It’s probably not a coincidence that the whimsical Moomins are seeing a resurgence in popularity. Their lighthearted world is a refreshing alternative to today’s turbulent times, just as it was back in the late 1930s and early 1940s, when Scandinavian author and illustrator Tove Jansson sought an escape from the emotional wear-and-tear of war.
Indeed, Moomin “fever” has been growing for some time, helped in part by the 2014 Drawn & Quarterly release of Moomin: The Deluxe Anniversary Edition. This complete collection of the Moomin comic strip sparked a new generation of fans, laying the groundwork for this year’s release of the first and last picture books chronicling the Moomins and their many (mis)adventures within a series that spanned decades.
The Moomins and the Great Flood (1945) and The Dangerous Journey (1970), are illustrated prose. Published for the first time in North America, they feature the quirky Moomins, creatures that resemble friendly hippos with large noses and rotund bodies. They are happy to call Moomin Valley home, a bucolic paradise within a magical world of colorful characters and fantastical journeys waiting to be had.
While each story within the series features a different exploit, overarching thematic ideas thread each tale together. Time and again, Jansson’s honest acknowledgement that life can be scary, lonely and downright tough, allows her characters to realize their inner strength by finding the joy in life, boldly facing the unknown, and overcoming adversity—with a little help from friends and family, of course. The result is a thoughtful, rich body of work that still devotes plenty of time to whimsy and fun.
The Moomins and the Great Flood, translated by David McDuff, centers on Moominmamma and her son, Moomintroll, as they embark on a journey to find their wayward Moominpappa and build a new home before winter unleashes its fury. Along the way, they visit exotic places that include an ominous forest, a hidden treehouse filled with tasty treats, a turbulent sea, and a land where houses are made of gold. Jansson’s detailed approach allows these landscapes to become characters in their own right, and in one particularly sensorial scene, I could practically feel the earth slither and slide beneath my feet as “the black mud bubbled and whispered all around.”
The book also introduces readers to the cast of quirky creatures who populate the Moomin world. From the lovable “little creature” and heroic blue-haired girl to the dangerous serpent who gnashes at their heels, we learn there is both good and evil, love and animosity, in this surreal land. There’s also plenty who fall somewhere in between, including ant-lions, sea-trolls, hemulens and hattifatteners, to name just a few of the realm’s colorful creatures we chance to meet.
Throughout the story’s trials and tribulations, Moominmamma stands out as a pillar of strength who helps her loved ones discover the inner force necessary to face the many obstacles and uncertainties head on. Although quite different from book one, The Dangerous Journey, translated by Sophie Hannah, also centers upon the importance of personal strength, in this case that of a young girl itching for adventure.
Susanna, another female character with an admirable amount of grit, leaves behind her safe but mundane world after a mysterious pair of spectacles transports her to the unpredictable land of the Moomins. At first scared and uncertain, she learns to draw from her own reserves to ultimately carve out her own path in a place that can be pretty overwhelming. The captivating story also lets readers revisit favorite spaces and familiar faces within the series through a journey to reach Moomin Valley–no small task thanks to the many twists and turns that lie in wait for Susanna and her new-found friends. Throughout, Jansson takes on a more relaxed tone than her earlier work, playfully ignoring the constraints of formality to address the reader directly.
The text itself also undergoes a shift from the Flood’s richly descriptive prose to the Journey’s lighthearted rhyme scheme. Both make for great read-alouds, adding an auditory dimension that highlights the musicality and rhythmic nature of the words. And because the first book contains a lot of text and sophisticated vocabulary, kids also may benefit from a little extra help along the way.
Jansson’s clever wordplay and textual embellishments also should appeal to younger readers, whether it’s unscrambling intentionally jumbled phrases like “mightful fress,” or guessing what the various fonts associated with specific names are really saying about the characters they represent. Adults, too, will appreciate Jansson’s subtle humor, such as the Moomins’ aversion to central air systems, which make wood-burning stoves (prime real estate for Moomin housebuilding) increasingly difficult to find.
As for the illustrations, Jansson creates the kinds of pictures I would spend hours poring over as a child, discovering something new each time. The Moomins and the Great Flood’s combination of line art and sepia-toned watercolor offer detailed visual accounts of the story as it unfolds. Warm and inviting, these images provide us with a glimpse into Jansson’s vivid imagination, bringing the characters to life on the page. While the use of line is deceptively simple, it’s clear that eyes and nose alone effectively convey complex emotion that draws the reader in. Admittedly, there are times when these illustrations do not line up with the story, which can be a bit confusing and distracting.
Within The Dangerous Journey, the images are more prominent, dominating each page with their sweeping landscapes. The color palette is much more explosive, featuring bold reds, oranges and blues that seem a fitting nod to the ’70s more psychedelic side. Working in tandem with Susanne’s surreal adventure, the clamor and clash of colors highlight the loopy nature of her foray into Moomin Valley. The images themselves reveal how the world has quite literally been turned topsy-turvy since her arrival, with shockingly green blueberries and birds flying “back to front” making for a more tactile experience than the text alone provides. Scale also comes into play as Susanne’s varied size within the frame reflects her state of mind – from large-and-in-charge in her natural environment to small and more vulnerable as she encounters the unknown within the magical land’s diverse biomes.
Overall, the two books are great companion pieces. The first serves as an introduction to the Moomins with an overview and plenty of backstory that the latter builds from. Both also have a fairytale vibe, which Jansson cleverly manipulates by passing up run-of-the-mill princes and princesses in favor of “real” characters with flaws and insecurities. The result is effective, making the stories relatable and endearing in a way that overly idealized archetypes simply would not.
However, it also makes less developed characters, like Moominpappa, more glaringly weak. His reasons for abandoning his family are disappointingly vague, as is his overall presence among the more dynamic characters. In fact, the entire Moomin clan’s diminished role within The Dangerous Journey makes for a bit of a let-down, especially in light of the fact that this is our farewell to the storybook series.
These books would be a great addition to any children’s collection, and I see the potential for plenty of crossover recommendations. Since the Moomins span a wide range of formats and genres, from books, comics, film and television to opera and theater, young readers can explore the options, and perhaps discover a new favorite or two.
The Moomins and the Great Flood
by Tove Jansson
Drawn & Quarterly, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: 9-12
The Dangerous Journey
by Tove Jansson
Drawn & Quarterly, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: 9-12