Too often, children's fantasy stories take themselves too seriously.
That is definitely not a criticism you can level against Tove Jansson's Moomintroll books. Well, you could, but you'd be wrong, and you'd probably only make such an absurd claim if you'd never read them. Step into the strange realm that is Moominvalley, and your ideas about what fantasy is and what it should be are going to change.
Born to Swedish-speaking Finnish parents, Tove Jansson studied art in Stockholm, Helsinki, and Paris in the years leading up to World War II. She wrote and illustrated the first Moomin book in 1945 (The Moomins and the Great Flood, only recently available in the U. S. and just in hardcover so far), allegedly to relieve the depression she felt due to the war.
Her goal was to create something naive and innocent, and she succeeded. But naive and innocent doesn't mean not dangerous, and like any good fantasy there are perils aplenty for the strange population of Moominvalley.
Without trying too hard, some of the weirder inhabitants of Jansson's wonderful realm could be seen to represent the bad guys of World War II Europe, threatening the peacefulness of the Moomins's valley home. But there's no obvious reason to assume any of the characters are more than just funny, unique, utterly fantastical inventions of Jansson's imagination.
Take the Moomins themselves, for instance. They aren't terribly large, but they look like fairy tale versions of hippopotamuses with more than their share of eccentricities. Who are they supposed to be? The Moomins, of course, and that's all the explanation we ever get or really need.
There's no overarching plot binding the stories together, and some of the individual volumes seem only loosely connected themselves, but Jansson relies on humor and creativity to keep readers's interest. In some ways these are reminiscent of L. Frank Baum's beloved Wizard of Oz series, endearingly discombobulated and strange.
It's not just the Moomins themselves that will keep readers coming back. Just as much fun are characters like the Snork Maiden, the naughty Little My, Sniff and Snufkin, Fillyjonk, the Groke, and a host of others.
Each story has a kind of dream logic to it. Characters are motivated by impulses beyond our understanding, but which are perfectly legitimate in Moominland. Yet these aren't plot-driven, and the strange folk aren't unrelatable—Jansson explores the range of human emotions through her very non-human protagonists, and thereby helps children come to terms with feelings of sadness, loneliness, fear, doubt, parting, joy, melancholy, happiness, and wonder.
An accomplished visual artist, Jansson's fascinating and hugely enjoyable illustrations bring each volume to further life, and help readers fully immerse themselves in their newfound world.
Few books are worth reading simply because of the joy they bring. That's not to say that reading for the pure joy of it is a bad thing; rather, that most books rely more on their message to make them worthwhile. The Moomin books are unassuming, little known, and some of the best works of fantasy ever written. They should be required reading for adults (for whom they'll rekindle a sense of wonder and curiosity) and children alike.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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