Interview with Pirjo Suvilehto, Finnish Bibliotherapist and Doctor of Philosophy & Literature
Last week we interviewed Pirjo Suvilehto who is a fascinating Finnish bibliotherapist, having completed a Docent in Literature and a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Oulu. She has significant experience in the fields of creative writing and literary education. She's also a lecturer at the University of Oulu and has completed extensive research in bibliotherapy, children's literature, creative writing and art pedagogy within human-animal sciences. Her doctoral thesis is the first academic study in Finland to consider children's and adolescents' bibliotherapy. She's also authored 30 published books of poems, picture books and nonfiction and trains student bibliotherapists in Finland. She currently lives in the countryside in Northern Finland.
Q: Tell us a little about yourself and what you do - your background in bibliotherapy, your experience and qualifications and what got you interested in the profession.
A: I became a docent (akin to a professor) of literature (2016) at the University of Oulu. My doctoral thesis (PhD 2008) in literature was the first academic work on children’s and adolescent’s bibliotherapy in Finland, and remains the only one to date.
As an author, I've published 30 books, poetry, nonfiction and picture books. I've taught many creative writing groups, specially among children. These have been joyfuland interesting. I've also chaired reading clubs and other activities with a focus on art and literature.
At the moment, I work as a university lecturer and researcher at the University of Oulu. My bibliotherapy practice is largely attributed to my background in literature complemented by additional training in children’s psychiatry, psychoanalysis and educational sciences.
I'm currently researching bibliotherapy and bibliotherapy education. In Finland we've created a national bibliotherapist training programme which I run.I found my way into bibliotherapy post my work in creative writingand reading clubs. There's a real need for people to express their inner thoughts and relate to characters in fictional stories. Bibliotherapeutic approaches provide fantastic opportunities for personal development, addressing very many of our human needs.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your poetry therapy with horses and give examples of successful client outcomes?
A: I founded the concept of animal bibliotherapy. This involves creative writing projects at the stable with our ponies and smaller pets, adding an ”animal touch” by connecting with the animals and then reflecting our thoughts and feelings through writing.
Results show that when these two elements (animal connection and writing) are combined, people often access and acknowledge difficult emotions, feel inspired and experience compassion towards these tranquil, gentle animals.
There was a young lady, who after completing one of these creative writing projects began to write a lot. The sensory experience of connecting with the horses (equine therapy) and writing, allowed her to access her innermost feelings and reflect them back through writing. The intimacy with the horses, allowed for this level of openness and connection, opening doors to healing and making sense of our true feelings. Empowered and inspired, she's become an author of several published books.
We also conducted animal art bibliotherapy with a 4-month-old baby, continuing it till she turned one. The idea was to determine the impact of animal connection on the baby's early stage of development and how this translates into children's picture books where so many of the protagonists are animals in their natural environment. This was seen as an empowering literary activity with the baby, her mother, the ponies and a bunny rabbit.
From the first meeting with Pritney, the real pony, together with a puppet pony, the baby is beginning to create an image that can be later recalled from her memory and combined with a specific situation, such as seeing Pritney or the puppet. When we study a first book together, she gets excited upon seeing a colour picture of a toy horse on a double page. She salivates - a sign of interest and excitement. Then, looking at an adult, following the adult’s finger moving over the surface of a picture, she wants to take the baby’s pacifier from her mouth in an attempt to say something. These are clear signs that throughout the activity she wants to interact on an interpersonal level. This behaviour may be rehearsed with repetition.
Q:Reflecting on your work on developmental bibliotherapy, are there any picture books/babies' first books that you would recommend that truly meet the goals of developmental bibliotherapy?
A: There are wonderful picture books, that offer age-appropriate experiential, developmental tasks to consider, and experience, through high quality pictures and a great story.
Infants generally enjoy nursery rhymes or rhythmic poetry. I've published several first books for babies and their parents, and I think joyful play and being together with the baby is the most important thing – to enjoy each others' company.
Q: Which books have greatly influenced your life and your work?
A: I've spent a large portion of my life reading, but when I think about bibliotherapy and the psychology of fine fiction I have to mention Hermann Hesse and his novels, which were a treasure for me when I was in my teens.
After that I found Carl Gustav Jung’s work, especially his Red Book amazing. And then came Sigmund Freud’s work, whose work continues to blow my mind. The adaptation of psychoanalysis in films and in literature have influenced me too.
Animals as non-humans are of great interest to me, and I think it's crucial for us humans to realise the value of different species and nature. WhenI write poems or picture books for children, non-humans are very much present. In my article "A study of animal characters as representations of humans: the animality/bibliotherapy test", I include guidelines on reading picture books with a bibliotherapeutic lens.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who would like to train as a bibliotherapist?
A: For a bibliotherapist trainee it's important to determine your long term goals and why you're interested in working in this field. One must read a broad range of literature from poetry to novels, from fiction to nonfiction. It's also crucial to seek out a proper training programme that enables personal development and growth and also group work. In Finland, we've launched a basic bibliotherapy training programme that amounts to 90 European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) credits.
Q: Are there any links to your work that would be helpful for someone interested in your work?
A: These 4 pieces would be of particular interest:
- Suvilehto, P. 2019. A study of animal characters as representations of humans: the animality/bibliotherapy test. Journal of poetry therapy 32 (2) 95–108. https://doi.org/10.1080/08893675.2019.1583414
- Suvilehto, P. 2019. Human-Animal Interaction at the Stable: Observations of an Infant’s Pony and Bunny Contacts and Literary Arts in a Case Study. The international journal of arts education 14 (1) 15–33. https://doi.org/10.18848/2326-9944/CGP/v14i01/15-33
- Suvilehto, P. & Latomaa, T. 2018. Writing with horses: poetry with therapeutic art activities supporting self-expression in a case study. Journal of Poetry Therapy 31(4) 224–243 https://doi.org/10.1080/08893675.2018.1505250
- Suvilehto, P. 2016. Horror and aggression in children’s creative writing: implications for bibliotherapy and child development. Journal of Poetry therapy 26 (2) 105–115. https://doi.org/10.1080/08893675.2016.1176159
Full details of Pirjo’s work and articles can be found on her blog.