I am going to talk about two books in the Moomin series by Tove Jansson. Tales from the Moominvalley and Moominland Midwinter. I want to give a word of warning before I continue. I am writing an English review based on Norwegian translations from the 60s of two books written by a Swedish speaking Finn.
The Moomin books centre around a world created by Jansson filled with creatures of her imagination.
Moomin, in a lot of ways, are the books you read for your child when they have read Winnie the Pooh. One way of interpreting Pooh and the character in the Hundred Acer Woods are as anthropomorphic expressions of emotions. Having simple black-and-white characters aren’t anything new to children’s stories, but to me the characters in the Hundred Acre Woods are their emotions. Piglet is scarred. Rabbit is responsibility. Eeyore is sadness. To me the books about Moomin and his friends are very similare to that, but that the emotions they represent might be a bit more complex. I don’t mean to say that being scarred isn’t a complex emotion. I think it’s important to talk about what happens when you become scared, but the books about Moomin takes it to a new level. The character of Moomin himself is very much like Pooh, kind and bland (sorry fans of Pooh and Moomin, but they are).
But take a character like Snufkin (swedish:Snusmumrik[en]). The first short story in Tales from Moominvalley is about Snufkin walking trhough the forrest, and because he is alone he can create music on his harmonica. But he is interrupted by a little animal, whom is looking for someone to be with. And that is what the story is about, who’s need has precedence?. Snufkin, and his need to be alone, or the little creature, who needs someone to be with. This theme of need-to-be-alone,-but-that-will-result-in-other-people-being-sad-because-they-feel-rejected is very common with this character. He is a traveller, and a lot of the time Moomin (swedish: Mummitrollet) contemplates how sad he is that Snufkin is leaving and how much he is looking forward to him coming back. This is just how life is. If you like to be alone, like some people do, some people do take that as a form of rejection. Even when the latter knows that isn’t the case.
”Naturally you shale be be free. Of course you have to leave. I understand that you need to be alone from time to time.” At the same time Moomin’s eyes had been so black of despair and helpless longing. (Tales from Moominvalley – The spring tune, my translation)
More recently this theme have become quite popular regarding introvert vs. extrovert. Even when grown-ups talk about this subject it can become quite difficult to understand, and yet the character of Snufkin handle this subject quite nicely.
Another character that is quite amazing is Little My. (Swedish: Lilla My) In a lot of ways, the best word to describe Little My is selfish, in both a good and a bad way. In Moominland Midwinter she, as a creature who usually hibernates, becomes fascinated with snow the first time she sees it. She also falls in love with skiing, and learns to ski by all means necessary. She becomes good at it, because she priorities it. To draw the parallel to Winnie the Pooh again, I have often seen Rabbit being portrayed to be a stick-in-the-mud character but that is necessary when you are responsible. You can’t do whatever you want. It’s the same with Little My. She is often portrayed to be selfish, and sometimes do things that could have ended horrible if she wasn’t so lucky, but she also shows why it’s important to be selfish from time to time. In “The Invisible Child” in Tales from Moominvalley, the Moomins start caring for a child who has been bullied to much she has become invisible. She start to become visible again due to the care and love of the family, but it’s Little My who gives the final clue as to how she can become fully visible again.
She can’t get angry. That’s what’s wrong with her. You’ll never have a face of your own until you’ve learned to fight, believe me. (Tales from Moominvalley – The invisible child)
By the way, have I mentioned that she illustrates her books. That might be one of my biggest complaints about Tales from the Moominvalley book. Her illustrations there are mostly crude drawing, and nothing compared to her more common work, among other Moominland Midwinter. She has also done illustrations for other books, like The Hobbit and Alice in Wonderland.
The last thing that made I really thought was wonderful with these books, is that they talked about a subject that really isn’t talked about in the media that much in my experience. Rejection. In Moominland Midwinter there is a sub-plot about a character whom loves winter and wants to share that love with everyone, becoming a bit overbearing in the process. It becomes so bad that some of the other characters talk about how they can get rid of him (in the sense of him leaving). Another story from Tales from Moominvalley, “The last dragon in the world”, is about Moomin finding the last dragon in the world and falling in love with it (as a pet). The dragon on the other hand rejects Moomin and prefers being with Moomin’s friend Snufkin.
– You and your dragon, screamed Little My, whom had been bitten so hard it hurt. – By the way it’s not your dragon, but Snufkin’s, because it only likes him. (Tales from Moominvalley – The last dragon, my translation)
That is reality, you aren’t going to like everybody you meet and not everybody you meet will like you. That doesn’t make either of you wrong or bad people. I do like stories that tell children (and grown ups) to be kind to other people, but if children don’t learn to handle rejection, to learn that they aren’t owed to be liked (they are owed to be respected and treated nicely, but that isn’t the same as liked) they will grow up to become adults that don’t understand that they aren’t owed to be liked. This is a subject that I haven’t seen much in children’s literature (or grown-ups for that matter) and if for nothing else I think all children need to read or be read The last dragon.
Don’t get me wrong. These are two wonderful books, and like several other reviewers have pointed out, these are books for all ages. You might think these are “just” children’s stories, and that is simply selling the genre of children’s literature short. People say that When Harry met Sally isn’t a chick-flick because men can enjoy seeing it. Just like I think When Harry met Sally is just a good chick-flick, proving that people can enjoy media produced for a demographic besides their own, so are these two books a great example of good children’s literature showing that grown ups can enjoy a media that isn’t created explicitly to them. If you have children, you can find enjoyment in reading it to them, but even if you don’t you can find that these stories challenge you even as an adult.