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'I spent almost a third of my childhood in libraries'

Yvonne Gordon talks to Tomi Kontio, the Finns' answer to JK Rowling

Tomi Kontio, 37, was at the Gothenburg international book fair in Sweden last weekend to read his poetry and talk about children's literature.

In his own country, he is regarded as the Finnish answer to JK Rowling, because of the success of his first children's novel, Father Grew Wings in Spring, published in 2000, which became a cult work.

The book was the first of a trilogy, for which Mr Kontio won the Finlandia Junior Prize, the country's largest annual prize for young people's literature. The follow-up, The Last Children of Austrasia, was published last autumn.

The ideas for the stories evolved from when the author and poet used to tell his daughters bedtime tales, a combination of real and imaginary experiences.

When asked why he thought Finnish people came top of the league in the global literacy stakes, Mr Kontio said: "As a product of the Finnish educational system I don't know how I would have turned out if I had gone through another system.

"But in Finland there is more emphasis on the development of the whole person, and it is certainly not geared towards just passing exams and satisfying statistics.

"Historically speaking, written culture and reading have always been highly respected in Finnish society. Vainamoinen, the central figure in the Kalevala (see above) was a master of words and songs and his actions were founded on the power of the word."

However, as a child he was not so keen on his national heritage: "I hated studying the Kalevala at school but learned to appreciate it when I was much older. We have to read it when quite young and the language was difficult to understand."

But he does not think that the fact that he was forced to learn Swedish at a young age affected his attitude to learning.

"In the 19th century, when Finland was part of Russia, the Finnish intelligentsia and upper classes mainly spoke Swedish, but there was also a strong movement which emphasised the Finnish language. There was a belief that Finnish identity was contingent on having its own language.

"It was essential to develop an educational system based on Finnish.

Writers who used it became national heroes when we became independent in 1917."

These days pupils choose their first foreign language from English, French, German or Russian, at nine, but Mr Kontio said nearly everybody chooses English.

He said: "Nowadays, learning foreign languages plays an even more important role in education than when I was at school. Finland is now an EC member and very technologically advanced, and companies like Nokia have an international market."

The country's diverse network of libraries receives the largest single state grant, and new media also encourages reading, with many foreign-language television programmes.

"Finns love libraries and our system is probably the best in the world.

Every village and suburb has one. I spent almost a third of my childhood in libraries and am happy to pay more taxes to preserve them."

After pre-school, Mr Kontio went to a comprehensive from the age of seven followed by high school from 16 to 19 before going on to Helsinki University to study philosophy and aesthetics.

"Actually I never hated school, not even when I was a teenager. Education is highly esteemed and all students are encouraged to go on to higher education.

"But not everyone has to go to high school, because there are many types of post-16 vocational schools, which give quite high-quality teaching nowadays, although they were not so highly regarded 10 to 15 years ago."

He says teachers are given a high degree of responsibility and autonomy in the classroom. Although there is a curriculum, teachers are not tied strictly to it except in subjects like maths.

"In many subjects, teachers can choose what kind of textbooks they use, or even not to use them."

He said most teachers were women and while the profession is held in quite high esteem, it is not that well paid. Although he thinks that few government inspections makes the job less stressful and bureaucratic for teachers, this also calls for a more creative attitude, which can be hard for some.

Mr Kontio, whose children are at school, added that he had observed that the emphasis on developing pupils' mental and emotional maturity and extra-mural interests had increased in recent times.

"Teaching methods are softer and they try to bring out pupils' individual creativity."

He said in the past there had been problems with discipline, when teachers were forbidden to remove problem students from the class. But disciplinary procedures, including detentions and more homework were now stricter.

He thinks it is a shame that the English-speaking world cannot share more in the joys of Finnish literature.

"One problem, of course, is the lack of decent translators. There are not many native British who can speak Finnish and are capable of translating from it.

"I think this is sad because our literature could enrich British culture, and encourage people to see attitudes to the world and emotions from a different angle."

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