A Morning with Tove Jansson

Photo of Tove Jansson
Visit the Tove Jansson exhibit from now through 7 September at the Ateneum Museum in Helsinki.

As much as I may dream of spending a morning with beloved Finnish author and painter Tove Jansson in the flesh, a morning at Helsinki’s Ateneum Art Museum visiting the Tove Jansson exhibit still thrilled this Moomin fan. The exhibit celebrates the 100th anniversary of Jansson’s birth and demands a visit if you are in the Helsinki area in the next six months.

Tove Jansson created the iconic children’s fantasy world of Moominvalley and populated it with strange and wondrous imaginary creatures in tales published both as books and comic strips. The principal characters of this world, rounded white-bodied trolls called the Moomins (or muumi in Finnish), go on adventures with an unusual assortment of friends through a world that seems a lot like Finland–full of forest, seas, and sweeping valleys. Released as World War II came to an end, I imagine the child-like innocence of the characters as well at Jansson’s fanciful drawings appealed to many people who had known nothing but deprivation during the war.

Anyone who spends time in Finland encounters the Moomins. They adorn everything from a highly-collectible series of Arabia coffee mugs, bowls, and plates, to tissue packets, to t-shirts, to boxes of sweets. The books and comic strips have been translated into many languages. There’s even a BBC series, although I don’t feel that it does justice to the stories.

So if you’re too far away to visit the Tove Jansson exhibit at the Ateneum, but would like to learn more, there are several places to start.

I loved the Moomin series. If something so unique can be categorized, I would call the series middle grade (age 8-12) fantasy. But that would discount the philosophical elements of the story and the lengths Jansson goes to in creating vivid characters with a strong dose of humanity (even if most of them are not human!). Start with Comet in Moominland and work your way through all nine books. Be sure to read the story of Moominpappa’s childhood, Moominpappa’s Memoirs, as this one has the most to offer adults. Moominpappa is a bit of a philosopher, and his childhood origin story demonstrates the amazing depth of the world that Jansson has created.

If your children aren’t ready for longer chapter books, the Moomin comic strip may be of interest. I also have a nice illustrated Moomin book with Finnish on one page and English on the opposite page, but I can’t find it anywhere outside of Finland. That’s a shame–it’s perfect for younger children. There are a series of coloring and activity books that are available online.

But there’s more to Tove Jansson than children’s books. I’m reading her collection of short stories, The Summer Book, and love her spare, gorgeous descriptions of the landscape of Finland’s archipelago. If you want to experience a summer day in Finland without having to travel here, read this:

On the east side of the island, there were small borders of ice around the rocks…the whole short was a tangle, a broad bulding mass of tumbled planks and seaweed and reds along with postsa nd fragile wooden boxes that had turned inside out around their steel frames, and on top of everything lay an enormous, heavy log…Small pieces of bark and the splinters of old storms rocked in the water beyond the rim of ice, drawnslowly out and in again by a feeble swell. It was ery close to sunrise, and the fog out over the sea was already suffused with light. The long-tailed ducks kept up their steady call, distant and melodious.–The Scolder by Tove Jansson

Then please go read the rest of the collection. I prefer novels to short stories as a general rule, but this book reads more like a memoir (following the same little girl and her grandmother through a summer at their island cottage). Hat tip to the translators who allowed the lyrical quality of this book to survive the transition to English.

Tove Jansson died in 2001. She entrusted her life’s work to the world. I, for one, am glad that Moominvalley survives her and that I get to share it with my children, and with you…