. It is useful for everyone interested in sign language, not only for people with hearing difficulties. The book stars a girl who shows 100 different signs, the seasons, the alphabet and numbers from 1 to 10. At the end of the book there is an index, listing all the signs for the different items, emotions and motions shown in the illustrations. Publishing company Tammi reprinted this very important book in 2007.

The 1991 selection of Books for disabled young people – An annotated bibliography includes Pertti Rajala’s Suomen historia selkokielellä [Finnish History in Plain Language] (WSOY 1989) and Seppo Autio’s ja Pertti Rajala’s plain-language book Ihmisen kehitys ja kehityksen häiriöt [Human development and development disorders] (WSOY 1988). It is documentary in easy language, telling about the birth of life, development and development disorders, and how to live life as a handicapped person.

The catalogues started to come out every other year by the name Outstanding books for young people with disabilities. The 1999 collection includes a plain-language book in Swedish, written by Birgitta Bought called Jag heter Hanna [My Name is Hanna] (Lärum 1998).

A plain-language version of Muumipeikko ja taikurin hattu [The Mumintroll and Sorceres’s Hat] (Kehitysvammaliitto 2004) by Tove Jansson was selected to the catalogue in 2005. Tove Jansson’s original illustrations stayed untouched in this specially adapted edition of the original book. The book can be used as an easy-to-read storybook or it can be further simplified by following the paragraphs of the pages framed in blue.

taikurin hattu

It should be also mentioned that a tactile book based on the Swedish speaking Finn Tove Jansson’s Vem skall trösta Knyttet? [Who Will Comfort Toffle?] represents Sweden in the 2001 Outstanding book catalogue.

Three amusing picture books produced by Lohipato School in Oulu are written by a special education teacher Susanna Huikari and illustrated by Mika Kolehmainen.

Pääkalloviiri [The Skull Steamer] written in 2003 tells about everyday life in a Finnish town. Markus and his friend Pekka play pirates and want to buy a skull streamer for Markus’ wheelchair. They spend the whole day looking for one in various shops but fail to find any. Then Pekka notices the skull on his friend’s t-shirt and the boys make a streamer out of it. By telling the story in pictures, standard text and BLISS-symbols, this book can be enjoyed by readers in primary school, children with reading difficulties and young people who communicate using BLISS-symbols.

In Kaikki onnistuu [Everything will be OK], Pekka speeds along on his roller skates behind Markus’s wheelchair. After helping out an old neighbour, they receive tickets to a concert. Their friend Petra wins a special prize and they are all invited onstage to sing with the band. The story is told in easy text and BLISS symbols, using the new BLISS grammar that came to use in 2005.

The third easy-to-read and BLISS-book by Susanna Huikari and Mika Kolehmainen is Hauska matka [A Joyful Journey] published by Tervakylä/Lohipato School in 2010. Markus and Pekka travel to Lapland for a winter holiday with their uncle. They do downhill skiing on the slopes every day. One day they go on a reindeer ride and a few times they even see the wonderful aurora borealis. As the week nears its end, they decide to come back some day.

Kassu vauhdissa [Kassu on the go] (Pieni Karhu 2006) is written by Tittamari Marttinen and illustrated by Aiju Salminen. Funny things happen when Kassu arrives to his new school. One of the desks starts to talk and for some reason there is a dog in the building, making the day very different from the usual dreary school days. The book is produced in selko-language, the Finnish name for high plain-language books produced for children with severe reading problems caused by dyslexia, mental retardation or for those learning a second language.

valituntirakkautta1Another book by the same writer and illustrator is Välituntirakkautta [Love at the school yard] (Pieni Karhu 2007). Tittamari Marttinen has written thirteen short stories about the feelings of young school children: dreams and fears of falling in love, infatuation, shyness, heartache and friendship. The story is set in the school, especially in the school yard. The stories are written in plain language, the tone is gentle and warm. Aiju Salminen’s illustrations in colour are very fresh and expressive.

Valon ja värien maailma [The World of Light and Colours] (Pieni Karhu 2010) is also a special easy-to-read book, and its purpose is to draw interest in studying the environment and nature. It has received funding from the state of Finland that is given for special easy-to-read books. Authors of the book, Seija and Juha Samela, state in the introduction that the book isn’t a study book for physics, but it may be used as a learning support for the basic studies of natural science. The book explains its topics without the use of mathematics, which helps the reader to understand the science related text.

The non-fiction book approaches the different features of light and colour by using ordinary-life phenomena. The extraordinarily beautiful pictures, taken by Juha Samela, fascinate the reader. The clear layout and writers’ capability to break down scientific facts, make the text interesting and easy to read.

Mari Elimäki has adapted the famous storyline of Romeo ja Julia [Romeo and Juliet] (Opike 2012) and Marjo Nygård has illustrated the book. It is a special, high-quality, easy-to-read version of Shakespeare’s classic play Romeo and Juliet. It starts with a short introduction to the story of Romeo and Juliet. The different characters of the story come to life in the first pages of the book with clear illustrated pictures. These pictures as well as the books’ lovely full colour illustrations invite the reader to step into the magical world of Shakespeare.  The layout of the book is beautiful and light. The illustrations create a fascinating atmosphere for reading the story. Each chapter has a title which tells about the location and the events of the story. This helps the reader to understand the content and better follow the story. Additional to the clearly written text, the book also offers parts of the play’s dialogue. These are written using italics, which again helps the reader to identify the dialog from the narration. Overall, one can say that the book is easy-to-understand adaptation of Romeo and Juliet that captures well the spirit of Shakespeare.


IBBY promotes global equality and joy of reading

Over the years, most of the Finnish books that have made it to the Outstanding book-collection have been written in plain-language. The most important feature of plain-language literature is to make information available for everyone and to help more people enjoy the literary experience – to achieve equal love for reading. In conversations, new terms such as “accessibility” and “unhindered access” come up frequently. They involve perspectives such as approachability and considering the needs of the public. Plain-language books are very prominent in Finnish libraries, and hopefully the same trend continues in schools and school libraries, so that they too promote evenness and equality.

In order to be attainable, the literacy service must be as accessible as possible. Plain-language books become even more important in achieving unprecedented literacy, as their user base continues to expand. They are suitable for everyone with difficulties in reading comprehension: for children, adults, the elderly, and of course for many disability groups, immigrants, or generally for those with an imperfect school history.

However, it is also important that there are other helpful tools available that support literacy in people with special needs. The most important tool is awareness. Readers with special needs should not put to separate “boxes” but all people in the world should receive information that supports literacy and promotes evenness and equality. Thanks to IBBY for a global organization that promotes the joy of reading!


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