by Lisa Peet
The prospect of rereading childhood books, particularly the ones that were special, can be a bit discomfiting: an adult understanding of plot and form and dialogue superimposed over something that was once as close to magical as you’ll ever get in this life might be like going back to the house you grew up in and finding everything smaller and drabber than you remembered. I suspect many of the books imprinted themselves on me—C.S. Lewis‘s The Chronicles of Narnia, Thornton W. Burgess‘ Animal and Bird Books for Children, Ruth Stiles Gannett’s My Father’s Dragon trilogy—don’t necessarily need an encore.
But some of those childhood books do call to me now, some 40 years later; among them Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll series, originally published in Swedish between 1945 and 1970, and translated into English in 1958. I read them sometime before I was ten years old, and in fact part of their allure has to do with the fact that I don’t remember exactly when or how they came to me. I know few Americans my age who have read them. We lived overseas in the mid- to late-’60s, and spent time in England, so they could have turned up in a UK bookstore when I was five or six—I can easily see myself attracted to Jansson’s lovely, haunting pen-and-ink illustrations before I could read fluently. Or my father, an anthropology professor, might have had a cohort of slightly erudite fellow parents who the books to their own children.
All my childhood books were lost long ago, and there’s no one left for me to ask. So for years, what has remained is a Moomintroll-shaped sensation of stories that were both light and a little dark, sweet but not cloying, saturated with a melancholy kind of joy—a complex set of impressions to have accumulated so young.
Eight of the nine novels were reissued in 2010 by Macmillan’s Square Fish imprint—slim trade paperbacks that retail for $7.99 and are therefore easy to snap up. Happily, they’ve lost none of their charm. The adventures of mild young Moomintroll—who looks like a small white hippopotamus with perky ears and a long tail—his parents, and his extended family and collection of friends are still immensely pleasing. But what is almost more pleasing than their ability to make me smile now is the chance to recognize, without a doubt, what first enchanted me.
I was something of a moony kid, an only child with a vivid inner life that took precedence over the outer one. I loved animals, and building miniature worlds, and playing out fantastic exploits, either in my head or with an ever-growing collection of tiny figurines that I kept in a beat-up white suitcase. What I most wished for were brothers and sisters, pets, parties, and adventures, so long as they weren’t too scary.
In an afterward in the reissues, Jansson explains,
[The series] all started with my wanting to depict an unusually happy family: they are all fond of each other and give each other all the freedom they need; it is a harmonious family.
She goes on to say that it reminds her of her own cheerful, gregarious family.
For those of us in less ideal circumstances, though, the Moomintroll family was wish fulfillment of a kind that could be ingested easily—and unthreateningly—by a small person. Moomintroll has an adopted little brother, Sniff, who’s a bit of a braggart and a baby whom he loves nonetheless; a best friend, Snufkin, a harmonica-playing wanderer who leaves a note when he departs and always comes back; and a girlfriend of sorts, the lovely, vain, and surprisingly resourceful Snork Maiden.
He also has Moominmamma and Moominpappa, the kind of parents any child would want. Moominpappa is a wanderer himself and spends a lot of time writing his memoirs—a careful reading reveals that he might have had something of a dissolute youth, having run off at one point with a weird and destructive tribe of beasts called the Hattifatteners. When when Sniff asks him, in The Exploits of Moominpappa, if he led a “wicked life,” Moominpappa ostentatiously excises the mention from his memoirs and changes the subject:
Dash, dash, dash. But it was fun. Look, there’s something floating in the water. Run along and see what it is
But he’s loyal, and wise, and looks good in a hat. Moominmamma is a gentle matriarch and great cooker of pancakes. What I notice now especially, and surely what appealed to me as a child, is how her absolute love for Moomintroll never edges over into smothering. “My darling Moominchild,” she calls him—but when Moomintroll and Sniff decide they need to go on a river expedition to the Lonely Mountains, Moominpappa readies a raft for them and Moominmamma packs their rucksacks. When they return some time later, Moominmamma is
in the kitchen decorating a big cake with pale yellow lemon peel and slices of crystalized pear. The words “To my darling Moomintroll” were written round it in chocolate, and on the top there was a glittering star of spun sugar.
Not only do they love their children, but the Moomintroll parents welcome wandering strangers with open arms. Over the course of the series their blue, pointy-roofed house becomes home to all manner of odd creatures: a nihilistic philosopher-muskrat, the hapless stamp-collecting creature called the Hemulen, and sensible, striped-sweater-wearing Too-Ticky, whom Jansson modeled on her longtime partner, Tuulikki Pietilä. The Moomins’ is a warm, vaguely communal world of adventurous children—often referred to as “little animals,” which surely tapped right into my fantasy life—and unthreatening adults.
It wasn’t the adults that enthralled me, of course, but rather Jansson’s pitch-perfect child world. Moomintroll and his fellow little animals discover a cave on the beach, they ride their raft through an underground river, they swing through the trees when their house is magically overgrown by a jungle, they walk on stilts over the dried-up ocean floor. They eat pancakes and drink lemonade. Deep in the forest they discover “a really good Village Store. The garden had all the flowers you can think of planted in neat rows, and the house was white, with grass growing on the roof.”
And they snuggle—while riding out the arrival of a fierce comet, each dug into a little hole in the sand, or rolled up in their blankets for the winter (all denizens of Moominvalley sleep through the winter months). There is a comforting sensory bliss to the world Jansson has created, and the rhythm of scary moments followed by cheerful ones is perfect. At the same time there is an undercurrent of melancholy, a wistful longing. The characters are strongly tied to the natural world and the seasons; they hibernate or migrate, but not without a certain sadness. Come fall, the peripatetic Snufkin tells his friend,
“I have a plan. But it’s a lonely one.”
Moomintroll looked at him for a long time, and then he said, “You’re thinking of going away.”
Snufkin nodded, and they sat for a while swinging their legs over the water, without speaking, while the river flowed on and on beneath them to all the strange places that Snufkin longed for and would go to quite alone….
Moomintroll stood looking on while Snufkin packed up his tent. “Are you staying away long?” he asked.
“No,” said Snufkin, “on the first day of spring I shall be here again whistling under your window—a year goes by so quickly!”
All these years later, it’s interesting to realize that I remembered the tone and tenor of the novels, but few of the narrative details: it’s the illustrations that have stayed with me all this time. Jansson was an accomplished illustrator, and her black-and-white drawings, with their strong textural crosshatching and solid black areas, evoke depth and spookiness. (One of her later short stories is about Edward Gorey, and the rapport seems evident.) The artwork is evocative, whimsical, and haunting all at the same time, and spot drawings hold little surprises like fantastic fauna, or small, scuttling forest creatures with big eyes. Several of the books also featured maps of Moominvalley, in which a dreamy child could get lost. Finn Family Moomintroll even offered floor plans of their wonderful round house (only one bathroom for all those creatures—they must have gotten on well).
After she stopped writing Moomin novels, Jansson continued their stories with a long-running comic strip, and Moomintroll merchandise is ubiquitous all over Europe. But I don’t think the more simple comics are in the same league as her illustrations for the books, or even as good as the stories’ original color covers, which are muted and slightly ghostly. There’s something noirish about the drawings, calling to mind early silent films.
While the drawings are faithfully reproduced in the reissued books, I yearn for my long-lost childhood editions—hardcovers, and in my memory larger, although that could be more a function of remembering the volumes in small hands. They would have been Puffins, probably, and if eBay listings are any indication, not worth a whole lot. But it would be nice to have them, that slice of my childhood spent dreaming along with Moomintroll in his secret mossy riverbank hiding place. I’m glad to be rereading the books in any form, though. They’re comfort food of the highest order, mysterious and warm and a bit dark; my tastes, it turns out, haven’t changed much. Whoever put them in my hands when I was young, I thank them. And I’m a happy little animal now to have them back again.
Lisa Peet is the Associate News Editor at Library Journal, and an essayist, book reviewer, visual artist, proprietor of the literary blog Like Fire, and a card-carrying bloomer herself.
All illustrations property of the estate of Tove Jansson