Monday, April 7, 2008

Moominland Midwinter

We don't post too often about books for children, mainly because (and I think I can speak for Rhian here) we think that most of them are utter crap. It's rare to find a really great one. The Little House On The Prairie books are brilliant and wonderful...Roald Dahl of course...The Phantom Toolbooth. You know the ones.

But it's only recently that we discovered Tove Jansson's "Moomin" series of short stories, novels, and comics (I can hear our comics-pedant son Tobey screaming "Not comic books, graphic novels"). Jansson, a multitalented Finn who died a few years ago, appears to have been some kind of literary and artistic genius. Moominland Midwinter is a moving, haunting, and utterly original piece of work, so much so that it's almost hard to believe somebody actually went to all this effort for children. That she did so makes it even better.

The Moomins are a family of schmoo-esque creatures who live off the land. The protagonist, Moomintroll, is a sensitive little boy; he lives with his parents, Moominmamma and Moominpapa, and the motley collection of orphans, wanderers, and eccentrics whom they take in. This world is packed with different sentient creatures; they all look like animals of some kind but are all human-like, with a few notable exceptions. The stories mostly focus on the Moomin family, and this book does too, though it is quite different from its more lighthearted predecessors.

Moomins are warm-weather animals--they hibernate in the winter. The premise of this book is that Moomintroll wakes up in January and can't rouse his family. The amount of sunlight per day can be measured in seconds (this is Finland, remember), and the world he wakes to is entirely alien. Strange creatures are inhabiting all his old familiar haunts, everything is covered with snow, and everyone he knows in the world is asleep. What follows is a kind of mini-odyssey, in which Moomintroll learns self-reliance and social responsibility, and apprehends fully, for the first time, the sensual wholeness of life truly lived.

The book is filled with sophisticated, beautiful prose composed with a limited but expressive vocabulary. Here, Moomintroll is moping around his silent house, considering the strangeness of other people's lives:

Such things just are, but one never knows why, and one feels hopelessly apart.

Moomintroll found a large box of paper decals in the attic and lapsed into longing admiration of their summerish beauty. They were pictures of flowers and sunrises and little carts with gaudy wheels, glossy and peaceful pictures that reminded him of the world he had lost.

First he spread them out on the drawing-room floor. Then he hit upon pasting them to the walls. He pasted slowly and carefully to make the job last, and the brightest pictures he pasted above his sleeping mamma.

And here, later, when spring finally arrives:

This day the spring had decided to be not poetical but simply cheerful. It had spread flocks of small scatterbrained clouds in the sky; it swept down the last specks of snow from every roof; it made new little brooks run everywhere and was playing at April the best it could.

Evidently (see the Wikipedia link) this was the first of a run of rather more serious Moomin stories, which would lead Jansson, in the seventies, to begin writing entirely for adults. It shows. She brought her sophistication here first, and in this novel (translated with great nuance by Ernest Benn), we see real art being brought to bear upon the strange epiphanies of childhood. Read it to your kid immediately.


Laura @ Hungry and Frozen said...

Sounds very charming, and there's no reason why children shouldn't have wonderful stuff to read. I was raised on Roald Dahl and at a very young age my party trick was being able to recite the story about Crocky-wock the Crocodile. (sp?) Erm, not sure where I'm going with this except I agree that Dahl is a fabulous any age. I still can't face The Witches though - too scary even now!

Gloria, Writer Reading said...

I was fortunate enough to have a close Finnish friend who introduced me to Moominland when my children were quite young. They were difficult to find in English at the time, but worth the effort.

AC said...

Really great books for adults are rare too. I tend to find more to enjoy in a mediocre book for children. They have more atmosphere, more description of places and activities (presumably because kids can be assumed to have less experience with the world). Also, the standard plot lines in childrens' books are more satisfying. Sex and career advancement just aren't all that interesting.

Pete said...

I'm going to have to pick up a Moomin book at the library for my daughter's bedtime reading. I read one of the Moomin books (in the original Swedish) back in my Swedish language class in college, and enjoyed it even though, thanks to the language barrier, I had little idea what was going on. Imagine how much more I'd enjoy it in English!

Dahl is indeed a treasure. One of my favorite books from childhood was Danny, The Champion Of The World, which doesn't seem to garner as much attention as his other works.

jrlennon said...

Yeah, I've never read that one! We should get it quick before the kids get too old...

rmellis said...

I've been avoiding it because it's got a dead mom in the beginning. I don't read those out loud! They can read them on their own if they want.

Lia said...

There exist a animated serie of Moomins. I used to watch when I was little (and even last year). It was always on Tuesdays afternoon and Saturdays morning. It is really nice, at least in someways is Czech Republic ahead of America!

Anonymous said...

We had it in Britain too!