Children's Literature in Finland in the 1990s

Children's Literature in Finland in the 1990s
'Finnish children's and young people's literature in the 1990s: a time of growth and renewal'

An article by Päivi Heikkilä-Halttunen

For Finnish children's and young people's literature, the 1990s was a period of growth and evolution. By now, there are a dozen or so publishers of the genre in Finland. On average, over 200 new titles and reprints in Finland's national languages Finnish and Swedish, appear each year. Children's and young people's books account for around a fifth of all literature appearing in Finland.

The financial and intellectual support provided for children's and young people's literature and its writers has been consolidated in recent years. In 1997, the Finnish Book Foundation launched a major award for new children's and young people's literature, Finlandia Junior. In the nomination of candidates, a jury appoints six finalists in November from among the new Finnish children's and young people's books that have appeared in the course of the year. The winner is announced in December.

As regards their reading skills and active reading habits, young Finns rank among the top in the world. This is due in part to a highly developed library system. Children and young people are by far the largest group of borrowers at public libraries. Nonetheless, in the public debate on literature, concern has been expressed in recent years over the reading habits of Finnish boys. On the other hand, surveys in the late nineties showed that boys aged 11-15 were reading less than had been the case.

The boom in Finnish picture book art, and their translation into foreign languages, which began in the 1980s and continued into the 1990s have attracted a good number of new writers to the genre. Artists working in a variety of genres also illustrate children's books from time to time. A source of particular delight have been the newcomers from the younger generation, who are not afraid to apply for example computer graphics in their illustrations. The hallmarks of the modern Finnish picture book are bubbly humour, an unaffected depiction of the child's everyday existence, together with unbridled fantasy.

The majority of the stories nowadays appear in the form of fairy-tale picture books or fairy-tale novels, and traditional fairy-tale anthologies rarely appear any more. An interesting new phenomenon in recent years is an increasing sensitivity towards the children's own tales. Researchers into children's culture seek to exploit this to get nearer to the experiences and observations of today's child. Several fairy-tale competitions are arranged each year in Finland and attract quite considerable attention in the media.

Since the end of the 1990s, children's poetry has displayed signs of a rennaissance: the genre has also begun to interest writers who had previously only specialised in other kinds of children's literature. Children' poetry ranges from traditional nursery and nonsense rhymes to melancholic and nature verse. The art of the short story is the latest conquest by young people's writers, and is used extensively for teaching literature in schools.

The comeback of the fairy-tale is also manifest in the rise of domestic fantasy literature. As an alternative to the Anglo-American fantasy, numerous home-grown alternatives are now available. Just like international fantasy classics, at their best, these make suitable reading for all age-groups. Historical young people's novels have also become commoner over the last decade. Many young people's writers have noticed that historical settings offer a superb opportunity for talking about the problems of the modern world. For some reason, however, authors portray only girls as the main characters in their works, and there is room for historical adventure novels that appeal to boys.

Easy-read books targeted at children aged around 6-10 have become a real competitive asset for publishing houses: series which as recently as the 1980s consisted primarily of translated books have subsequently been joined by ones created entirely by native writers. Literacy is being fostered in Finland with the aid of humorous stories frequently set in the school milieu.

In view of the hard work involved and relatively low circulation, non-fiction literature targeted at children and young people has been held in low esteem by both authors and publishers in Finland. Previously, the majority of children's and young people's non-fiction appeared in the form of translations from Sweden and Central Europe, but nowadays they share the shelf with a good number of quality counterparts by native authors. The fact that many children's and young people's non-fiction books have received sponsorship may be considered a sign of increased esteem. In addition to scientific subjects, Finnish children are provided with information about, for example, art, architecture and cultural history.

At the beginning of the 1980s, Finnish young people's literature was still permeated by problem-oriented realism: adolescents growing up in broken families, divorce and alcoholism, tunnels with little light. By the 1990s, the emphasis is more on humour. Instead of magical solutions or miraculous healing, authors now clearly put more trust in constructive discussion between young people and their parents, and in the power of co-operation. The latest Finnish series of light fiction for young people are based on examples from abroad. Nonetheless, their plots, psychological credibility and description of milieu bear a home-grown, Finnish stamp.

The themes of Finnish novels for young people have broadened in recent years. For example, disability, racism, mental illness, a less restrained depiction of sexuality, incest and homosexuality, are the new conquests of the late 1990s. Nonetheless, Finnish portrayals of young people are still some way off from, say, Swedish realist young people's literature, which is so firmly anchored in the here and now. There, not even youth is of any value in itself nor, therefore, the object of particular protection.

Over the last ten years, Finnish children's and young people's literature has gained a substantial number of new young authors who have a respect for the genre which they have chosen and do not underestimate their target audience. Increasingly, too, writers from other fields have come out of their closets to do important work in influencing and promoting children's and young people's literature.

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