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The Torne Valley, "Our Language," and Our Literature

Most of the Finnish-Swedish border runs through the Bothnian Sea. Between Haaparanta on the Swedish side and Tornio on the Finnish side, the border continues its watery path upstream along the Torne River until it reaches Kengis, from whence the tributary Kassanniska marks the national boundary. The northern rivers freeze in the winter, enabling border crossings at any point along the 555.5 km stretch. This border came into existence in 1809, when Sweden was forced to cede land to Russia. From 1809 to 1917, Finland was a Duchy of Russia. As Finland celebrates one hundred years of Independence, this letter focuses its attention on the people of the Finnish-Swedish borderlands—the Tornedalinger (literally, "people of the Torne valley")—their language, and their literature.

The Tornedalinger number around 50,000. They are Swedish citizens, although their official language is Meänkieli, which literally translates as "our language." Meänkieli is a creole formed from Finnish and Swedish with some influences from Sámi. Originally, the term Meänkieli was dismissive, signaling the speaker's awareness that they were speaking "our" way, not standard Finnish. However, since Meänkieli is incomprehensible to Swedish speakers, it separates the minority from the majority culture. Meänkieli was not officially recognized as a language until 2002; prior to that, it was considered a dialect of Finnish. Less than half of the Tornedalingers speak Meänkieli, mainly due to repressive language policies that were enforced from the 1920s to the 1960s. For instance, children could be punished for speaking Meänkieli in the playground (Winsa, Language Attitudes and "Language Planning"). Since Sweden joined the EU, attitudes have changed: the National Minorities Act functions both as an apology for abuses in the past and as a plan to enable these minorities to flourish (Lag 2009). It emphasizes support for child language development, which has led to a sharp increase in publications of children's books. To date, publications listed as being in Meänkieli total around 160, of which about 90 are for children and 10 are dictionaries. The three main publishing houses—Förlaaki Kaamos, Meänkielen förlaaki, Barents Publisher—are small, desktop enterprises established by activists committed to promoting the language and culture. In addition, a few other companies have published translations.

In this letter, I venture to provide Bookbird readers with an overview of Meänkieli literature, most of which has been written and produced by parents who are politically active in their promotion of minority rights. The primary purpose of these books is to pass on the language—not only to the children but also to their parents and carers who, as a result of the repressive language policies, are not necessarily fluent speakers. They also endeavor to forge a sense of group identity.

Introducing Vocabulary through "Point and Say" Books

Given the need to teach and pass on the language, it is not surprising that many of the books focus on teaching vocabulary. For instance, Monika Pohjanen's Meän Pikku Kirja (Our Little Book, 2012) is a simple question-and-answer book that begins by asking "Who is this?" and continues, "It's a girl," followed by the same for a boy (2, 3). Thereafter, [End Page 56] the question shifts to "Mikäs tama oon?" (What is this?), filling an otherwise blank verso, while the recto has a large painting of an object and the correct word (e.g., "Se oon äpyli" [It's an apple] (21). Anna Peilaa Itteä (Anna Looks in the Mirror, 2014) by Kerstin Tuomas Larsson and Isabella Jakobsson takes vocabulary teaching a step further as Anna's faulty pronunciation of the parts of her body she sees in the mirror are corrected by her mother in the replies. Mona Mörtlund and and Stina-Greta Berggård's Ellin Leikkikaveri (Elli's Playmate, 1993) is slightly more sophisticated. The plot resembles Eric Carle's successful Where's Spot? as Elli looks for her dog Nalle in various places around the farm. The simple question-and-answer format makes the story very easy to predict and recall.

Mörtlund has also written two books about Hanna, which are clearly intended to introduce children to the Meänkieli names of regionally specific flowers and birds. Some of the names are identical in Finnish and Meänkieli (e.g., pöllö, meaning "owl") but very different from the Swedish name the children will hear in school (uggla), and others belong exclusively to Meänkieli (e.g., joukhaista, meaning "swan," is joutsen in Finnish and svan in Swedish). Mörtlund's Hanna books, illustrated by Kerstin Nilimaa, are far less successful than her books about Elli because of the home-spun illustration style. Although the plot is dependent on the recognition of the different species, the rough watercolors make it hard to identify the various species; this undermines the overall quality of the story and its potential for vocabulary instruction.

The Swedish term for this kind of vocabulary book, pekbok, literally means a "pointing book." It captures not only the content but also the expectation of a shared reading experience as adult and child snuggle up to share books designed for small hands to hold. These are not just books to read, they are the starting point for adult-child dialogue. They also support the language of the parents, whose own Meänkieli may be weak. Most children's literature in Meänkieli incorporates this sense of parent-child communication.

From Parent to Child: Literature by Parents and for Parents

The earliest Meänkieli books were produced by parents for their own children. Aina Stålnacke's Missa: Kertomus Liinan viishasta kissasta (Missa: A story about Liina's wise cat, 1989) is a prototypical example of this kind of story. This low budget booklet from Förlaaki Kaamos is printed on ten sheets of A3 paper, stapled down the center. Each page contains a story about Liina's cat, Missa, illustrated with black and white sketches. The cover is illustrated with a family photograph of a young child, presumably Liina, stroking Missa. It appears to be a collection of family stories about a beloved pet, and it may well have been intended simply for entertaining close family and friends.

Although Missa is an extreme case, this homespun, low-budget production style is a common feature of works published in Meänkieli. The financial incentives for commercial publishers are low. My aforementioned criticisms of Mörtlund's books about Hanna also arise from the reliance on volunteer labor and low budget production. The stories themselves are quite clever in their allusions to classic Swedish children's literature, their introduction of specialist vocabulary, and their celebration of the flora and fauna on the Torne Valley region. Hanna Hakkee Joukhaista (Hanna seeks the swan), for instance, develops a regionally specific plot that resembles Selma Lagerlöf's Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige (The Wonderful Adventures of Nils 1906–7; literally, "Nils Holgersson's wonderful journey across Sweden"). Lagerlöf's Nils is punished for teasing animals by being shrunk. He is so small he can fly on the back of a goose who introduces him to the landscapes of Sweden while teaching him to be kind to animals. Unlike Nils, Hanna's adventures are not a punishment: she willingly responds when a sparrow tells her that the magpie has stolen the swan's beak. Hanna sets out to return it before the swan dies. During Hanna's journey along the Torne valley, she meets different species of bird who guide her to the swan. The swan is so grateful that he flies Hanna home, enabling her to see the regional landscape as whole. While the story suffers from the poor quality of the illustrations, it does manage to introduce children to specific items of vocabulary in a meaningful context.

While it is easy to dismiss the books because they lack the professional finish of commercial literature, the level of grassroots commitment they evidence is impressive. These books reveal a community coming together to pass on their language and [End Page 57] culture. They are likely to have been written or illustrated by relatives or family friends. The illustrations are produced using the same materials that children use, which may encourage young readers to regard their drawings as being valuable as those of adults. The message that this is "our" literature—produced by us and for us—shines through each book.

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Images of "Our Homeland"

Illustrations enable Meänkieli fiction to establish its regional specificity. The Torne valley's Arctic location with its extreme light changes, harsh winters, and fell landscape appear frequently, enabling these books to create a regionally specific homeland. In Mörtlund's Elli books, for instance, Berggård includes small details, such as the Swedish word sockerbolaget on an upturned box that serves as a table in Elli's playhouse in Ellin Leikkikaveri (Elli's playmate). (The word reveals that the box has been used for harvesting sugar-beet on the Swedish side of the border.) The sequel, Elli Lähtee Pyhhiin Pirthiin, is even more developed. Pyhhiin pirthiin is a Meänkieli specific term for visiting a newborn child. Newborns are pyhä (holy), and they make the pirtti (a log house) holy, too. The suffix iin indicates a movement towards something. Combined, Elli Lähtee Pyhhiin Pirthiin describes Elli travelling to visit the home of a newborn. The language, in concert with the illustrations, situates these very simple texts in a culturally specific environment. For instance, noticing that the snow has been cleared reveals that Elli's aunt is at home, and the hat they bring for the new baby is knitted according to a regionally specific design. The homely settings of these short picturebooks allow for the inclusion of common Meänkieli vocabulary, contextualized in the everyday environments where it is predominantly spoken. This is the ideal, but it demands a great deal from community members to produce such works. A seemingly obvious alternative would be to translate good quality books which are already set in a Swedish environment.

Translated Fiction for Our Children

A few books written by Swedish authors have been translated into Meänkieli. They include some of Inga Borg's picturebooks about Plupp, an "invisibling" who lives in the Northern Fells of Sweden (see Kokkola [2016] for an overview). This child-like [End Page 58] character lives in a traditional Sámi kota (a tent-like shelter formed from reindeer skins spread over logs) on shores of a fictitious lake. In each book, Plupp has a small adventure with an animal that is native to the region. The scenery, flora, and fauna of these books could as easily be a depiction of the border region as Sápmi proper. So far, a handful of these books have been translated into Meänkieli, starting with the ones that are most popular with tourists as they feature reindeer and elk (moose).

The most recent translation is Max Balja/Pekan Palja (Max's Bath) by Barbro Lindgren and Eva Eriksson. Lindgren and Eriksson have produced many books about Max, of which Max's Bath, from 1981, is one of the earliest. The appeal of these books largely lies in the counterpoint between the illustrations and the text. In the Meänkieli version, Daniel Särkijärvi, the translator, adds a Swedish text pointing out this feature to parents, suggesting that the book might be the site where "you and your child's shared journey towards shared fluency and a self-aware, linguistically rich future begins?" (30).

Politics in Meänkieli Literature and Literature as Politics

All children's literature is political: in its desire to inform and entertain the next generation, children's literature is both didactic and a form of social action. Minority language literatures often lay bare their political agendas simply because the authors lack experience of writing for children and the editors lack experience in guiding them. As a result, the political ideologies can take over the plot, as they do in Poron Päiväkirja (The Reindeer's Diary, 1998) by Ragnar Henriksson.

Although more associated with the Sámi, intermarriage and social proximity mean that reindeer herding is also part of Tornedalingers' cultural heritage. Poron Päiväkirja is narrated by a reindeer who is sometimes so confused he describes a poodle as "a strange sort of creature with pale woolly hair, a bit like a lamb but it barks like a dog. I guess it is a dog!" (11), but at other times he understands sophisticated human concerns. For instance, he learns that "Sweden has joined the EU, and this means that reindeer cannot be caught with a lasso or trapped. And only a vet can mark our ears. Oh dear! Now all the reindeer herders are training themselves as vets" (21). Five sentences later, he refers to television as a "cupboard" and is amazed by the stupid ideas men get from watching it. As these examples show, the main idea is not to tell an entertaining story but rather to comment on the situation for reindeer herders in the Torne Valley. The implicit assumption is that using an animal narrator will appeal to child readers, without a consideration of how this narrative perspective should restrict what is known. Being rounded up, lassoed, and ear-tagged are clearly stressful experiences for reindeer. While I offer no opinion on the EU directives on this topic, I find it unlikely that a reindeer would feel sad ("Oh dear!") that this were forbidden, and even less likely that the concept of belonging to the EU would be comprehensible.

Tuu tuu tupakkarulla (Come, come tobacco roll, 1994) by Kristina Lantto-Toffe, set in the era when the use of minority languages in public spaces such as schools was forbidden, is more successful. Elina and her sister are sent to a workhouse where they attend school in Swedish. After the first week, they are punished if they use Meänkieli. Even singing (the title is from a lullaby) is forbidden, and the outhouse becomes the only safe space where they can use their home language—making Meänkieli literally potty-talk! Unlike The Reindeer's Diary, the narrative perspective supports the telling of the story. When Elina first arrives at school and cannot understand Swedish, her inability to comprehend is incorporated into the plot. The reader never knows more than she could.

The above overview identifies the four main features of these books as they collectively endeavor to create a sense of Torne valley culture. They promote the learning of the heritage language and foster close relations between parents and children. This is done primarily through shared reading, but it is also linked to the darker history of the region recounted in Tuu, Tuu, Tupakkarulla, when children were separated from their parents and their home language. These are works of political activism produced by local people endeavoring to create a sense of the "we" who speak "our language." [End Page 59]

Lydia Kokkola

inline graphicLYDIA KOKKOLA is Professor of English and Education at Luleå University of Technology. Her main research interests are Reading in English as a Foreign Language, Children's Literature, Adolescence, Holocaust Studies, Trauma Studies and Cognitive Literary Theory. She has been Reviews Editor for the International Research Society of Children's Literature, and is a former editor of Bookbird.



Borg, Inga. Plyppi ja poron vasikka [original title: Plupp och renkalven. Eng: Plupp and the Reindeer Calf]. Translated by Jonna Palovaara ja Inga-Britt Uusitalo, Opal AB, 2015.
Lagerlöf, Selma. Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige [The Wonderful Adventures of Nils]. Bonnier, 1906–7.
Lindgren, Barbro and Eva Eriksson. Max Balja Pekan Palja [Max Bathes]. Translated by Daniel Särkijärvi, Förlaaki Kaamos, 2015.
Mörtlund, Mona and Stina-Greta Berggård. Elli Lähtee Pyhhiin Pirthiin [Sw. Elli har fått en kusin; Eng. Elli Has a New Cousin]. Förlaaki Kaamos, 1993.
Mörtlund, Mona and Stina-Greta Berggård. Ellin Leikkikaveri [Sw. Ellis lekkamrat; Eng. Elli's Playmate]. Förlaaki Kaamos, 1993.
Mörtlund, Mona and Kerstin Nilimaa. Hanna Hakkee Joukhaista [Sw. Hanna sökersvanen; Eng. Hanna Searches for the Swan]. Förlaaki Kaamos, 1991.
Mörtlund, Mona and Kerstin Nilimaa. Hanna Hakkee Hormia [Sw. Hanna sökermjölkört; Eng. Hanna Searches for Fireweed]. Förlaaki Kaamos, 1991.
Pohjanen, Monika. Meän Pikku Kirja [Our Little Book]. Barents Publishing, 2012.
Stålnacke, Aina. Missa: Kertomus Liinan viishasta kissasta. Förlaaki Kaamos, 1989.
Tuomas Larsson, Kerstin and Isabella Jakobsson. Anna Peilaa Itteä [Anna Looks in the Mirror]. Barents Publisher, 2014.
Uusitalo, Inga-Britt and Ragnar Henriksson. Poron Päiväkirja [The Reindeer's Diary]. Illustrated by Inga-Britt Uusitalo, Förlaaki Kaamos, 1998.


Kokkola, Lydia. "An 'Invisibling' view of a Northern Landscape: Inga Borg's Plupp Series." Bookbird: A Journal of International Children's Literature, 54.1, 2016, pp. 42-47.
"Lag (2009: 724) om nationella minoriteter och minoritetsspråk" [Law on National Minorities and Minority Languages]. Sveriges Riksdag,
Winsa, Birger. Language attitudes and social identity: Oppression and revival of a minority language in Sweden. Applied Linguistics Association of Australia, 1998.
Winsa, Birger. "Language Planning in Sweden." Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 20, 4 and 5, 1999, pp. 376–-473. [End Page 60]

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