Sometimes you arrive in a new place, knowing absolutely nothing about it, and you are guided, as if by magic, to where you want to be. One of the first things I hoped to see was a bookstore. But a chance visit to the tourist info office meant that I found a brochure about a children’s book cafe that’s been set up in cooperation with World Design Capital Helsinki 2012. What caught my eye was the jubilee exhibition of Little Golden Books published in Finland by Tammi Publishing. Little Golden Books have been published here since 1952 and there are 188 titles in the series.
The cafe is light and airy, with a giant walk-in book and nicely presented spreads on the walls, plus a carpeted reading area with soft furnishings. I had a funny feeling of deja vu while I was looking at the illustrations. I grew up with Little Golden Books and there are plenty of Finnish editions with internationally-known characters I recognise. The artwork has a gentle “retro” feel and yet there is something timeless about it.
Unfortunately there wasn’t anyone available to speak to about the exhibition, which I would have liked to do. I wondered what some of the commentaries next to the spreads said, but in the end the illustrations were eloquent enough!
My next stop was the famous Academic Bookstore, which has a fantastic collection of books in several languages. If I were living in Helsinki, there would be no shortage of English-language books to choose from in this flagship store designed by Alvar Aalto. I was attracted to three small towers made out of the covers of old books. One had electric lights inside and another had paintings on one side. When I asked whether I could photograph the installation, I was told I should come back in an hour when the person who’d made the towers would be there himself.
An hour later the bookstore was packed. Because I don’t understand Finnish, I was not sure what the event was. A quartet of men in tuxedos was singing on a small stage next to the installation. Then a guitarist accompanied a jolly man with a flute who sang a ditty in English. The next thing I knew that flutist was seated onstage being interviewed about his children’s books. I had admired one of the books earlier because of its striking illustrations – and here was the author. He turned out to be Esko-Pekka Tiitinen and the book is The Drops of Life, which will be published in the USA on April 1.
Did I get the photo of the three towers? No. There was too much going on, too many people. But I didn’t mind. I’d been in Helsinki for less than 24 hours and I’d already seen an interesting exhibition and attended a lively book event in a “happening” bookstore.
UPDATE! Serendipity intervened over the past week and Esko-Pekka contacted me out of the blue. It turns out he’d been invited, as one of a group of Finnish authors who appeared at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last August, to meet me while I am here, but wouldn’t be able to make it. Instead he invited me to come and photograph his installation at the Academic Bookshop and here he is in front of my favourite painted tower. The bookshop asked him to create the installation, which is made from old water-damaged books, as part of their 150 year anniversary. That’s what all the musical entertainment was for last time I was there.
We had a good chat over a coffee and cake, comparing notes about what we do. Esko-Pekka’s been writing for many years and has had the good fortune to collaborate with both his sister, Tuula, and his 23 year old son, Nikolai, who both make beautiful illustrations. I was struck by one of his comments about Finnish children’s books. He had observed that they were darker than books from the UK and Japan, for example, and were more like books from Poland or the Czech Republic. This was perhaps because eastern European countries had lived in the shadow of the USSR and the stories and art reflected this.
Esko-Pekka gave me four lovely books to take back to the Scottish Book Trust and, of course, we got the mandatory snapshot in!
The other nice news is that I’ll be getting a little guided tour of the Children’s Book Cafe next week. I’m sure this will give me a great insight into how the cafe came about and where it is headed.