Finding Her Voice Was Just a Rowboat Journey Away

Text by Johanna Lemola

Photographs and Video by Saara Mansikkamaki

Reporting from Harakka Island, Finland

Just a hundred yards off the shores of Helsinki, beyond its embassies and marina, its cafes and upscale homes, lies Harakka Island.

There is no bridge to Harakka; it must be reached by boat — or by trudging over an ice sheet, when the temperatures plummet in the winter. There are no cars, no bikes and no electric scooters on the island. Even dogs aren’t allowed.

But it’s a haven for a thriving community of artists, who rent studio space in what used to be a chemical research lab for the Finnish military.

The acclaimed children’s book illustrator and author Marika Maijala is one such artist. And it turns out the island is still a place of transformation and discovery.

Her studio on Harakka, part of the island’s Artists’ House, is where she wrote and illustrated “Rosie Runs,” which will be published in the United States on Tuesday by Elsewhere Editions, in a translation by Mia Spangenberg. Though she had illustrated books by other authors before, “Rosie Runs” was the first book she wrote. It follows a racing dog who escapes the racetrack in search of a bigger, kinder world.

In many ways, the story dovetails with Maijala’s own life.

The period before Maijala arrived on Harakka was difficult, personally and professionally, she said. She was burned out and doubted her abilities, despite encouragement from others.

But the island was a ballast for her. “I used to be a fairly apprehensive person,” she said. “But this island forces one to struggle.”

In her first year on Harakka, after creating hundreds of drawings, “Rosie Runs” was born.

“The pictures emerged from my life,” Maijala said. As she made more of them, she remembered a Greyhound named Rosie a friend of hers had rescued in England. “Rosie had been abused, but she led a happy life afterward,” she said. “The stories of Rosie and myself met.”

Maijala, 49, was raised on a farm in Haapajarvi, a small inland town in central Finland. She studied literature and worked as a graphic designer, including for Finnish publishing companies.

She started illustrating children’s books in 2004. Her breakthrough came in 2008, when she earned the top Finnish prize for children’s books illustrators. That same year, Maijala and her partner at the time, the Finnish writer Juha Virta, created a series about a girl named Sylvi Kepponen. Other children’s book illustrations followed.

It’s no surprise Maijala has dedicated her life to making books for children. She respects them deeply, and appreciates how critical, wise and serious-minded they can be.

“Children are a fine, valuable audience, and I want to make fine books for them,” Maijala said. She dreams of one day creating a book with children at a workshop.

After some time on Harakka, Maijala realized that she was part of the island’s larger community — a community that extends beyond her fellow artists to include the island’s animals, its nature center, the caretaker’s family, boaters and the residents of neighboring islands.

Here, she discovered a place of joy, where she could exchange ideas and create alongside others.

“I don’t know where my art ends and my life begins. The border is fleeting.”

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