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Interfacing with children’s culture: Views by a composer and an author

by Anna Nora, Timo Parvela

Composer Anna Nora and author Timo Parvela discuss culture meant for children and the interfaces between music and literature. Both have had to come to terms with the field in which they work, its practicalities and its public perception. What does it take to create music and literature for children – and why does this field of culture gain so little media attention compared with many others?



Dear Timo,


It’s me again, children’s opera composer Anna Nora, a great friend and fan of your work!


KLAPS [Classical for children] is hard at work trying to find a text for our next production. We were thinking of doing something completely new, but we have also been thinking that your and Virpi Talvitie’s work Keinulauta [Seesaw] has plenty of material for creating a sequel to our previous opera. Or maybe, if we could get a theatre on board, we could expand the Keinulauta opera to a full-length production with an interval!


What do you think?


Excited regards,

Anna Nora




Hello Anna,


Thanks for your message. I would be happy to work with you, since I was impressed with how you conveyed the essence of Keinulauta in your performance. I am sure we could discuss which of my books would be best suited for your next project. As I am sure you know, I have more than 100 books to choose from. The sequels to Keinulauta (the Huvipuisto [Amusement park] trilogy) are a good option, but there are plenty of other suitable stories in what I have written. What exactly are you looking for? What is it in a story that speaks to you as a composer, and how do you recognise a story that you want to set to music when you see it?






Anna: How interesting to discuss with you how a literary work translates to the stage and into music! Usually I only engage in a dialogue with the text written by an author or poet.

So far, I have found texts to set mostly by accident. Our first children’s opera came about when I was reading the brilliant verse tale Kani Koipeliinin kuperkeikat [Bunny Pawie’s somersaults] by Kirsi Kunnas for my children, and the sparkling verse leaped off the page to make music in my mind. Your children’s novel Maukka, Väykkä ja Karhu Murhinen [Purdy, Barker and Growly Bear] prompted a hilarious and disarmingly touching tempest of emotions, which is why I fell in love with it and wanted to see it translated into an opera.

When talking about opera, there are always two things that we look at. One is the text, which has to be delightful and delicious in its own right, and even funny if the story so directs; the other is that the story must convey emotions, large or small, something that can touch, move, delight or annoy audiences. Because we create operas based on literature in Finnish and do not use surtitles, every single sung word has to be clear. This is important because there are children in our audiences who cannot yet read.

We have also found it important to have characters that can be identified with, because sung dialogue and arias are such an important part of the idiom. I myself see the emotional charges of scenes (or chapters, at the point when the text is still a book) as colours, so emotions in the text are an important source of inspiration for me. Perhaps this is why I as a composer and as a reader am drawn to timeless narratives, like in Maukka, Väykkä ja Karhu Murhinen, as opposed to stories with an overt moral.


Timo: All that sounds really inspiring. In recent years, I have been searching for ways to make literature come life, to make it visual (especially for children) and thus, hopefully, interesting and desirable. The approach you just described, respecting and being inspired by the literary work, is excellent. And I have to say it works the other way around as well: when I saw (and heard) Karhu Murhinen, which you referred to above, illustrator Virpi Talvitie and myself decided to create one more sequel to a series we had already though was over and done with, because the music prompted new ideas in us and made us want to work together again in this universe that had progressed into an opera.

I too look for emotion in stories and music, as do many people. Whenever I am writing a new book, I almost programmatically keep in mind that the story has to have at least one scene or sequence that catches the reader completely off guard and that there is at least one grand emotion involved. Of course, I cannot decide for the reader what they feel when reading, but I see this approach as a sort of authenticity guarantee. If I can include those elements, then I have given the story all I can.




Timo: Maybe composing music is somehow similar? Often there is a moment in a piece of music that rises higher than the rest (at least in my mind), being more touching and memorable than other moments. Do you know when writing the music that this will be the moment that everyone remembers? Can you design such a thing, or does it just come to you out of nowhere?

Oh, and I have to ask you this, because people always ask me: Why do you write for children? Do you actually write for children?


Anna: What a great question. When I write music, I do not think about writing for children in particular. I do have a special relationship with young people, with children, because I work with them on a weekly basis in my other job as a choir conductor for children and adolescents. I am involved with some kids for many years. In this job, interaction within music is more open than in everyday life, and I have developed a highly respectful attitude to children, to how they live their lives and interact with each other, to how they express their thoughts and to the ideas and opinions they have. Their creativity, unprejudiced outlook and curiosity are a huge source of inspiration for me. 

Another thing I think about when I write music is the books that I read as a child and the music that I heard as a child. These have stayed with me as powerful experiences and vivid, coherent worlds. I feel that adults have a responsibility in considering what children’s minds are exposed to, because children are so enormously receptive. This is why I want my works to have a story that is true to life but also wonderfully imaginative, multi-layered and somehow hopeful, even if it may deal with difficult things – because such things do exist in children’s lives. So it is not so much a question of writing for children but of trying to find in myself something of the lack of prejudice, capacity to be surprised, capacity to be impressed, generosity, keen observation and empathy that children possess.  

Interaction is also one of my goals. I often hear that children who have been at our performances, whether performing or listening, have begun to improvise at home, or sing, create music, write or have musical rehearsals with their friends or indeed with their soft toys. That makes me think that I have done something right in writing the music and in rehearsing and performing the pieces. 

About the high points: It does sometimes feel like, yes! that’s it! You feel that your mind just expanded into new depths and colours. It may be related to the emotional state you describe that can be prompted by a scene, or sometimes by a single sentence. I find it difficult to imagine reaching that creative state without a text, although sometimes I have been led there by the text, which has then left me to proceed on my own. I am quite dependent on text, so I am indebted to you authors and poets!

What do you think about your books being read and heard by children?


Timo: Creating for children is one of those chestnuts that always comes up with people like us who are involved in children’s culture. Why do you write, or compose, or paint, or dance, or act, for children? But writing text or music is something you do all by your lonesome, having no contact with the audience. These days, I scarcely even meet my readers, so the question of why write for children sounds odd. The only underaged creature in my workplace is our dog, Heppu.

As much of a cliché as it may be, I always write mainly for myself and by myself, and I am my own audience. Sometimes I am really annoyed by the imposed division between children’s culture and all other culture. I feel that I am more deeply involved in the nitty-gritty of literature and of being an author than most of my colleagues, irrespective of genre. For more than 30 years now, I have been living all aspects of the life of an author: adapting my texts for the stage, for film and for TV, administering translation rights, writing song lyrics, developing new formats, negotiating agreements, and so on. Even so, my presumed target audience determines how my work and its outcomes are viewed by the public at large.

The most obvious consequence is that it is extremely difficult if not impossible to get publicity for children’s culture, although it needs publicity quite as much as any other kind of culture. The last time I had a review for one of my books must be several years ago. When I organised a wonderful storytelling concert with the Helsinki Philharmonic at the Music Centre in Helsinki (four sold-out performances), not a single media person turned up. So why do I write for children? Because I can, as Obama might say.




Anna: That reflects my experiences as well, I am sorry to say. Children’s culture struggles to gain visibility, and fundraising is just as hard. I recall two experiences from the time when we were working on our first opera, Kani Koipeliinin kuperkeikat. One was the opportunity to meet poet and author Kirsi Kunnas to ask her permission to use the text. She was incensed that the fees for works or performances for children are only a fraction of those paid for similar works intended for adults. There is absolutely no justification for that, because it is in no way easier, quicker or cheaper to create something for children than it is for adults. The other thing was that when composer and musician Marjatta Meritähti, whom I respect highly, heard I was writing an opera for children; she said ironically: “Welcome to an anti-career!”

It is maybe for these reasons that KLAPS [Classical for children], our association creating and performing classical musical works to new Finnish texts of high quality for audiences of all ages, has learned by necessity (i.e. lack of money) how to create full-fledged opera performances on a shoestring budget and with a minimal team. Everyone involved has to be a top-of-the-range expert in their field. Although the team can be as small as six people, the cost price of a performance is nevertheless too high for producers of children’s culture to afford to programme them, except in the rare case where we have secured grants to pay for the performances too. The policy seems to be that things meant for children must not cost anything, and the budgets allocated to performances for children are insufficient for paying for the tiniest of stage productions. It is crazy, to be sure.


Timo: It is crazy, and we must be crazy to keep going regardless of the grass being so green on the other side of the fence... but the fact is that I love my job. The absence of reviews and media attention also means great freedom. These days, I no longer spare a thought to what someone else might think about my texts. I can work without pressure or fear of having a book trashed by a critic or being trapped in a vicious circle. I no longer even google for feedback on my books, because either there is none or it is completely random and thus meaningless. And that is just as well. 


Anna: When we make opera for children, one of my greatest delights is to hear later that the performance inspired a child or a family to read the book. Maybe stage works have the advantage that when the story and text are interpreted simultaneously in music, in action, in lighting and in the stage presence of our singers and musicians, it creates a space that our stage director Juulia Tapola calls the ‘magic circle’ of the performance. If a child is unfamiliar with text as an expressive medium or with the Finnish language, in this magic circle the sung words and the images they prompt somehow hit harder than they would otherwise, like a magic potion! For me, the interaction between text and music, book and opera, is continuously bidirectional: the text nourishes the music and vice versa. I love the world that the two create together. 


Timo: We could say that we are fortunate to be doing this work free of any extra stress, creating art for the sake of art. Children’s culture gives us an enormous range of things to do and almost limitless potential for experimenting, getting excited, finding things, thinking about things, creating things and above all for working with people involved in children’s culture, who tend to be easily approachable yet hardcore professionals. It is a pleasure, or rather a passion, to work with them. Thank you, Anna, for bringing joy and enthusiasm to my life and to my work. I will review my works with a view to what might be suitable for your next composition. I would not exclude the possibility of creating a new opera out of whole cloth, so that I would write a story just for you. Keep up the good work!


Anna: How wonderful it would be to enter that world with your text again! I have to finish on a family anecdote. We used to read Maukka, Väykkä ja Karhu Murhinen as a bedtime story when the children were little. Once one of them shouted: “Dad, come and read this, Mum is crying again!” It is a wonderful book, and the entire team shares fond memories of this tale of a life span and how to share it with your fellow creatures. So thank you!




Anna Nora

  • Composer of children’s opera
  • Conductor of children’s and youth choirs
  • Teacher and trainer of choir conducting
  • Founding member of the KLAPS Klassista lapsille [Classical for Children] society
  • Artistic director of the Finnish Youth Choir Federation


Timo Parvela

  • Author, lives in Kirkkonummi with his wife and their dog Heppu
  • More than 100 works, translated into some 40 languages
  • Song lyrics, stage plays, TV scripts, columns; runs his own production company
  • Recognitions include the Finlandia Prize, the Suomi Award and the Pro Finlandia decoration. Recent recipient of the Minna Canth equality award.
  • Currently shortlisted for the H.C. Andersen Prize, referred to as the Nobel Prize for children’s literature

Featured photo: Anna Nora / Timo Parvela. Photo editing: Loviisa Pihlakoski
Translation: Jaakko