Posted on June 17, 2010

Immigrants Are Taking Lead Roles in New Finnish Children’s Books

Päivi Heikkilä-Halttunenm, Helsingin Sanomat, June 17, 2010

The new books by authors Niina Hakalahti and Kari Levola can be regarded as a turning point in the Finnish children’s literature that deals with tolerance. They bring up the multicultural main characters already in the title of the book.

Niina Hakalahti’s book is titled Tuukka-Omar, while the title of Levola’s book is Leevi ja Leonora.

Tuukka-Omar’s father comes from Syria. He got married to a Finn and settled in his wife’s home country. He works as a taxi-driver.

The Finnish boy Leevi has a friend Leonora who has moved from Albania with her grandparents. The girl is waiting to hear from her parents about whether it would be possible for the family to return to Albania.

Hakalahti flavours her description of multiculturalism with a fantasy element: Smoking a water pipe, Tuukka-Omar’s father alleviates his homesickness by flying on an oriental carpet above the roofs of the city.

The father also uses more florid language than Finns and listens to his son’s troubles with more sensitive ears than does his mother, who is dedicated to her work.

The 21st century children’s literature also underlines problems and makes a stab at realism.

In addition to multiculturalism matters, both books have also brought up some other problem bothering the main character.

The 8-year-old Tuukka-Omar is suffering from wetting his bed at night, while Leevi and Leonora are victims of school bullying.

However, the problems are not explained to be directly attributable to ethnic backgrounds.

Tuukka-Omar has inherited the same bed-wetting problem his father had as a child, but Leonora is being picked on because she is overly lively rather than because of her Balkan background.

Leevi, who has moved from the countryside is called a woolly back–this, too, is some sort of reversed political correctness!

Two different editions of Kari Levola’s book Leevi ja Leonora have been published at the same time.

One of them is in regular Finnish by the publishing company Tammi, who were also behind Tuukka-Omar, while the other is in simple Finnish and released by Pieni Karhu, a publishing company specialising in books written for children and teens.

One could only hope that such cultural deeds would be more frequently performed, particularly by the big mainstream publishers.

In addition to books written in their native languages, immigrant children really need good Finnish reading material that is easy to absorb and that tempts them to identify with the characters of the book.

Natalia Laurila and Hanna Koljonen’s book Mamumuksut–suomea leikki-ikäisille (“Immigrant Kids–Finnish for Preschoolers”), published by Finnlectura, can be classified as nonfiction.

The book attempts to cover an obvious fringe area, and the intention as such is worth supporting.

However, a good idea has been left halfway. Instead of standard language, the book uses the colloquial speech of the Greater Helsinki area, which is constantly absorbing new nuances.

In other words, the life of the book could be short.

The real blunder is, however, in the name of the book: Mamumuksut–suomea leikki-ikäisille.

The abbreviation mamu [from maahanmuuttaja, “immigrant”] is often used as a pejorative term among Finnish children and young adults.

In the book, the Finnish girl Aino, the Indian Shashi, the Russian Jevgeni and the Somali Asad are getting to know the Finnish everyday life, naturally including going to sauna and camping in the woods.

Hanna Koljonen’s rich illustrations tempt the reader to name details, thereby taking on board the Finnish language and terms.

Mamumuksut–suomea leikki-ikäisille nevertheless contains too much written material, if it is supposed to encourage immigrant families to read the book together.