Diversity Is the Point at Sweden’s ‘Different’ Children’s Book Publisher: Olika

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

‘What happens to all the children who never see themselves mirrored in books?’ asks Olika publisher Marie Tomičić, who works to promote diversity and inclusion.

Artwork from Olika.nu, associated with the picture book ‘Jul’ (‘Christmas’) by Marin Salt with illustrator Maja-Stina Andersson

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘An Awareness-Raising Challenge’
In a holiday season when people in many countries are worried about nationalistic trends—when the publishing community has begun talking loudly of freedom of expression challenges, and when immigration, diversity, and how we think of “the other” has come to the fore—Sweden’s Olika Förlag is one of our most interesting finds.

Now celebrating its 10th year, the company’s very name, Olika, means “different” in Swedish.

Having earned the 2012 Swedish Equality Award and a 2013 Stenbeck Scholarship for promoting equality and diversity in children’s literature, the company has collaborated on various events with Stockholm’s embassies in Rome, Madrid, and Washington. Olika’s title Courage with Wilma and Loppan was named 2013’s outstanding book by the International Board for Young People.

To ask founding publisher Marie Tomičić about some of her biggest hits is to imagine a Woody Allen-esque scene that could clear a school board meeting—at least in some parts of the world—in a big hurry.

A holiday-themed entry in the Konrad series from Olika

“Oh, we have many strong titles,” Tomičić says. “There’s the The Konrad serial” written by Asa Mendel Hartvig and illustrated by Caroline Röstlund, “in which a boy is wearing a dress. And there’s a book about pirates—female pirates, of course—that’s a good one, as well.

“And then there’s our serial in which we’ve made books inspired by female football stars since there are so few girls in books about football. Some are based on Kosovare Asllani,” the Swedish footballer nicknamed Kosse. She plays for English FA WSL club Manchester City and the Swedish national team.

Publishing Perspectives had a chance to ask what prompted the creation of the venture in 2006—and what the publishing landscape looks like today to a press completely devoted to aggressively diversified literature for young readers. As it happens, the experience of a broken home played a role in the company’s inception.

‘Beautiful and Sparkling Things’

Publishing Perspectives: Tell us how Olika got its start.

Marie Tomičić. Image: Björn Lisinski

Marie Tomičić: We started because we noticed the need for greater variety in children’s books, for books that mirror the real world rather than the picture of the world held by the majority.

At the time, my child was living every other week with me or his father. But every book I read was about mother, father, and child under the same roof. And every time I read that to him, my heart was hurting as it communicated to him over and over again that his way [of living with separated parents] meant he was missing something. It made me both sad and angry, and that anger turned into action.

What happens to all the children who never see themselves mirrored in books?—the children who always, in every book they read at home or in school, are told that they are not one of “them”?

Moreover, the books we read were stereotypical when it came to gender. I remember one time when my son told me how much he liked a pair of shoes that were glittering. Then someone told him that they were for girls, and I remembered seeing the sadness in his face when he understood that he was not to wear them.

“Will full diversity acceptance ever become part of society? I think the answer is no. It must be constant work because the norm of the majority is so strong, and we always need to keep on making minorities visible for an inclusive society.”Marie Tomičić

At the time, I was working in the academic world as a PhD and I was confronted every day with gender issues, as a women in a male world. But when I saw this also happening to my child, I felt sad and angry.

What was it about boys and men that says they can’t have beautiful and sparkling things? Why are clothes designed for boys so dark and sad? And what happens to all the children who want to choose freely but who are stopped by ideas on gender?

Olika Publishing House is a result of these and many other similar ideas. Children’s books are a powerful tool in helping create an inclusive society.

We believe that books work as a mirror–in which children can see themselves and feel they are part of the society—and as a window, through which they can learn about people different from themselves. We believe this helps create an inclusive society in which differences exist side-by-side.

‘We Need To Keep All These Issues Parallel’

PP: From your experience as a specialist in diversity-aware publishing, what’s the key problem in today’s world in this regard? Is one area of diversity more pressing now than another?

MT: Wow, a big question. There are many challenges in today’s world. One of them is a need to reflect on the majority’s norms and power.

Marie Tomičić and Kristina Henkel co-wrote this book “on gender traps and stumbling blocks in everyday life” with illustrations by Emili Svensson. Its rights have been sold to Norway, Serbia, and Spain.

Race issues are more spoken about today than they were 10 years ago. And yet I think we need to keep all these issues parallel: it’s difficult to say that one is more important than another. It’s more like a picture in which we need to always reflect on the the majority vs. minority norms, we need to think about power and why some people belonging to the majority norms have more of it.

So it’s an awareness-raising challenge. It’s also constant work, and I sometimes ask myself why we always have to work with these issues. Will full diversity acceptance ever become part of society? I think the answer is no. It must be constant work because the norm of the majority is so strong, and we always need to keep on making minorities visible for an inclusive society.

As a researcher, I’ve studied change processes and the tendency for many of us to find simple solutions and stereotypes. It’s a way for us to feel safe, to save energy, and therefore we have to work with the negatives of how our brains work. Our bodies react to stress in the workplace, or stress because of our [unfulfilled] expectations of happiness—as if we were standing in front of a bear. “Danger!”

To counter these alarms, we believe that the strategy is to learn to like differences just as we do similarities—similarities are lika in Swedish. Lika is nice, soft, it feels good, you get cred, and need not challenge yourself. So it’s a powerful force we need to work against.

From Olika.nu

‘More Younger Parents Than Older Ones’

PP: And of course, in children’s literature, your sales target is the parents. Can you discern trends among fathers and mothers?—how receptive are they to Olika’s work for their children?

MT: Yes, there are patterns. More younger parents than older ones, I’d say, are interested in giving their children the chance to choose from more than two options.

Football celebrity Kosovare Asllanis’ childhood factors into a series of football books for girls from Anja Gatu and Maria Källström.

And of course the people who like our books and our idea are people interested in gender, education, and class equality. Daycare here is state-financed and those programs’ educational plans require them to work against stereotypical gender roles. Our preschools and schools are required to work against harassment and bullying and, according to a report made by the Swedish National Agency for Education, up to 80 percent of bullying in school is related to children crossing gender boundaries.

Our books are tools to help leverage the equal-treatment principle that our schools are tasked with promoting. If we have books showing a variety of ways to be a boy or a girl, there will be more room for children to express themselves according to their personalities and not to be trapped in constructed gender ideas.

So in Sweden, parents’ attitudes—and those of teachers, librarians and pedagogues—are important, but so are these educational plans governing our preschools and schools.

From Olika.nu

When Hen Crosses the Road

PP: Tell us about this pronoun hen you’ve used in some of your work. It’s meant to avoid the he and she dichotomy. But in English, we’d think we were being called female chickens if someone referred to us as hens!

MT: I know [laughs]. I’ve spoken with people in the UK who say they’re trying to use the plural, “they,” instead.

‘Kivi and Monster Dog’ was the book in which Olika introduced the use of ‘hen’ as a pronoun substitution for ‘she’ and ‘he.’

We published the first children’ book using hen—a non-gendered pronoun—in 2012. Kivi and Monster Dog [by Jesper Lindqvist with Bettina Johansson]. And it was a success in many ways.

Of course, many loved the idea of having a new word, but we also had many oppose it. This created a huge debate, which made the word hen more famous. Eventually, it started to be used, as people saw the benefit of not always having to gender a person.

“I went to the dentist today.”

“Oh, what did hen say?”

We can speak more freely when we don’t need to know the biological gender all the time. Also, many people, especially young people, who aren’t comfortable about being in one of two gender boxes (she or he), will use hen as a way to create more freedom from gender roles. We see more and more people asking to be called hen instead of she or he.

In that sense, it’s a word allowing more freedom of expression and identity.

Today the word hen is in the Swedish vocabulary and of course it’s a huge change since the pronoun is a foundation of a language. Some in the 1960s, I think, tried to advocate for a gender-neutral pronoun as a way to make the language easier, not having to say she or he all the time. But I guess the time was right [in the past decade] and publishing it in a children’s book helped to introduce it into the language.

From Olika.nu

‘Mirroring Society’

PP: Lastly, what would you say have been the main challenges in building a publishing house on diversity as you’ve done?

MT: Some of the challenges are like those in starting a company in any other business—building a company, working without pay, having to be patient and believe in your idea, hanging in there during the difficult years.

“What happens to all the children who never see themselves mirrored in books?—the children who always, in every book they read at home or in school, are told that they are not one of ‘them’?”Marie Tomičić

But for us, it’s also been important to balance what we do—which of course is kind of political—with party politics. We want to be politically free, and this has been a challenge.

We talk more about human rights, about mirroring society, and about providing children with mirrors and with windows. This has been both difficult and a key behind our success. Some people are against what we do, but this has also give us the opportunity to speak more about why we do it.

And we always come back to the children. When people hear this, they usually agree. Who doesn’t want their kid to be seen and mirrored? Who doesn’t understand the idea of presenting the world to their kids? It’s powerful to talk about diversity in that sense.

Olika is represented by literary agent Stephanie Barrouillet of the SBRights Agency. Interested industry professionals may contact her for a rights catalogue for Olika Förlag (PDF).

Artwork for Olika’s ‘Allen and Mike Go for a Walk’ by Tora von Platen with illustrations by Emili Svensson.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.