Kolibrí 2023 reflects on children’s literature and refuge with a panel at Vuotalo

Kolibrí Festivaali is an arts and cultural festival for children and their families, but also a time for reflection on children’s literature, multiculturality and diversity in today’s society. And that was the spirit and the thoughts of our panel ‘Children’s literature, hospitality and refuge’, held at Vuotalo on 29.9.2023.

The cultural center provided us with the opportunity to bring together children’s book authors, animators, specialists, writers, and educators. During nearly 2 hours, and surrounded by a diverse audience of more than 40 people, panelists discussed creations in children’s culture sector, and how these “artifacts” could initiate discussions and facilitate learning processes for children on complex, yet crucial topics such as refugees, immigrants, war and hospitality.

The panel gave us the chance to bring together:

  • Alfredo Soderguit: Uruguayan children books illustrator, writer, and filmmaker. Honored guest of Kolibrí Festivaali 2023.
  • Katri Tapola: Finnish writer focused on topics like multiculturality, anti-racism and refuge in many of her books.
  • Olga Filippova: Ukrainian refugee scholar at the Eastern University of Finland, researching “Home-leaving and home-constructing: Ukrainian refugees in Finland and strategies of integration”.
  • Maria Pikkarainen: Finnish manager of language and culture groups’ education of Joensuu City, theatre and film director.
  • Jaana Pesonen: Finnish Lecturer in Educational Sciences at Helsinki University, specializing in education, children’s literature, diversity, and anti-racism. Member of the 2022 Hans Christian Andersen Award Jury. IBBY- Finland board member.
  • Anna Sidorova: Russian children’s literature translator, TAIKE art advisor, and lead of IBBY-Finland publication about “Other languages in the Finnish children’s literature”.

Alfredo Soderguit, books, illustrations, and films to think about “the others”

After two decades working as a writer, illustrator, and filmmaker, Alfredo Soderguit has contributed to children’s literature as a tool for discussing fundamental topics such as migration, hospitality, friendship, human relationships, and the search for refuge. 

During his speech, Soderguit discussed his work, the creative process, and how his books and animated works prompt him to reflect on his own life and past. Soderguit focused his presentation on the film “Anina” and two of his books: 

  • The Capybaras (2020, Ediciones Ekaré). Translated into 17 languages, this book explores the possibilities that animals offer to storytelling by removing all signs of people. Soderguit posed the question, “What happens when you use an animal to refer to people?”. 

The book tells the story of a quiet henhouse where hens have everything they need. However, one day, a group of capybaras arrives, escaping from the hunt season, changing things forever. 

“Hens get scared because the capybaras are big, foreign, hairy, dark, wet… but the little ones are curious and want to get closer. Something might happen, an opportunity, perhaps not just for the capybaras, but for everyone.” 

Soderguit chose capybaras as the animals to represent newcomers, recalling the neighborhood where he grew up in Rocha (Uruguay), and where “people used the word ‘capybaras’ to refer to the poorer people”. 

  • Cerca (2023, Ediciones Ekaré). In his latest book, inspired by an idea of Mariale Ariceta, Soderguit reflects on “how the place where you’re born determines the things you can or cannot do in life, but it’s a book about changes and opportunities”. Two girls from different social classes meet at a hedge that separates their houses. “Cerca means hedge, but also close, so it’s a word game”. 

This is not the first time that Soderguit has explored the theme of friendship in his work. Anina stands out as one of his significant contributions, showcasing the story of two girls who don’t get along and how they begin to be good friends by getting to know each other.

Katri Tapola: “We belong to the same community and community is only created with love” 

Finnish writer Katri Tapola, has published over 40 books for children, young readers, and adults, including novels, prose, and picture books. In her two decades of literary work, she has received awards such as the ‘Tirlittan Award 2023’, organized by The Union of Finnish Writers.  

Throughout many of her books, Tapola has delved into crucial topics like refuge, anti-racism, and multilingualism. She believes that “multilingual books have the potential to bring people together, and open the door to the future”, at a time when we desperately need “clear visions of representation”. 

In a powerful and inspiring speech, Tapola discussed literature as a tool for advocacy, emphasizing that it is essential for her to convey anti-racist messages through her work. She sees books as a means to create things that do not exist yet and promote equality, with the key collaboration of schools. 

As a civic activist and volunteer working with refugees, Tapola recalled the beginnings of her involvement during “the refugee crisis in 2015, when the majority came from Iraq and Afghanistan.” This experience motivated her to take action, inspired by the stories, feelings, problems, and experiences of the many individuals she encountered over the years. 

Tapola underscored the significance of Kolibrí 2023’s main theme—hospitality. She acknowledged that “the current political situation makes many people feel more rejection than hospitality. But we all are part of same society and I feel responsible to say something and work for change. Because untold stories can separate us. We belong to the same community and community is only created with love”.  

You can find some of Katri Tapola’s books here.  

Olga Filippova: “Hospitality gives the hope of creating a home”

Ukrainian researcher Olga Filippova took us to her city, Kharkiv, just 40 kilometers away from the Russian border. In a heartbreaking speech, Filippova shared pictures and and recounted the harsh reality of her country, describing how hundreds of people had to seek refuge in Metro stations for weeks during Russian air force bombings. “My friends from the University of Eastern Finland helped me, because I didn’t know how I could get out of there”.  

Filippova prompted us to think about the significance of hospitality for refugees, emphasizing not only its security implications but also its psychological aspect, particularly concerning a critical matter in everyone’s lives, especially children: the concept of home. 

Where is your home? Knowing this is very important. We’re lost in time and space, so hospitality gives the hope of creating a home, and the oportunity to create a home”, explained Filippova. She began studying the idea of home, home-living, and home-making, before the war. “How can people create their home? How do we deal with the home we previously had, and the home we’re making know?”. 

Currently in Joensuu, she explores how children can integrate into school, children’s culture, and how it reflects the society in which children live, drawing comparisons across different generations. 

Building on the theme of home and her own experience as a refugee, life led her to her latest project, Where is your home, Winston?. This collaborative project, including a book and a movie, being done in cooperation with her colleague Maria Pikkarainen. It is based on Filippova’s own story, her dog’s story, and the stories of many Ukrainians who had to scape from the war while taking their pets with them. 

Filippova underscored how war impacts everything and everyone, including animals, who also deserve protection. 

Maria Pikkarainen: “The best way to tell stories is when people feel many emotions, cry, and laugh together” 

Maria Pikkarainen, the manager of language and culture groups’ education of Joensuu City, is also a theatre and film director known for producing documentaries and theatre productions, focusing on immigrants and integration. 

During her speech, she shared insights into the creation of the book and film Where is your home, Winston?, and her experience in the creative process. This narrative is inspired by the experiences of Olga Filippova, and many other families and pets. Actually, the book illustrations are replicas of the pictures taken by Filippova herselve, during her days in the Metro station.  

Pikkarainen highlighted the project’s enjoyable nature despite addressing such a complicated topic. She emphasized, “The best way to tell stories is when people feel many emotions, cry, and laugh together”. 

Where is your home, Winston? delves into the topics of seeking refuge, finding home, and let us step into the stories of many Ukrainian refugee families who arrived in Finland with their pets, but told from the perspective of the dogs, the protagonists of the film.  

A story that prompts reflection on how war impacts everything, and everyone, including animals deserving protection, and explores the challenge of creating a home, when the old one lingers. 

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Jaana Pesonen: “Refugee stories are also our history, because we also received help” 

Jaana Pesonen, a Lecturer in Educational Sciences at Helsinki University, has dedicated her research to education, children’s literature, diversity, intersectionality, and anti-racism. Member of the 2022 Hans Christian Andersen Award Jury, and IBBY- Finland board member, the Finnish researcher works as a Lecturer in Educational Sciences at Helsinki University. In addition to her academic research in education, children’s literature, diversity, intersectionality and anti-racism, Pesonen teaches the future educators in Finland.  

As part of her teaching approach, she assigns her students readings on children’s books related to refuge, multiculturalism, and anti-racism. “We reflect on what they significance of empathy, and how we can teach children concepts like empathy through these stories”. According to Pesonen, “empathy is something that can be very simple, but it’s quite hard to do it in a story”. 

In her engaging presentation, Pesonen shared several books she uses in her teaching, including: 

  • Thuongin päivä, by Raili Mikkasen, which is now 40 years old, and it’s one of the earliest books on refuge in Finland.  
  • Lappukaulatyttö, written by Eppu Nuotio and illustrated by Sanna Pelliccioni. The story about the Finnish children sent to Sweeden during the war, that Pesonen presented as a good reminder that “refugee stories is not something that happens to other people, far away form us. It’s part of Finnish recent history. It’s also our history, because we also received help”. 

Pesonen expressed how books on refuge serve as excellent examples as they don’t provide easy solutions to dificult problems.   

After the panel, Anna Sidorova encouraged the audience to discuss the emotions and thoughts that the panelists’ speeches evoked in them. 

This event was a production of Kulttuurikeskus Ninho ry, the association behind Kolibrí Festivaali, in cooperation with TAIKE, Helsinki City, Vuotalo, Embassy of Uruguay in Finland, and Svenska Kulturfonden. 

We want to thank all the panelists for such an interesting afternoon, and for sharing their experiences, the audience who joined us, and all the people who helped as to organize this event, that gathered such an outstanding group of people.  

Remember Kulttuurikeskus Ninho organizes this kind of literature encounters all year around, so follow us on social media and stay tuned! 

📸 © Picture: Maikki Kantola. You can see more photos of this event on our Flick Channel.

Remember Kolibrí Festivaali is organised by the association Kultturikeskus Ninho and you can find more events like this one all year around! Follow us and stay tuned!