Real Players, Real Events, Fictionalized Stories
When the eighth edition of the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France started gaining attention this summer, few publishers may have been as well positioned to capitalize on the excitement as Sweden’s Olika Förlag.
Sweden’s powerful showing—they defeated England 2 to 1 to win the bronze—was, as fans can tell you, a proud accomplishment for the yellow-clad players who had come into the tournament ranked No. 9 in the world.
But Olika’s founding publisher Marie Tomičić was set with a winning play of her own.
“Our goal is to contribute to increased equality and that means mirroring strong female athletes but also mirroring male athletes working for equality.”Marie Tomičić, Olika Forlag
In 2016, she’d told us about a series of “books inspired by female football stars since there are so few girls in books about football.”
Have a look, the collection of titles is here. And this focus on women’s football will surprise no one who knows Olika: Tomičić has guided her house to focus on diversity for young readers and is gaining new traction this year, because those fotboll books this summer demonstrated what a timely and topical trend the publisher is following. At Frankfurt, trade visitors found the books represented by S.B. Rights Agency at the A.M.K. Book Services stand in Hall 6.1.
Earlier this month, that summer soccer energy was still evident in a post on Olika’s Facebook page, saying, “We’ll be in place, talking books and gender equality!” for an upcoming match with Slovakia.
‘Such an Urge To Change’
Our exchange with Tomičić starts with how the international boost of the summer’s games may have affected her experience with the women footballers’ series.
Marie Tomičić: This summer really helped the interest for our books. For example, this autumn, the Swedish Association for Soccer has spread the word about our books in social media channels, arranging a contest in which they asked the public to share their best stories from the world championship in France. I caught a lot of attention and great stories were shared.
Also, the match this month in which Sweden is playing against Slovakia is great for us: We’ve been invited to participate in the fan zone hosted by the Swedish Football Association, and we’ll have a chance to speak about our book series together with one of our stars, Therese Sjögran, in a meetup arranged by Forza Football [the progressive international platform that supports equality in pay and play throughout the sport].
So yes, interest has really increased a lot. Last week one of our stars, Nilla Fisher, attended the Swedish book fair and rendered a lot of people listening. And it is amazing to see how the two worlds, sport and literature, are coming together, both sharing the wish for equality.
We have also started a new concept, Tell Your Sport Stories, where we’d love to expand with international stars because we strongly believe that this is a very promising direction.
The interest from various news media has also increased a lot, because these women have such a strong voice and such an urge to change. It makes them interesting both as athletes and as people.
Publishing Perspectives: We can see something of the cooperative arrangement you have now with Forza Football on this page, where visitors to the platform learn about the books. The authors are sports journalists?
MT: Yes, so far Anja Gatu and Jennifer Wegerup are our writers. I hope we’ll add more as we grow, but it’s tricky to find the right combination of an author who has deep sports knowledge, which is very important.
Both Anja and Jennifer are sports journalists who have that strong interest in literature. And the quality of their work was reflected in our inclusion by the Swedish Arts Council of Passa bollen, Kosse! in the New Swedish Books catalogue.
PP: And as yet, your football series is solely focused on women, right?
MT: So far, yes, it’s all been about female athletes, but we’re working right now on a book with a male athlete. Our goal is to contribute to increased equality and that means mirroring strong female athletes but also mirroring male athletes working for equality.
When choosing male athletes, we choose people who want to contribute and who are, as people, contributing to equality. That’s of utmost importance to us.
PP: And for what ages are these books recommended?
MT: The ages for which we’re recommending the series are around 6 to 9 years, with the books classified as illustrated chapter books. We also have two chapter books, text only, for approximately 6 to 12 years. Those are the books inspired by Marta Vieira da Silva and the book inspired by Nilla Fischer)
PP: When did you start work on this series, and what prompted you to develop it?
MT: The idea was born between me and journalist Johan Thorén. We met when we ended up sitting across from each other in a shared office facility for small companies.
We realized when we started to talk that there were very few books about girls playing football. Olika had just finished a series of books inspired by real children and the reactions were great.
So we took the same approach to this idea and started to look for stars.
We found one, Charlotte Rohlin, here in our city. [She’s the football star featured in Dog in the Plan!] And when she said she’d like to be part of this we started to look for a writer that knew both sports and literature. Not so easy, but we found Jennifer Wegerup. And then we found Anja Gatu. And the rest is history.
We’re impressed that our athletes have been so brave, saying yes to our projects–especially Charlotte and Kosse [Asllani] in the beginning. We believe in building collaborations like this to speed up the process for equality and gender equality, and we’re happy they want to be a part of it.
The first of these books came out in 2014, and that was Sätt straffen, Charlotte! (Penalty Kick, Charlotte!) We celebrated the book release with a pancake party at the early soccer festival in Linköping for girls between 10 and 12 years old.
PP: And in terms of the rights arrangements, are these books produced in association with the Swedish national team?
MT: No, we started working directly with individual players. We did contact the Swedish Football Association, but their interest wasn’t very strong in 2014 when we made our presentation.
Now, of course, that has changed.
PP: Where do these books’ stories lie in terms of fiction vs. nonfiction?
MT: We interview the athletes once or twice, and try to get a sense for who they were when they were young. To do this, we ask them about anecdotes, real anecdotes. And based on these interviews and anecdotes, we create a book’s story.
The main goal is to make the story interesting for the readers, that’s the top priority. So the quality of the story is very important. But we combine the nonfiction with fiction. We want the story to feel immediate, not something from the past.
One anecdote, for example, is about how Kosse Kosovare Asllani always got nervous when she was going away would have to spend the night away from home. Our book is about how she handled that. Another example comes from Nilla Fischer, who had thought of herself as a forward when her trainer said she needed to change to a defensive position. And then there’s Olivia Schough, whose mother was dying of cancer when she was young, and that became an important part of her life and story, of course. Her story helps children facing these very difficult themes in their own lives.
‘I’d Like More Countries To See the Potential’
PP: In addition to adding books that feature male athletes, what are your plans for the series?
“I have a 9-year-old myself who plays soccer and I see how these books have helped her and her friends.”Marie Tomičić, Olika Forlag
MT: We’re expanding to more sports and would love to expand internationally. We think we have a great concept that seems to be working and our dream would be to have athletes from all over the world sharing their stories and working for equality and gender equality.
PP: What need do these stories answer for kids?
MT: I have a 9-year-old myself who plays soccer and I see how these books have helped change her and her friends’ identities. Suddenly they are soccer players, they don’t question themselves, as previous generations have. They read the books in school and play soccer on their breaks, shouting, ‘Today I am Olivia!” or “Now I’m scoring like Kosse!” That’s amazing to hear.
Of course, this isn’t all thanks to our books, but I do think they contribute to such confidence and growth. They see these star athletes in the media, read about them in school and with their parents. The combination is strong, although these are still 9-year-olds fighting the struggle every day–with mostly some of the boys having a really hard time accepting that there’s so much focus on female athletes today. They’re used to football stars being male.
So in 2019, girls have to fight that kind of gender effect again, but this time they have a number of role models to read about and follow on television.
PP: Have you sold rights into other languages, or does the Swedish-specific aspect make that hard?
MT: Denmark has bought a lot of rights to the books, but they’re still a new combination to many, real sport stars featured in fiction based on nonfiction. I’d like more countries to see the potential. We’re all struggling with young people reading far too little, and one way of reaching them is to have them read about their sports and favorite players.
PP: What are some other strong books from the house this year?
MT: I would say we have some strong titles for our youngest, like We Grow Strawberries, a book focusing both on strawberries and a family with two dads. We also have our wonderful serial about female pirates, The Pirates and the Rainbow Treasure. And there are our Olika Classics, that include a more modern Cinderella story, and a new Beauty and the Beast coming in 2020.
PP: With so much experience in socially relevant material for young readers, what do the trends look like to you in the industry?
MT: The trend is toward responsibility and supports acknowledging that we’re part of building the world and our societies. We take responsibility by thinking twice about what we promote and I see that more and more people are thinking this way, not just publishing houses. Publishing has a strong tradition of working with societal issues and I figure that this helps us take steps toward being equality and human rights.
We’re also working on environmental issues, both in the context of our books, mainly by releasing books towards the youngest helping everyone see and appreciate our lovely nature and take good care of it.
We also have started an initiative to make our production and distribution fossil-fuel-free by 2021. Today, we print with printing houses that use other forms of energy. We wrote a press release on our mission, hoping to engage the publishing industry in Sweden since there’s too little interest in this.
At the Swedish National Book Fair taking place last week there were a lot of seminars about climate but none that actually addressed the publishing industry, itself. (You can read more from Tomičić on the topic of publishing and the climate crisis in this article from Anna von Friesen at Boktugg.)
So we hope we can spark interest and come together to do more in the publishing industry since, after all, Olika is small publishing house.
A version of this story was printed in our Frankfurt Show Daily for Friday, October 18.
Be sure to read our Publishing Perspectives Show Dailies from the 2019 Frankfurter Buchmesse. You can download free copies of them all in PDF: