Päivi Heikkilä-Halttunen: Longing for father, family crisis and feeling of togetherness

The concept of the family is extending in the new domestic books for children and youth

The corona pandemic has intensified the meaning of the family and home in a totally new way, when the family members are spending more time than before at home because of distant work and distant studying. Last year’s books for children and youth are of course written already before the time of corona virus, but the current exceptional times are sensitizing to observe the description of the family with special intensity.

At least every third of the Finnish families already meets the criterion for a diverse family. The concept of a varied family signifies a family composition differing in some way from the presumed family of two in the same residence living, white, heterosexual parents of different sexes, and the families of their biological children, who are alive. The diverse families include single-parent families, widowed families, families of twins or triplets, rainbow families, childless families, families of a deceased child, bicultural families, foster families, adoptive family, and blended family.

During the corona pandemic the politicians and health care experts have defined measures for keeping social distance and limiting the human relations only to the nearest ones. At the same time it has become clear that it is more challenging to define, who belong into a family and which ones are to determine as closest family members (for instance divorced families, blended family).

Nuorten elinolot 2020 -vuosikirja is concentrating on the various family and close relationships. The article of the annual interestingly points out that the children and adolescents experience the family as larger unit than the traditional nuclear family (two parents and a child or more children) The family may also include the pets, grandparents, other close relations and close friends.

The time of corona virus has increased the insecurity of children of different ages, when the support procedures of the child protection are cut, the hobbies are stopped, there are less meetings of the age-mates and  the schools partly have switched over distant learning. The families with children have also experienced both lay-offs, dismissals of the parents, and general feeling of insecurity. On the other hand the time of exception has increased the mutual, leisurely time of the family at home and domestic tourism. The clocked everyday of the families with children has turned into jovial homing.

In the article I am taking a closer look at the family patterns of books for children and adolescents.: are they offering sufficient  possibilities for identification?  And are there new interesting family units to be found in the books? Is the well-being or bad feeling shown in the books for children and youth? 

Fragmented families and longing for father

The Arabic and Finnish picture book by Katri Tapola, Muhaned Durubi and Aya Chalabee Siinä sinä olet (Teos) is movingly describing the longing a child feels, when the other parent lives faraway and the parent cannot be met regularly.

The father of girl Sana works in another country and the girl is constantly missing her father. Fortunately the father can be contacted by phone. The conversation with father is soothing the longing, and the separation is easier to endure. The picture book distils the overall, devouring, and gnawing yearning.

Siinä sinä olet is a good example of the polyphonic development in the children’s literature. The illustrator, artist Muhaned Durubi and Aya Chalabee, who has done the Arabic translation have both been born in Iraq but they nowadays live in Finland.

Also in the second part of Jonna Lestelä’s picture book series Tuikku ja pimeän mörkö (Otava) one calls to the father living in Nigeria. Tuikku has been cranking to mother all day long and by bed-time the bugbears  are seizing the mind. The bad mood is going away, when Tuikku can speak with her father at night and gets many blown kisses.

In Noora Alanen and Anne Muhonen’s picture book Miirun isä on vankilassa (Kriminaalihuollon tukisäätiö) there is also longing for father:

Miirun kotona asuu Miirun lisäksi äiti ja vauva. Ja tavallaan isä.
Isällä on kotona sänky ja paikka ruokapöydässä.
Ihan niin kuin kaikilla muillakin.
Mutta isä ei ole kotona. Miirun isä on vankilassa.
Isä nukkuu vankilan sängyssä. On nukkunut jo pitkään.
Ja kestää kauan, että isä tulee taas kotiin.

(In Miiru’s home live besides Miiru also mother and baby. And father, in a way,
The father has a bed at home and the chair by the dinner table.
Just like everybody else.
But the father is not at home. Miiru’s father is in prison.
Father sleeps in the bed in prison. Been sleeping already for a long time.
And it is a long time, before father comes home again.)

The daily life at home with mother and baby is still ordinary. Occasionally Miiru is missing father, mopes and rages. Sometimes the longing is easing, when Miiru puts on the old t-shirt of father.

Miiru gets in touch with father by phone and she regularly goes to prison to meet father with mother and little sister. Anne Muhonen’s illustration depicting the family’s visit to father may be the first illustration of prison milieu in the domestic realistic children’s book.

In Sari Peltoniemi’s novel for children Täältä minä karkaan (RanRan) the war is separating the family members from each other. Leopolda’s parents have gone to exile after being active in the resistance, and the girl ends up into an orphanage. The girl is keeping them in her memories:

Muistan joka päivä miltä heidän naamansa näyttivät, kun he heiluttivat minulle hyvästiksi. Se on kuin valokuva ja minun pääni niin kuin medaljonki, joka pitää sitä suojassaan.

(Everyday I remember how their faces looked, when they waved me good-bye. It is like a photograph and my head is like a locket keeping it safe.)

Leopolda gets new friends in the Aamurusko kindergarten and some grown-ups also support and help Leopolda and her friend to escape. In some way the friends and supporting groups become Leopolda’s  new family.

In the picture book home is the best

The first book of Kielo series by Riina Katajavuori and Hannamari Ruohonen, picture book Kielo loikoilee (Enostone), is emphasizing the homing and jovial everyday in child’s pace. According to illustration Kielo can be construed as a Down child.

Riina Katajavuori and Jenny Lucander’s picture book Kaksi kotia (Tammi) speaks also to a teenaged child of a divorced family because of its approach and the intensity of illustration.  The divorce of the parents is already at length been a topic of the picture books and the subject has become an everyday matter in a good way: Kaksi kotia conveys the message, that the divorce of the parents is not the end of the world.

Varpu is in the elementary school. Big brother Leo is teenager. When parents tell about the divorce it makes Varpu to observe the home and the parents in a new way:

Äiti alkaa tehdä ruokaa. Äidin selkä on jäykkä, niin kuin äiti olisi töissä. Sohvan ruskea on erilaista. Kuin tummaa toffeeta. Seinät ovat valkoiset eri tavalla kuin ennen. Koko perhe on kuin elokuvassa. Kuin koti olisi studio eikä oikea koti.

(Mother starts cooking. Mother’s back is stiff, just like as mother were at work. The brown of couch is different. Like dark toffee. The walls are white in a different way than before. The whole family is like in the movies. Like the home were a studio, not a real home.)

Varpu is moving into a smaller home with mother. At first father and Leo are living in their old home, but then they move into a smaller apartment near school.  Varpu thinks the new homes are even better than the old mutual home.

The illustrators Hannamari Ruohonen and Jenny Lucander are creating exceptionally cosy home interiors into their picture books. Even though the interior design of the homes is rather scarce it still does not imitate the trends of the home decor magazines. The spirit and set of values of the home are shown in the bohemian atmosphere with everyday traces of the living.

The family in crises and distorted family dynamics

The changing nets of the close relationship and the interferences in the dynamics of a nuclear family are interestingly shown in the new children’s novels. The tragic of the happenings is however without exception softened by elements of fantasy.  By the help of the fantasy world  the traumatic and otherwise difficult matters are easier to manage.

The picture book Min svarta hund (Schildts & Söderströms) by Sanna Tahvanainen and Jenny Lucander tells about Leonard, who is not able to control his feelings. He rages and broods on black thoughts. Leonard goes to therapy. From the therapist he receives an (imaginary) black dog, with the help of which he learns to project his feelings. Lots is allowed for the illustration: is Leonard’s storm of feelings caused by the birth of the little sister? Why the parents are sleeping in separate rooms?

Also Maria Lassila’s first children’s book Eeva ja Harmaakaapu (Karisto, illustr. Maria Vilja) deals with family in crisis. The book is a good example of wide conception of family, in which the nuclear family is including on the level of feelings, everyday, and thoughts, also the mother’s father and brother.

Eeva’s uncle has committed suicide. At first the parents are covering the matter up. The tree, which the parents and the grandfather want to cut down becomes the symbol of the uncle’s ended life, but they are not willing to give the reason for their decision to Eeva. Eeva perceives the depressed feeling of the home and uncommunicative way of mother:

– – Äiti on kuin talo, Eeva ajattelee. Ennen talo oli auki, mutta nyt ovi on pantu lukkoon ja kaikkien ikkunoiden verhot ovat kiinni. Ja vaikka Eeva jyskyttää ovea, kukaan ei tule avaamaan.

(– Mother is like a house, Eeva thinks. Before the house was open, but now the door is locked and the curtains of all the windows are closed. And even if Eeva bangs the door, nobody comes to open.)

The first book by Vuokko Hurme to the series Värikkäät, Tiukun salaisuus (S&S, illustr. Reetta Niemensivu) is exceptionally interesting just because of the description of the family relations. The importance of family and loved ones was in the centre point already in the earlier trilogy Kiepaus by Hurme.

The parents of ten year old Tiuku are over-protective and over-caring. The family of five is often relocating.

The little brother Tapio is allowed to go outside only after dark. The parents are also keeping an eye on the going-on and friendships of Tiuku and the older sister Meri. The family is watching only safe television programs, because “it is better not to know about the bad things”.

In the everyday life of Tiuku’s family there are features, that are typical and familiar to the time of corona virus: the parents are using home delivery, they are working from home, and they don’t invite guests.

Tiukun salaisuus is describing the slightly distorted family dynamics: there is a firm devotion between family members, on the other hand the over-protective attitude of the parents can be seen, in spite of its good purposes, as a negative effect on development of the child. The other parts of the series give more explanations for the parents’ behaviour and even the first book is giving hints of the family secret. Tiuku has an exceptional gravity-defying skill to move red things.

Magdalena Hai’s children’s novel Neiti Kymenen ihmeellinen talo (Otava, illustr. Teemu Juhani) has an extraordinary set-up. Miss Kymene is a witch with a lukewarm attitude against children who lives in an old house with apes and Ernesto, the ghost. Her life is scattered, when a little boy Pekka Pettersson rings at her door, and soon also two little girls come to her door.

The reader soon finds out that miss Kymene used to have children of her own, but she became fed up with their noisiness, burdensomeness, and impertinence, and she expressed a wish of the children were not existing. The rash curse of miss Kymene is making the children disappear! With the help by Pekka, Susanna and Anneliisa she is however able to suit her former deeds.

The concrete mistreat of the children by their parents is to be found in Anja Portin’s Radio Popov (S&S, illustr. Miila Westin) and Hannele Lampela’s first book Lumikuningattaren lumous (Otava) of the series Talventaian tarinoita.

Radio Popov is criticizing the rush of the parents and their job-orientated world of values. The mother of the nine year old Alfred died. The father has a travel job and he makes just short stops at home. Alfred is practically coping on his own and eating, what he founds in the pantry. Fortunately Alfred finds the keen-eared Amanda Lehtimaja, who is taking care of abandoned children. Alfred finds out he is a middle-serious case: he belongs into the totally forgotten, yet still operational children.

In much worse situation than Alfred are those children, who never had been taught, how to butter a piece of bread or how to tie the shoe laces, whon nobody has been able to take out and encouraged to climb in the trees or on the rocks, whom nobody has taken in his arms at night or turned the television down, if there is something unsuitable for children’s eyes.

In Lumikuningattaren lumous (Otava), the first book of the series Talventaian tarinoita  by Hannele Lampela the family of protagonist Greta moves each year to a new locality. The main reasons for the frequent moving are the violent father and the weakness of mother to intervene in the close relationship violence and ill-being of the whole family. Little brother Kai is missing and when Greta is looking for him she finds “safety” in the fantasy world of Talventaika. Greta is accepted into the Guild of Storytellers.

Greta founds out, that the reason for family problems is, that

”– – aikuiset eivät hallitse omia tarinoitaan. Kun he kasvavat aikuisiksi, he siirtävät oman surunsa ja vihansa eteenpäin uusille lapsille, ja sitten nämä lapset tekevät niin jälleen omille lapsilleen.”

– – ”Vain auttamalla heitä, joita on satutettu, voi katkaista satuttamisen kierteen. Usein ne, jotka tekevät pahoja asioita ovat niitä, joita on satutettu eniten.”

(“– the grown-ups are not able to control their stories. When they grow up, they move their sorrow and anger towards to the new children, and then these children do so again to the children of their own.”

“– Only by helping them, who have been wounded, you can cut the circle of hurting. Often those, who do bad things are those, who have been worst wounded.” )

Also in the youth novels of the last year there are parents who are forsaking their children. In the youth novel

Kaunis ilma kuolla (Otava) by Veera Salmi the parents of the other protagonist Leo have abandoned their son, and he has been living with several foster families.

In Vilu Varento’s youth novel Be Cool (Karisto) the mothers of the protagonist Tassu have delivered Tassu’s big sister over to an energy drink factory for scientific research which has been going on for almost two years.  The mothers let other people understand, that the girl is studying abroad. Set-up of the same kind is found in the YA novel Lukitut (Tammi) by Salla Simukka: the parents of five protagonists have permitted the authorities to carry out human subject tests on their underage children, in which the young are prisoned as accused for crimes of the future.

The youth novel based on TV format series Sekasin: Vitun hyvin menee (Otava) by Jani Pösö and Teemu Nikki tells about young people, whose parents have not been able to support their children, in the closed unit in a mental hospital.

Parenthood as a lifelong place of growth

Hannele Huovi’s book for children Viikinkipoika Turn Hurjapää (Tammi, illutr. Paula Mela) and  Arja and Emma Puikkonen’s fairytale novel Löytölintu (Otava, illustr. Paula Mela) are addressing also the parent reading to a book to the child. Turn is the eldest child of Viking king Sigmund Sisupussi and surprising already as little with his strength. The parents are at first taking up a confused attitude towards their peculiar  son. Gradually they learn, how to turn the special characteristics of their son into benefits and joy of the entire society.

Löytölintu is the sequence to Äänihäkki (2017) and can be read also as an independent story. The protagonist is Liita, the daughter of Uku, who is piloting the country of Haidaku. Liita wants to change into a bird and change her name to Liito. Mother Uku is at first trying to resist the intentions of her daughter.

Löytölintu signals, how important it is to allow the children peace for growing up. All the children are not

from the same mould and the parents should give their children space for using their own special skills and following the guiding star of their own.  In this way the novel can be interpreted as a declaration on the inclination of the modern society to give children, who are in some way deviating from the mainstream, prefixes and diagnosis, which as their worst can however prevent the development of the child.

In the hobby- themed books for children and youth the duty of the parent is almost without exception to urge the child to go on in spite of the moments of  weariness, mishaps and frustration (e.g. Roope Lipasti: Lätkä-Lauri ja kaukalon kovis and Lätkä-Lauri ja räpylän henki, WSOY, illustr. Harri Oksanen, and Heidi Silvan’s Rooli päällä, Tippi, Myllylahti).

When the family member is a threat

The youth novel Rikki revityt (Myllylahti) by Elisa Nieminen deals with the narcissism and codependency  of a family member, which finally cripples the whole family. The big brother Joska  of 15 year old Eve keeps the whole family on high alert. By the support of her friends Eve awakens to think, what one should do, when “– when the worst person in the world is your own family member”. Eve also has to do some serious thinking, whether she has the permit to shut the brother entirely off from her life.

Emma Sofia Söderholm’s first book hetken elossa (WSOY) gives voice to teenaged Elsi, who is worried about the worsening spiral of addiction of her big brother.

A large family is a source of wealth

Large families are nowadays rare in the children’s book. Anneli Kanto and Noora Katto’s picture book series Viisi villiä Virtasta (Veera Virtanen ja kiusaaja, Karisto) and Mari Kujanpää’s children’s novel Akselin suru (Otava, illustr. Paula Mela) have families with five children. By siblings in different ages the common everyday life and the different attitudes of the family members towards for example mishaps or surprising situations are described.

Grandmother has been close to the Akseli who is in the elementary school, and the boy has often gone after school to spend time with her. But the memory of his grandmother has gone worse and she had to move into a sheltered home. Also Akseli’s family has moved because of the work of the parents and because their economical situation from one-family home into an apartment house. Akseli often goes to visit grandmother in the nursing home. The relations between Akseli and grandmother the care of the relatives is beautifully described.

Äiti on sanonut, että kosketus on mummille tärkeää. Vaikka mummi ei ymmärtäisi puhetta, koskettaminen tuntuu hänestä hyvältä. Siksi hipaisen mummin kättä ja silitän mummin poskea.

(Mother has said, that touching is important to granny. Even though granny would not understand the speech, touching makes her feel good, Therefore I touch granny’s hand and pet her cheek.)

The grandparents have for a long time played an important role as understanding the youth who is in agony with the act of becoming independent.

In the youth novel Amiraali (Otava) by Mila Teräs dealing with transgender the protagonist Niilo has grown with his grandparents.  In the description of the relation between grandparents and Niilo Teräs points out how important it is that the growing young is receiving from the close ones an accepting, loving expression , which is reaching also into deeds of the everyday.


In the most books for children the children and parents are living together  in a close and harmonic symposium, when on the other hand the youth books are seeking separation from parents and having critical view of their system of values.

The home is however an important haven of safety in most children’s and youth books and the closest family members are supporting the everyday life of the underage children, caring and worrying. In the picture books the home interior is described through loving eyes. In some picture books the illustration depicts also the depression felt by a child, when there are big changes in family dynamics and climate of feelings.

Surprisingly many of the novels for children is using critical accents towards grown-ups, parents of the child, and other close ones, instead of a child. The authors seem to have an urge to increase the adult’s awareness to personally think about family values that are protecting the child’s well-being, which in normal situation include the genuine presence of the adult, listening to the child, limits, and love.

The multiplicity of the families is not deliberately pointed out: for instance the divorced families, bicultural families, single parent families, and rainbow families are shown naturally and without pointing out even in the books describing the everyday of the family. On the other hand the clients of the welfare, and foster children are not much visible in the book for children or youth.

It is interesting to follow, if the many side-effects of the corona pandemic soon are visible in the description of the close relationship nets of the children’s and youth books, According to the advance notices of the publishers the family seems to be holding its stand as an interesting subject also in the new books of the coming autumn.

Translation: Yrsa Rekola