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Kvinna med glasögon

"She surprised us all and broke into song."

Maria Lassén-Seger has served on the ALMA jury for twelve years. On March 30, she will take part for the last time in selecting the recipient of the world’s largest prize for children’s and young adult literature. This summer her term expires. We asked Maria to share some of her memories from the years on the jury. She picked out some favorite books by our laureates, too!

Fast facts

Age: Almost 54

Home: A wooden row house in central Åbo (Turku) in Finland

Family: My husband Robert, my son Arthur, and our adopted stray cat Haru

Job: Director of services at the Åbo Akademi University Library. As of a few years back, lecturer in children’s and YA literature at Åbo Akademi University. Researcher, public speaker and educator in the field of children’s literature.

Dream job as a child: Kindergarten teacher

Fun fact: I belong to a book group named Gafsorna, after the character Gafsan (Gaffsie) in the Moomin books. We love a lively discussion!

Maria, how does it feel to be leaving the jury after twelve years?

"It feels sad, but also very right. It’s wonderful that ALMA jurors have the chance to work for the award over the long term. But after 12 years, it’s time to move on. I’m so grateful to been given the chance to join the jury. In a way, when I got the call asking if I was interested, it felt like I was getting my own little version of the ALMA. Although at first I thought someone was pulling my leg."

When you look back at your time as a jury member, what memories stand out?

"There are so many. Our jury discussions. All of the authors, illustrators, and reading promoters I met. Attending the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. Dinners in Astrid’s apartment. Talking to Meg Rosoff at Kulturhuset in Stockholm and Jacqueline Woodson at the Gothenburg Book Fair. And some lovely moments from the award ceremonies: Wolf Erlbruch fumbling with his glasses, and the absolute hush in the hall when Isol surprised us all and broke into song."

What was the best part of serving on the ALMA jury?

"Getting that unique overview of children’s literature around the world, and being able to discuss it with such knowledgeable colleagues. The conversations with other jurors are probably what I’ll miss most. And the ALMA officers, who were so capable and took such good care of us. And the annual phone call to the new laureate. Hearing their reactions never got old."

And the most challenging?

"All of the above–except the phone call. I’m joking a little. But as a jury member, you do have to remember your position in the world, and strive to make sure the ALMA really is seen as an award in world literature for children and young adults. Apart from that—you have to build up your reading muscles! For the first five years it feels like all you do is read, read, read, trying to catch up to everyone else.

Each year a new laureate gets a surprise phone call from the jury. Which call do you remember best?

"To be honest, every single one that I was involved with, because that moment is just so joyful and exciting. A few that spring to mind are Shaun Tan, who was in the middle of doing the dishes; Meg Rosoff, who went perfectly silent; Barbro Lindgren, who was just over the moon; and Isol’s husband, who told us at first that she was sleeping and he wouldn’t wake her. I can tell you no one was ever just sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring." 

Why is it important that children and young people get chances to discover literature?

"Our early experiences shape us for life, and the reading we do as children and teenagers leaves a deep impression. There’s no question in my mind that literature and art are essential parts of life, at any age. Literature is our doorway to imagination, to language, to experiences beyond whatever happens to be right under our noses."

What do you think makes for a good children’s book?

"I think the answer is different for each book, but one thing that catches my attention is an electric quality in the story, and a feeling of relevance. The writer Lennart Hellsing said it so well: a story should have “crunch.” A strong feeling for language is also important—more important than the subject, really. Above all, don’t try to make a point at the expense of the story." 

One last question. What’s next for you?

I will keep on working with and for children’s literature. Lecturing, researching, writing literary criticism, etc. And once a year you’ll find me glued to my computer, waiting for the announcement of the new ALMA laureate!"

Maria’s favorite books by ALMA laureates

I’ll pick one by each author/illustrator from my years on the jury:

Baek Heena: Moon Sherbet

Bart Moeyaert: It’s Love We Don’t Understand

Jaqcueline Woodson: The House You Pass on the Way

Wolf Erlbruch: Mrs. Meyer the Bird

Meg Rosoff: There Is No Dog

Barbro Lindgren: Vems lilla mössa flyger (Whose Little Cap Is Flying)

Isol: It’s Useful To Have a Duck

Guus Kuijer: The Book of Everything

Shaun Tan: Tales from the Inner City

Kitty Crowther: La Visite de Petite Mort (The Visit of Little Death)