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Family Secret: Spanish Children and Young Literature in Finland

Written by: Laura Gazzotti

In the summer of 2015, we visited a beloved Finnish-Chilean family in Turku. A must stop was the children’s section of the Turku central library. Our children, without blinking, took all the books they could, in Spanish and Finnish. Among them, one caught our attention because it was written in Arabic: “Hunaka sirr fi ’ailati”[1]. The kid that had chosen the book was 5 years old and was not yet literate. The Arabic alphabet and the Latin alphabet were indifferent to her. She knew very well that it was “Family Secret” by Argentine author and illustrator Isol Misenta (winner of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, 2013).

Children and Young Adult Literature (CYL) by Spanish language authors (illustrators and writers) have been gaining increased attention in international children’s book fairs and literature prizes, in translations to other languages, and social media. The above anecdote will be significant for analyzing the situation of the CYL in the Spanish-speaking community in Finland and the challenges faced by bilingual children who speak a disadvantaged heritage language: Spanish.

Firstly, this article aims at offering a view of CYL in Spanish, translated or written in Finland. In other words, how the Spanish language and cultures from Ibero-America are represented, written and published in Finland.

Secondly, it seeks to offer information about the agency of the Spanish-speaking community; as mediators, active users of public libraries and co-producers of actions to promote reading CYL among plurilingual children – the new Finns – who speak Spanish as a heritage language.

Numerous studies have shown that art and cultural activities strengthen the cultural capital of children while supporting their identities and capacities to actively participate in society[2]. The appreciation and enjoyment of a disadvantaged heritage language, the opportunity to use it; not only as a secret language to use at home, but to read it, and to see themselves, as children and adults, represented in books in their living environment. All of these experiences provide children with the necessary means to the development of a complete and well-rounded identity and personality, and an active citizen.

The Spanish-speaking community[3] includes refugees, immigrants and Finnish-born children of immigrant/refugee, parents and grandparents[4] registered as Spanish speakers, adults and children alike. Spanish is the thirteenth[5]biggest group of minority language speakers in Finland. They represent three continents, thousands of cultures, and speak a multicentric language with many local and regional variations. A whole universe of diversity.

The capacity to strengthen the identity and values of this small community and the diversity and complexity of a contemporary Finnish childhood is in continuous transformation. However, in Finland and elsewhere really, to date, we continue to hear only one voice, stories for and about one childhood, without a proper understanding of the other childhoods growing in the same context. This of course is troublesome and on this issue Chimamanda Adichie in “The danger of the single story” says:

“… I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading (… )The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story (…) The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”[6]

The first Spanish-speaking’ immigrants in Finland were the Chilean refugees. Fifty years later, no children’s books have been written about them, by a refugee author or their descendants. Their stories and initiatives that contributed considerably to the growth of contemporary Finnish society and their linguistic policies[7] have been a secret, marginalized and hidden.

Despite the families’ demand and interest to develop their heritage language, literature and cultures of origin, access to CYL from Spanish language authors translated into Finnish or Swedish and in the original language, is difficult. To date, no specialized bookstores for minority languages exist in Finland, because of this, families rely on the public libraries to have access to books in their language or on buying them online.

The research for this article is based on the Helsinki Metropolitan Area Libraries (HelMet)[8] Children’s Book Collection in Spanish[9] and my own research and that of other members of the Spanish-speaking community.

CYL in Spanish in Finland


Finnish translations of Spanish language CYL started in the mid-eighties with picture books. Since there is no official or complete database nor a catalogue of CYL translations from Spanish into Finnish, the available information is dispersed. However, according to HelMet’s Children Book Collection, there are 28 books from Spanish language authors translated from Spanish to Finnish. However, in my searches through the collection, I have found more than the mentioned ones.

The first illustrated books and books for early Childhood are from selected Spanish authors[10]. Since the mid-nineties, these translations are excluded from the Finnish publisher’s catalogues. However, until today, no Latin American authors of illustrated books have been translated and published in Finland. Their voices, stories, and characters are marginalized.

This article focuses on CYL’s translation into Finnish since translations from Spanish into the other official language, Swedish, are done in Sweden. For example, Isol was translated and published in Sweden in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2019[11]. The Finnish-Swedish families could find in Helmet contemporary renowned authors from Ibero-American countries such as Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Spain, México, among others.[12]

Since 2000, two illustrated books for older readers have been published: “Manolito Gafotas” Villirilli Manolito (Tammi, 2012) and “Pobre Manolito” Miten menee, Manolito? elämäni ensyklopedian toinen osa (Tammi, 2013) by the Spanish Elvira Lindo. At the same time, many translations of Hispanic American Young Literature are being published in the new century fantasy novels from Spanish writers[13] and Latin-American Magic Realism[14], ignoring completely other genres[15].

Regardless of the recognition granted worldwide to CYL Latin-American authors, illustrators as well as their publishers and the national programs promoted by some Latin-American countries to support translations of their literature in other languages[16] their publications remain in the margin in Finland. Unlike in the countries around the Baltic, of Isol’s books[17], this world icon of children’s literature and illustration, none has been translated into Finnish.

Bilingual books

Currently, in Finland there is only one bilingual (Finnish-Spanish) picture book published: “Tuhat sanaa espanjaksi” Hundred words in Spanish (Nemo 2011, 2013, 2017). This is an illustrated alphabet book by the British authors Amery and Cartwright. As Jaana Pesonen (2020) mentioned:

“Making the picture book bilingual is timely in modern-day multilingual society, but also necessary. Finnish early childhood education and primary school teachers require language expertise and need to create a language-conscious learning environment for all children in education and care. For this reason, books in which bilingualism and multilingualism is a natural part of the story are in demand.”[18]

The main importance of bilingual books is that they bring multilingual families together, as well as help foster bi-literacy in multilingual children; create a sense of inclusion, especially in immigrant parents who may not speak the national languages in their new home; and foster multiculturalism through storytelling, expressions, and illustrations. For that reason, it would be great if Finnish publishers would consider translating and publishing more bilingual books.

There are two interesting examples of books written in Finnish that deal with themes and issues relevant for immigrants from Spanish-speaking regions. The first one is the series for children and young readers called ”Pensionaatti Onnela” Pension Onnela co-written by Eppu Nuotio & Tuutikki Tolonen (Otava, 2007, 2008, 2011, 2012, 2013). The main characters are an immigrant Argentinian girl and her Finnish grandfather, who returns to live in Finland with her. In this series, cultural and linguistic diversity are constantly present, as the characters come from different cultures and speak different heritage languages.

The second one is “Muistan sinua rakkaudella” I Remember You with Love (Teos, 2019) written by Sanna Pelliccioni, Maami Snellman & Kiti Szalai; illustrated by Pelliccioni. The main characters are two schoolmates, both grieving their dead grandparents. Alma’s family learns from Diego’s Finnish-Mexican family the colourful and mestizo “Día de Muertos” Day of the Dead celebration. The book proposes to integrate diversity and learn from it.

It would be great if Finnish publishers would consider publishing those examples in bilingual versions. In the new Finnish Curriculum, teachers are allowed to use the linguistic capital of their students. Children could read bilingual books in the school language, while at home they could read the same book in their heritage language. This teaching strategy is helping all children feel comfortable with cultural diversity. It is a fruitful way to cultivate multicultural awareness and diversity appreciation.

Spanish language authors writing in Finland

Despite not being recognized nationally, immigrant writers are also offering their talents and literary productions. Because local communities make them visible and recognized, I have identified eight CYL titles written in the Finnish context.

Tanja Tynjälä (Lima, PE), perhaps the most prolific author of CYL written in Spanish in Finland. Her youth novels[19], science fiction and fantasy genre, have been published in Colombia and Peru and her short stories have been published in anthologies in Colombia and Spain.

Guillermo Blanco Sequeiros (La Paz, Bolivia), surgeon by profession, may be perhaps the only Ibero-American resident in Finland (Oulu) that has written CYL in Spanish and has been published in Finnish[20]. Translated by Marjatta Blanco Sequeiros (FI), these books were published on demand, and are found in many of the country’s neighbourhood and school libraries.

Illustration: David Pintor
José Antonio Ruiz, (Madrid, ES) writer, does not define himself as author of CYL. However, his book “Los Gansos” illustrated by David Pintor, published in Spain (La Guarida, 2016) set in Helsinki, was selected for the best books in the catalogue of IBBY Spain 2017 (OEPLI in Spanish)[21]

Recently, authors, illustrators, and mediators of CYL have come to Finland from different Latin American countries. Even though their production work is in progress, It won’t take long before their influence will appear.

The HelMet Spanish Language CYL Collection.

Public libraries are the main resource for Spanish-speaking families, as mediators for the new readers. It is their book collections that support their agency.

The number of titles in this Book Collection varies from month to month. In the last database search (9.6.2021) shows that there are 1614 titles in Spanish, of those 1334 were for children and 267 were for youth. Among these books, there is a wide variety and diversity of resources and authors.[22]

Nevertheless, in the HelMet collection, the CYL of Latin American origin is underrepresented. To address that gap, since 2017, Kulttuurikeskus Ninho, in cooperation with Latin American embassies in Finland, is working on strengthening the diversity, quality and quantity of the collection by book donations. The first achievement of the program is the increase in the diversity of voices and views in the book collection of CYL written in Spanish.

Recently, the representation has started to become more balanced, the number of titles of Latin American authors has grown. Whereas, this is a great achievement to recognize, the universal literature translated into Spanish is still dominant. The challenge is to even out this balance so that it represents the stories written in the original language.

2 Agency

From the arrival of the first Chilean refugees to the present day, the Spanish-speaking community in Finland has been visionary in working and co-producing[23] actions for the promotion of bilingualism, culture, arts, science and children’s literature too.

To return to the anecdote of Isol’s book in Arabic: that girl recognized the book because she was an active participant in the Tres Nubes storytelling group (2007-2017)[24] where families shared their favorite books and authors, researching the new arrivals in the HelMet collection and in their countries of origin. They read, sang, played with words, wove the community and made new friends.

An active promoter of CYL is the Kulttuurikeskus Ninho Association (Ninho). Run by members of the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking communities, the promotion of reading and CYL are some of the main tasks. Grappling with these issues, Ninho and its members have been developing several actions in response to these challenges. Seeking to advocate for acceptance and appreciation, as well as to celebrate diversity, they aim at increasing the wellbeing and the participation of communities through creative practices such as Kolibrí Festivaali[25] and the recent Lukupesä project[26]. While there are many emerging actions in these spaces, sharing knowledge amongst them is not an easy task, it requires continuous learning to find other projects, support others and welcome newcomers.

Kolibrí has developed innovation, inclusion and mediation actions in the promotion of CYL[27]: “The Biennial Seminar on Bilingualism” (2013, 2015, 2017, 2019-). A treasured space for Spanish and Portuguese speaking parents and guardians whose purpose is to highlight and facilitate their role in the development and maintenance of the heritage language of their children, in this disadvantaged context. In this space, new available initiatives are promoted, as well as dialogues and conversations with experts in the field such as professors, researchers, mediators and CYL critics.[28]

Room full of people who are joining bilingualism seminar 2017.
Biennial Seminar of Bilingualism 2017. Photo by Eduardo Caamaño

Every year since 2016, Kolibrí has invited to Finland prominent children’s literature authors (illustrator and/or writer) from the Ibero-American world[29] to visit libraries, cultural centres and universities to work with families and their kids. Together with Finnish professionals and students in the field of illustration and literature for children they participate and lead cultural activities. In addition, Kolibrí organizes exhibitions of their illustrated work and their published books. Their books are for sale in Kolibrí ’s Children’s Book Fair for Spanish and Portuguese literature(2016-), an exceptional space where families can purchase new and used CYL and receive reading suggestions. The first guest was Isol Misenta. She visited Helsinki in 2016 thanks to Ninho in cooperation with the Argentinian embassy, FIBUL, Kuvittajat and Aalto University.

In 2021, Ninho launched the Lukupesä Reading Nest project, a holistic program to support and develop plurilingual families’ reading practices in heritage languages. The key components are a series of three modular training sessions to facilitate the families’ diverse skills:

  1. Guided tours through the children’s book collections in HelMet. These tours aim to help the users familiarize themselves with the existing sources, infrastructures in the public services that support reading in the heritage language in the metropolitan area.
  2. Heritage Language Reading Nests workshops: To support newly arrived and parents to be (expecting mothers and fathers) about how to start interacting from early ages using children’s books in their own language.
  3. Reading mediation for heritage languages and storytelling: To introduce the Storytelling times as an efficient way to support families raising plurilingual children.

The above-mentioned community spaces, developed around CYL in Spanish, are managed by families from several Spanish-speaking countries and offer an unparalleled advantage. These are advantageous settings for children as Spanish, a multicentric language encompassing Spain, Latin America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, is presented to them in all its varieties, living naturally in a disadvantaged context. Through actions such as these, it is possible to journey between continents, countries, regions, authors and richly diverse realities; while building community, solidarity and also facilitating the integration of newcomers, regardless of their origin or linguistic variety. Experiences like these strengthen identity-building processes and integration, providing important tools that are key for language acquisition and development.


The analysis of the status of CYL translations into Finnish from Spanish and other minority heritage languages is arguably a valuable topic for research that would provide crucial information about CYL in Finnish written in non-dominant languages, a valuable indicator of the interest in “giving voice and dignity to the Others”, and also of representation and sense of belonging of childhood in the narrative of this society in constant transformation. In the Finnish CYL, there are still many family secrets to be published and included in the national narrative.

In contradiction with global trends and Ana Garralón’s hypothesis that “The books (by Hispanic American authors) that are travelling the fastest are the picture books (…) appreciated for their beautiful images and editions in many places…[30] So far, no renowned Spanish-speaker author of illustrated books has been translated into Finnish. The state of translations, in general, can describe the view of the Other and the perception of diversity in society. In this case, the Other internal: the migrant, the second generations, the new Finns. In the CYL written or translated into Finnish, the representativeness of the cultures and realities of the Spanish-speaking world is still invisible.

It must be remembered that “the translation that creates minority cultures simultaneously creates identities for them” (Venuti 1998, 138)[31]. The CYL is linked to the construction of second-generation identity and ways to address diversity and in this context of migration: assimilation (invisibilized diversity) or integration (inclusion of diversity and learning from it as a social source). It is possible that minority heritage languages could cease to be a secret if Finnish CYL publishers would start to work as the new Finnish curriculum proposes. In a future article, it will be interesting to research the reasons for that fact: which are the reasons for Finnish editors and translators excluding the renowned and varied Hispanic American CYL from its selection?

Tight cooperation with allies promoting Spanish language children’s literature, such as Ninho, and interested embassies could be beneficial and provide key support for libraries, schools and kindergartens not only for all families but also for publishers.

The Spanish-speaking community is a key part of the history of the linguistic politics of Finland. Little by little, this community is starting to be part of cultural practices for and with children. Slowly, the language and cultures stop being family secrets enclosed within four walls. The community is interested in having a voice and being part of the present as well as the future of this diverse society under permanent transformation.

The challenge with the migrant children, in general, is to guarantee a fair educational level and autonomy in their heritage language and Finnish too (spoken and written). For all these new Finns, to enable them to be future writers and illustrators, to learn about writing and illustration, good and representative literature for children and adults is needed.

Specifically, there are missing stories from the Spanish-speaking second generation and from those who are writing in the diaspora. It is a wish that the new generations of CYL writers and illustrators in Finnish can make those other stories and characters visible, tell other narratives or rewrite them. So that it can stop living as a permanent Family Secret.

By Laura Gazzotti (Hki. 9.6.2021)

Translated into English by Lluvia Salas, edited by Paula Hecq.

[1]Isol, author and illustrator; Ibrahim, Sakinah & Hiningh, Muná, translators. Djursholm (Dar al-Muna cop., 2013)

[2] See ArtsEqual: Comprehensive school:Finland’s largest cultural center. Helsinki, 2017 in


[3] In Finland, the population of Spanish linguistic heritage amounts to approximately ten thousand people from: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panamá, Paraguay, Perú, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Uruguay, Venezuela, Spain and Portugal.

[4] Members of the generation of refugees, most of them are now grandparents of Finnish childhood.

[5] See: https://www.stat.fi/tup/maahanmuutto/maahanmuuttajat-vaestossa/vieraskieliset_en.html (3.6.2021)

[6] See: https://www.hohschools.org/cms/lib/NY01913703/Centricity/Domain/817/English%2012%20Summer%20Reading%20-%202018.pdf(3.6.2021)

[7]See: https://www.maailma.net/uutiset/podcast-suomi-on-harvoja-maita-jotka-tarjoavat-oman-aidinkielen-opetusta(3.6.2021)

[8] Consists of the city libraries of Helsinki, Espoo, Kauniainen, and Vantaa.

[9] See: https://haku.helmet.fi/iii/encore/search/C__S%28espanjankielinen%20kirjallisuus%29%20f%3A1%20c%3A0%20l%3Afin__Orightresult__U?lang=fin&suite=cobalt (3.6.2021)

[10] “Un Hatillo de cerezas” Kirsikkanyytti by Maria Puncel & Vivi Escribá (Otava ,1987), J.M. Parramón & María Rius ”La vista” Näkö; ”Viento” Tuli; ”Aire” Ilma (Lasten keskus, 1988, 1989), and “Dos amigos” Kaksi ystävystä by Paz Rodero & Jozef Wilkon (Lasten keskus, 1995).

[11] “Petit el monstruo” Petit, monstre (Alfabeta Bokförlag 2013), Jorge Luján& Isol; Numeralia: en liten dikt om siffror (Lilla Piratförlaget 2013), “Tener un patito es útil” En anka är bra att ha; En pojke är bra att ha (Alfabeta 2013), “Nocturno” Nocturne: recept på drömmar, varierade och lättlagade ( Alfabeta 2014), “Menino” Minstingen: en historia baserad på verkliga händelser (Alfabeta 2015), “Imposible” Hur ska det gå för Toribio? (Alfabeta, 2019).

[12] Search https://haku.helmet.fi/iii/encore/search/C__S%28Spansk%20litteratur%29%20f%3A1%20c%3A0%20l%3Aswe__Orightresult__U?lang=eng&suite=cobalt (3.6.2021)

[13]Carlos Luis Zafón (Barcelona, ​​ES), four youth mystery novels, suspense, developed in a Gothic landscape: ”The Fog Trilogy” and ”The shadow of the wind” Enkelipeli 2009, Taivasten vanki 2012, Marina 2013 (Otava). Maite Carranza (Barcelona, ​​ES), her fantastic trilogy starring a girl from ”The War of the Witches” Susiemon klaani 2008, Jään valtakunta 2010, Odin kirous 2011 (Tammi). Laura Gallego García (Valencia, ES), her fantastic trilogy ”Memorias de Idhún” Vastarinta 2010, Herääminen 2011, Ennustus 2012, Mullistus 2016 (Bazar).

[14] The book that defines trends in Young Adults Literature is Gabriel García Márquez’ ”Cien años de soledad” Sadan vuoden yksinäisyys (VSOY, 1995) the masterpiece of Latin American Magic Realism. Ten years later is translated Isabel Allende (Lima, PE) trilogy of magical adventures ”The memories of the Eagle and the Jaguar” Petojen kaupunki 2002, Kultaisen lohikäärmeen valtakunta 2003, Pygmien metsä 2005 (Otava). Hernán Rivera Letelier (Talca, CL), his fiction novel ”La contadora de películas” Elokuvankertoja, 2012 (Siltala). Horacio Quiroga (Salto, UR) “Cuentos de la Selva” Viidakkotarinoita (Alligaattori, 2014) the first edition in Spanish was published in 1918.

[15] There are two exceptional translations ”El Quijote” Don Quijoten seikkailut published in 1933 by Karisto and “Mafalda” by the Argentinian cartoonist Quino published by Sanoma Oy in 1971 and re-edit many times.

[16]Argentina: Sur Program, http://programa-sur.cancilleria.gob.ar/ Chile: Fondo Nacional del Libro https://www.fondosdecultura.cl/fondos/fondo-libro-lectura/lineas-de-concurso/linea-de-apoyo-a-la-traduccion-2020/ Colombia: Reading Colombia https://camlibro.com.co/reading_colombia/en/Mexico: Program PROTRAD https://fonca.cultura.gob.mx/blog/programa/programa-de-apoyo-a-la-traduccion-protrad/, Spain: ”Subvenciones para el fomento de la traducción en lenguas extranjeras”,http://www.culturaydeporte.gob.es/cultura/libro/sc/becas-ayudas-y-subvenciones/fomento-traduccion-lenguas-extranjeras.html, Uruguay: IDA Program https://www.uruguayxxi.gub.uy/en/news/article/vuelve-el-programa-ida-para-apoyar-la-exportacion-de-la-literatura-uruguaya/

[17] See the anecdote in the beginning of this article.

[18] See: Jaana Pesonen: Describing Diversity in 21ST-Century Finnish Children’s Books Helsinki (Goethe Institute, 2020) https://www.goethe.de/ins/fi/en/kul/sup/drin/des.html?forceDesktop=1 (3.6.2021)

[19] ”La ciudad de los nictálopes” (Norma, 2003), these books were part of the National Plans of reading of Ecuador, Chile and Perú. Later, ”La princesa Malva”, (Norma, 2008), ”Lectora de sueños” (Norma, 2012), ”Ada Lyn” (Norma, 2018).

[20]Aguaratumpa ja joen kansa (Bokwell, 2011) and Aguaratumpa (S/N, 2015 ).

[21] See in Spanish: https://www.oepli.org/en/Publicaciones (3.6.2021)

[22] See more in: https://www.kolibrifestivaali.org/2019/06/19/helmet-library-where-and-how-can-you-find-good-books-in-spanish-for-children/

[23] [Co-production] can only be true to its principles if it is backed by measures to make sure that everyone has the capacity to participate on equal terms… Hence developing co-production forces us to think about the underlying causes of inequality and how these can be tackled, and embrace very different ways of framing participation. Boyle & Harris: The Challenge of Co-production. London. (Nesta, 2009)


[24] Tres Nubes, a CYL project, worked for 10 years in the Rikhardinkatu library (Helsinki), created by Mariana Salgado (AR) and Tuutikki Tolonen (FI), mothers of Finno-Argentine children, book lovers and professionals of their language of inheritance. More about Tres Nubes here: https://www.hel.fi/helsinki/fi/tapahtumakalenteri/tapahtuma/?id=helmet:160010. This space motivated two other groups: Tres Manzanas (2015) and Tres Cerros (2016) in the libraries of Iso Omena (Espoo) and Kallio (Helsinki) respectively. Tres Cerros is still running, at the initiative of Tanja Tynjälä (PE) and in Espoo, since 2019-2020 in Sello library a storytime in Spanish is led by the librarian, Maria José Vivas (AR).

[25] See: www.kolibrífestivaali.org

[26] See: www.ninho.fi/what-we-do/lukupesa/

[27] See: https://www.kolibrifestivaali.org/2020/02/09/the-wings-of-kolibri/

[28] Josefina Jordán and Antonio Pavón from the CYL collective Pep Sempere in Elche (ES) and the renowned critic of CYL: Ana Garralón# (ES). They participated as international guests. See more in Spanish in Kolibrí Festivaali blog https://www.kolibrifestivaali.org/es/blog/

[29] In 2017, Isidro Ferrer (ES) designer and illustrator, National Design and Illustration Award. In 2018, Yara Kono BR/PT) writer and illustrator, Portuguese National Children’s Illustration Award. In 2019 the cartoonist VICAR✝ (LC), one of the most prolific Donald Duck illustrators. In 2021the author and publisher Paloma Valdivia (CL).

[30] Translated into English by Lluvia Salas. See in Spanish: https://www.kolibrifestivaali.org/es/2021/04/13/conocer-iberoamerica-y-espana-a-traves-de-su-lij/

[31] Venuti, Lawrence. The Scandals of Translation. Towards an ethics of difference. London (Routledge, 1988)