‘It Takes a Village to Raise Good Children’s Literature and Critique’
Researchers and critics Maria Lassén-Seger and Mia Österlund on Finland-Swedish children’s literature and the art of literary criticism
by Alex Fleming
It is no exaggeration to say that Finland-Swedish literature for children and young adults has blossomed in recent years, with a new generation of authors and illustrators gaining growing recognition both at home and abroad.
Two people who have both charted and facilitated this growth are Mia Österlund and Maria Lassén-Seger, literary critics and researchers with a focus on literature for children and young adults. In this interview with SBR, they discuss the status of literary criticism in Finland today, recent developments in Finland-Swedish literature for children and young adults, and how criticism is integral in fostering a healthy literary ecosystem.
SBR: Could you tell us a bit about your current research at Åbo Akademi? What led you to this line of study?
Mia: I’m leading two children’s literature projects funded by SLS. The first is an ecocritical study of time and temporality in literature, prompted by current pressing environmental issues. The project will result in a book with essays on picturebooks, YA fiction and other cultural phenomena, to be published in February 2024.
Maria: The second newly launched project, which I’m involved in, explores the history of Swedish-language children’s literature critique and research in Finland. Digging in digital archives, we uncover new knowledge about how children’s literature has been reviewed in the daily press from the mid-18th century up until today. Who were the critics, what did they think a good children’s book should be like, and what issues did they debate?
Mia & Maria: We are using the National Library’s recently launched digital press archive, and the project is thereby one example of how new digital resources can be used in literary research. The overall study of literary critique has been neglected, both nationally and internationally, especially children’s literature critique, which is often marginalised and left in the shadows.
SBR: In 2022 you were both awarded the Vanessa Prize, for your outstanding contribution to the promotion of Finland-Swedish children’s literature in your work as critics. What, in your view, is the art of being a good critic?
Mia & Maria: We were so happy to receive the award together. Our collaboration has been immensely important to us. Critics do not have to be lonely. There is much strength in working together and helping one another strengthen one’s critical arguments.
Maria: I think a good critic should know the field, take children’s literature seriously and be a passionate reader willing to grapple with each new book and consider both its strengths and weaknesses.
Mia: I co-teach a course on children’s literature critique (funded by The Swedish Academy) at the Swedish Institute for Children’s Books, and we write a joint manifesto. We encourage participants to sharpen their arguments and be bold in their judgements, to avoid bringing up their own children’s opinions, and to write as tightly as they can (in Swedish: stryk – stryk – stryk! [Cut – cut – cut!]). We also urge them to read more books than the ones they review and to actively read reviews.
Mia & Maria: Since critics should know their literary history and the history of literary critique, our ongoing research project will provide new and important knowledge. The literary field has changed radically now that we have digital platforms, fanfiction, and audiobooks, and critics must also keep up with the new formats.
Mia: I’m inspired by reading new children’s books in the light of current research, which opens new dimensions and shows how complex children’s books can be. Linda Bondestam’s My Life at the Bottom, for example, resonates in exciting ways with topical issues such as ecocriticism, evolution, climate crisis, human relations, capitalism, parenthood – and so much more!
SBR: Children’s literature criticism appears to be thriving in Finland, particularly with regard to Finland-Swedish texts. To what do you attribute this? How can good children’s literature criticism be nurtured?
Maria & Mia: Right now, Finland-Swedish books for young people do get the coverage that they deserve in the Finland-Swedish daily press and on various online fora. Clearly children’s literature is seen as a vital asset to the Finland-Swedish minority. Our cultural identity largely rests in our language and literature. This is, however, not simply a happy coincidence. You need a vibrant range of authors and illustrators, editors, publishers, critics, book promoters, and readers to make this happen.
A key factor is that literature editors know and value books for young readers as equal to other forms of literature. We see this as a direct result of a steady supply of children’s literature courses at university and an increasing amount of doctoral research on children’s literature deeply rooted in international research. Students who are educated in children’s literature end up working at publishing houses, in libraries, as authors, teachers, literature promoters, and journalists. This way, knowledge about children’s books keeps spreading. At our university, children’s literature is a natural part of any course on literature. The students like this and when they go out to work their knowledge of children’s literature is a self-evident part of their competence. It is no cliché that it takes a village to raise good children’s literature and literary critique.
SBR: What do you think are the key ingredients of a good children’s/YA book?
Maria: Integrity and a vision of your own. Less teaching and more showing than telling. Put as much focus on how you write and illustrate as on what themes the book will handle. Patronising or speaking down to young readers is an absolute no-no.
Mia: An intuitive feeling for how to include a child’s perspective in text and image. To not shy away from complexity in narration or choice of theme. To know the tradition of children’s literature. You can tell if an author or an illustrator reads children’s books or not.
SBR: What role do you feel illustration has played in the success of Finland-Swedish children’s books over the years?
Mia & Maria: An immense role. Right now, the picturebook scene is so strong, because of talented artists who, supported by their publishers, keep experimenting with the medium and being praised by critics for it.
Tove Jansson set the agenda and such high standards that, for a while, it was said that no-one dared to follow in her footsteps. But at the turn of the millennium a change occurred, and new picturebook artists began to enter into a dialogue with Jansson. They formed networks, kept up their playful experimentation, and won international acclaim. Visual storytelling became a brand for Finland-Swedish literature, and since then it has kept being at the cutting edge and attracting new artists. The latest tribute to Tove Jansson is visible in Laura Ruohonen and Linda Bondestam’s Hela konkarongen [‘The Whole Caboodle’], which is a visual reply to Jansson’s classic The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My.
Still, the art of illustration has always been an integral part of children’s books. Already in Zacharias Topelius’ days, children's book illustration attracted well-known artists. The picturebook is a dynamic art form. Its materiality and possibilities to narrate with colours and shapes are temptingly endless.
SBR: Have you observed any recent trends in Finland-Swedish literature for children and young adults?
Mia & Maria: An apparent trend in picturebooks is to feature smaller or larger collectives, which enable stories that subtly comment on urgent matters such as diversity. Another is that books for middle-grade readers are becoming increasingly illustrated in the sense that the pictures co-narrate the story. In e.g. Matilda Gyllenberg and Maria Sann’s Hundra dagar hemma (One Hundred Days at Home) the imagery is remarkably dark and drastic, which strengthens the book’s themes considerably. Overall, the small-scale Finland-Swedish children’s book publication of a maximum of 25 books per year is characterised by an unexpected breadth, containing everything from horse books and YA novels to baby books and complex picturebooks for all ages. Children’s literature can, if not underestimated, be expansive and cover and address a wide age range – as well as be a vibrant arena for commenting on our time.
SBR: How important are literary prizes in increasing the visibility of different literatures?
Mia & Maria: Today, the market is flooded by new books every year. Literary prizes can be understood as guides to the most interesting works available. Also, prizes are a way to celebrate those authors and illustrators who keep pushing themselves to do new and daring books that can resonate deeply with their readers.
SBR: Finally, what were the books that you loved as children, or the books that had the biggest impact on you growing up?
Maria: I was an avid reader of all kinds of books, from comics to fantasy. There were, however, some books that I kept returning to since they resonated so deeply with me and offered such pleasure that I wanted to read them again and again. Among them were, Gunnel Linde’s Den vita stenen [‘The White Stone’] because I felt such a strong kinship with the shy and proper girl character Fia, who found a new adventurous self as Fideli when entering a secret game of daring with the boy Hampus. Tove Jansson’s Moomin books kept fascinating me because there was something inexplicable about them, and the drawings were gorgeous. Astrid Lindgren’s Madicken (Mardie) books and Mio min Mio (Mio, My Son) made me laugh and cry. Barbro Lindgren’s Sparvel and Hemligt [‘Secret’] books made me feel less alone. C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, Michael Ende’s Momo, and absolutely everything by Maria Gripe had me glued to the pages because of their suspense and insights into other worlds and other ways of being.
Mia: I was also an avid reader. The books I remember best are the ones that changed my way of thinking. When I was 9 years old, Ingrid Sjöstrand’s Fundror and Frøydis Guldahl’s Tjejerna gör uppror [‘The Girls Revolt’] was my feminist awakening. Maria Gripe’s Tordyveln flyger i skymningen [‘The Scarab Flies at Dusk’] was so suspenseful it took my breath away. I was no Moomin fan then but became one as a grown-up. But Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi, Tjorven and other characters shaped me as they have shaped generations of children. Children’s literature provided me with ideas with which to play and shape my worldview. I enjoyed Lennart Hellsing’s joy of language and was charmed by transgressive and powerful children’s characters who dared to take charge.
Maria Lassén-Seger and Mia Österlund
Maria Lassén-Seger, Associate Professor of children’s and young adult literature at Comparative Literature, Åbo Akademi University, Turku, Finland is senior researcher at The Society of Swedish Literature in Finland (SLS) in the research project Swedish-Language Children’s Literature Criticism and Research in Finland 2022–25, and Service Manager at Åbo Akademi University Library. Her research is on Nordic and English-language children’s literature, especially picturebooks and fantasy. She is the author of the study Adventures into Otherness (2006) and the co-editor of several scholarly anthologies, e.g. Nordic Dystopias and Utopias (2022) and Empowering Transformations: Mrs Pepperpot Revisited (2014). She is a member of the editorial board of the Children’s Literature, Culture, and Cognition book series at John Benjamin since 2012 and a member of several award juries e.g. the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (ALMA, 2009–2021).
Mia Österlund, Associate Professor of Nordic literature (at Helsinki University) and Head of Subject and research leader at Comparative Literature, Åbo Akademi University, Turku, Finland, is leader of the research projects Competing Temporalities: Chrononormativity in Finland-Swedish Children’s and Young Adult Literature and Culture 2019–23 and Swedish-Language Children’s Literature Criticism and Research in Finland 2022–26 at The Society of Swedish Literature in Finland (SLS). Her research is on gender and queer theory in children’s literature. She is the author of a study on crossdressing (2005), has published extensively on picturebooks and has co-edited several anthologies, most recently Silence and Silencing in Children’s Literature (2021) and Vill jag vistas här bör jag byta blick [If I want to stay here, I have to alter my gaze] (2020). Her current research examines temporality, fat, and girlhood. She is a member of the editorial board of Barnboken: Journal of Children’s Literature Research and an award-winning literary critic.