Finnish illustrator Marika Maijala flourishes as an author

August is Women in Translation Month (#WITmonth), and both here on World Kid Lit blog and on our new instagram account we’ll be reviewing some of our favourite children’s and teen books by women in translation, as well as highlighting female kid lit authors from around the world whose work should be translated. This is the first of two Translate This! #WITmonth specials, focusing on children’s authors from Russia and Finland

By Mia Spangenberg

Marika Maijala is an internationally recognized and award-winning illustrator known for her whimsical, captivating illustrations of people and animals. Now she has taken up her pen to both write and illustrate her own books in collaboration with the Helsinki-based boutique children’s book publisher Etana Editions – and the two books she has published thus far are already beginning to make waves.

The first book, Rosie’s Journey (Ruusun matka, 2018), won Finland’s Rudolf Koivu Prize for the best illustrated children’s book in Finland, and it was also nominated for the 2019 Nordic Council’s Children and Young People’s Literature Prize. Illustrations from Rosie’s Journey were selected for the Bologna Illustrators Exhibition in 2019, and most recently, the book was chosen as one of dPictus’ 100 Outstanding Picture Books for spring 2020. The Wolf and his Gardener (Suden hetki, 2020) is also garnering positive reviews and has been compared to Arnold Lobel’s celebrated Frog and Toad series.

In both books, Maijala makes use of wax crayons to create an expressive yet controlled effect, and she  tackles themes of loneliness and friendship. These are deeply personal topics for Maijala, who was bullied and often lonely as a child. At the same time, Maijala has shared that the biggest change in these books is that she has learned to work together with others and accept help and feedback. The women behind the helm of Etana Editions, Jenni Erkintalo and Réka Király, brought their own backgrounds in illustration and children’s books to bear to help Maijala create two books with unique layouts that strategically serve their respective stories  – Rosie’s Journey is a story of few words but big pictures, a work of art that Maijala brought to life to appeal to readers of all ages. At almost half the size, The Wolf and his Gardener provides more text and character development and is almost like a miniature novel that slowly evolves to a satisfying conclusion.

Rosie’s Journey began as a series of sketches. Excited by Maijala’s work, Erkintalo and Király encouraged Maijala to develop the sketches into a book. Based on a true story, Maijala brings us the touching story of Rosie, a racing greyhound who longs to be free. After racing by day, she is confined to a small, cramped cage by night. But one day, Rosie doesn’t stop at the finish line. Instead, she leaps across the page and over the stands into freedom. 

In the pages that follow, Rosie races through packed city streets and even jumps into the sea to evade her captors. Eventually, Rosie finds herself in a small town and hears friendly sounds coming from a nearby dog park. Two dogs invite her to run with them, and they quickly become friends. On the last page, Rosie’s racing bib has finally been torn off, and Rosie stands free and ready to race on her own terms. 

In nominating the work for the Nordic Council’s Children and Young People’s Literature Prize 2019, the jury praised the book as “an ambitious work of art which is at the same time simple and easily accessible.” For Maijala, telling this story was a way to share her own story of survival while making it relevant to animals as well. Thus far, rights to the book have already been sold for Swedish, Korean, simplified and complex Chinese, Italian, Spanish (world), and French. 

By contrast, The Wolf and his Gardener offers a more measured pace and introduces us to lonely Wolf, a protagonist ready for change. Indeed, the Finnish title Suden hetki translates as the witching hour (literally the wolf’s moment) when the strangest things can happen. Wolf lives alone on his estate, and on the opening page, readers learn that Wolf is a rather self-centered and unsympathetic character. He is also plagued by having nothing to paint; even the potato he has set aside for a still life is moldy. 

Wolf visits the art museum to seek inspiration, and finds it in contemplation of a portrait. Upon returning home, he is interrupted by the doorbell. It’s his gardener, Mr. Barker, who has arrived to tend his garden and trim his fruit trees. While readers will immediately realize that Mr. Barker makes the perfect subject for a portrait, the narrative tension is upheld as Wolf only comes to the same realization a few pages and days later. As Mr. Barker sits for his portrait, the two spend several companionable evenings together. When the portrait is done, Wolf enters it into a competition and wins. But he doesn’t think to invite Mr. Barker to join him for the celebration and unveiling of the portrait, and once again Wolf is forced to realize how self-centered he is and make amends. When he finally invites Mr. Barker to visit, the two make plans to go to the museum the next day to see Mr. Barker’s portrait. Touchingly, Mr. Barker has brought along Wolf’s favorite almond pastries to share, and Wolf takes his friend into his own secret garden. Rights for this book are available in all territories. 

If you are interested in more work by Maijala, she has also collaborated with Etana Editions and author Juha Virta on the Filippa & Company series featuring Filippa and her furry friends André the Donkey and Snoozy the Cat. The first book has been translated in English as The Piano (Gibbs Smith, 2018; original: Piano karkaa, Etana Editions 2016), and the other books in the series are The Case of the Missing Cat (Kissa katoaa, Etana Editions, 2017); Whimsical Numbers (Numerosoppa, Etana Editions, 2018); and The Christmas Twist (Joulu juksaa, Etana Editions, 2019).

The illustrations here are in bright colors and filled with bold shapes – readers are introduced to a captivating world where animals and people alike visit cafés and go to the circus. Virta takes readers on whimsical adventures involving missing cats and pianos in the first two books, and in The Christmas Twist, readers learn that Santa Claus can take many shapes and sizes. These feel-good stories have proven to be very popular in Finland, and The Piano and The Christmas Twist have been bestsellers. Rights for the series have thus far been sold for Swedish, Korean, Spanish, Gaelician, Simplified Chinese, and Italian. English rights have only been sold for the first book The Piano

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Mia Spangenberg is an emerging translator from Finnish and German whose work includes many sample translations of children’s books.

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