Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Celebrating Tove Jansson and Moomins

January 2014 marks the centennial of the birth of Finnish writer and artist Tove Jansson. Her delightful story “The Hemulen Who Loved Silence” (Junior Great Books Series 4, Book Two) is a long-time favorite of Junior Great Books students. If you aren’t familiar with the story, I encourage you to read it—you’re unlikely to encounter a bored Hemulen pleasure-ground ticket puncher whose dream life isn’t what he envisioned elsewhere. I discovered the Moomin books and the world of Moominvalley when I was five, soon after my family transferred to Goose Bay, Labrador, and the strangeness of Jansson’s other-worldy characters and landscape made the strangeness of my new surroundings less intimidating.

Tove Jansson’s life was as rich as her imagination. Born in Helsinki, Finland, in 1914, into a family of the Swedish-speaking minority, her parents were both artists—her mother a designer, her father, a sculptor. Creativity was a given in Jansson’s family, to the extent that her father referred to her as an Artist with a capital A since birth. The family was close and supportive, and spent summers at a cottage on a small island in the Gulf of Finland. “Without a happy childhood,” she once observed, “I would never have started writing.”1 Readers of her books will recognize Moominvalley life in her description of her youth:

"We lived in a large, dilapidated studio, and through the windows one could see the whole harbour and the roofs of Helsinki. I pitied other children who had to live in ordinary flats, who had living rooms without staircases and sleeping compartments up close to the ceiling, nothing like the mysterious jumble of turntables, sacks with plaster and cases with clay, pieces of wood and iron constructions where one could hide and build in peace. A home without sculptures seemed as naked to me as one without books . . . . " 2

As a young woman, Jansson studied book design in Stockholm and painting in Helsinki, Paris, and Florence. The first hippo-like Moomintroll appeared in public in 1938 when twenty-four-year-old Jansson worked as a cartoonist for a Finnish anti-fascist magazine—she published an anti-Hitler cartoon and signed it with a frowning Moomin. But Jansson drew the first frowning Moomintroll years earlier in an equally surprising location. When they were kids, Jansson and her brother Per used to share thoughts by writing on the outhouse wall at her family’s cottage. After Per wrote a complex quote from a philosopher, Tove wanted to contradict him but the quote "was so impossible to argue with that my only chance was to draw the ugliest figure I could." 3 Tove later said that the horrific war years motivated her to turn the frowning, ugly Moomin into a wide-eyed adventure seeker and observer that developed into the Moomin books.

Her first Moomin book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, was published in 1945, and three more followed by 1950. The Moomin books were wildly popular in Finland and Sweden, and they reached an international audience after the London Evening News began publishing a Moomin comic strip drawn by Jansson in 1952. Eventually Mooomin comic strips ran in twelve countries and hundreds of newspapers, and by the end of her seven-year contract Jansson had drawn more than 10,000 comic strip frames. Moomins grew into a cultural phenomenon—including Russian and Japanese television shows, plays, operas, and a theme park—and the nine books in the Moomin series have been translated into forty-three languages.

The splendid visuals and fun of the Moomin books are enough to captivate young readers, and older readers (including adults) react to the strong narratives of characters responding to uncertainty and pondering the problems of friendship, solitude, and freedom. The books center around the Moomin family—good-natured, naive Moomintroll who loves fun and adventure; his mother, strong, loving Moominmamma who rarely says no; and his top-hat-wearing father, Moominpapa, who loves the sea and keeps track of his many adventures in a book called Memoirs. Like Jansson’s family, the Mommins are eccentric, tolerant of diversity, live close to nature, and value personal freedom. The Moomin household welcomes all needy souls and orphans, and the books introduce a large cast of intriguing, fantastical creatures. Nature and the seasons play a large role in Moomin life, and Jansson’s basic philosophy of acceptance and quest for solitude resonant throughout.

When asked how she perceived her Moomin reading audience, Jansson explained:

I write for myself first, not children. But if my stories are directed toward a certain type of reader, then it has to be a “skrutt.” By that, I mean those who have a hard time fitting in somewhere; those on the fringe, the lost ones. We all try to avoid being viewed as a “skrutt . . . . “ 4

Jansson also published novels and short-story collections for adults, and illustrated English and Swedish additions of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Hunting of the Snark, as well as J. R. R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit. She died in 2001, but never distanced herself too far from the Moomins in her lifetime. "You feel a cold wind on your legs when you step outside Moominvalley Valley, 5 she said.

Read more about the official centennial celebration Tove 100—Celebrating the art and life of Tove Jansson

1. Bo Carpelin, translation of “Tove Jansson,” Min väg till barnboken, B. Strömstedt, ed., Bonniers, 1964, as cited in Something About the Author, Volume 41, Anne Commire, ed. Gale, 1985. p.109.

2. Doris de Montreville and Donna Hill, eds., Third Book of Junior Authors. H. W. Wilson, 1972. pp. 147–8.

3. “Tove Jansson and the Moomin Story,” by Pekka Tarkka and Peter Marten, updated April 2010,thisisFINLAND, produced by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland and published by the Finland Promotion Board,

4. Carpelin, as cited in Commire, p. 113.

5. "Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words," by Boel Westin, Review by Sue Prideaux

Sharon Crowley works in K–12 marketing at the Great Books Foundation.

1 comment:

  1. I've missed so much by not being exposed to the Moominvalley family earlier. Thanks so much for your wonderful introduction to it.