Tove Jansson, Finn Family Moomintroll (Sunburst Books, 5th printing, 1995)
Tove Jansson, Moominsummer Madness (Sunburst, 5th printing, 1999)
Tove Jansson, Moominpappa at Sea (Sunburst, 4th printing, 1999)
Tove Jansson, Moominpappa's Memoirs (Sunburst, 1994)

"Dear child is it really possibel you havent any Moomintrolls?. . . [trolls] are small and shy and hairy and there are lots and lots of them in the Finnish forests. The greatest difference between them and us is that a moomintroll is smoooth and likes sunshine." (from Finn Family Moomintroll)

Tove Jansson, born in 1914, was the beloved creator of a series of books about a small family of trolls living in the wilds of her native Finland. Her Moomin books have been translated into over two dozen languages, including Lithuanian, Ukranian, and Esperanto. They have been converted to theater, opera, TV, and a Japanese animation series, and Finland even boasts a Moomin theme park. I had the good fortune to be introduced to the Moomin books at a young age. I also had the exceptional good luck, as an adult, to find copies of almost every one. I am only missing two books: The Little Trolls and the Great Flood (Jansson's first published Moomin book, never translated to English) and Moominvalley in November.

Let's begin with the artwork. The Sunburst covers and the inside illustrations are all Tove Jansson's artwork. Some are little more than line drawings, some appear to be created with watercolors or colored pencil. The style ranges from clear and crisp to fuzzy-edged; the cover of Finn Family Moomintroll, which looks like a colored pencil/watercolor mix, is angular and roughly drawn, with lots of details, while the cover of Moominpappa at Sea, again a watercolor/pencil mixture, is a bit fuzzy and very simple. I wouldn't call any of the artwork poor, but the cover of Finn Family is my least favorite. I prefer the simpler line-drawings, such as the cover of Comet in Moominland and Tales from Moominvalley, that are Jansson's trademark style.

The translations are done by different people: Finn Family Moomintroll and Comet In Moominland are done by Elizabeth Portch, Moominpappa at Sea is translated by Kingsley Hart, and Moominsummer Madness, Moominpappa's Memoirs, Tales From Moominvalley and Moominland Midwinter are all done by Thomas Warburton. Of all the translators, I think I like the "style" that comes across from Warburton the best — it's a subtle difference in the feel of the writing. An example:

From Comet in Moominland (Portch):

"'We thought you were drowned,' said Sniff, 'or that a shark had eaten you up!' 'Pooh!' said Moomintroll again.

versus:

From Moominpappa's Memoirs (Warburton):

"'But some of that you've just made up,' said Sniff. 'Of course not!' cried Moominpappa. 'In those days, things really happened!'"

They're both perfectly good, and of course I have no idea how faithful the translation from Finnish is in either case. I just happen to like the books translated by Warburton a teeny bit better.

Forewords, prologues, and prefaces are not present in all of the books, but those that are seem a natural extension of the book. In Finn Family Moomintroll, for example, Moominmamma, in scratchy English, writes an enchanting letter to the "Dear Children" that will be reading the tales about her family soon. In Moominpappa's Memoirs, the "Prologue" and "Preface" aren't interferences by the author, but rather beginning chapters to the story itself.

The table of contents throughout the books list not only the chapters, but a brief summary of what each one is about; this is carried into each chapter heading and even to each page, where a single line of text across the top tells you what you will read below. It's a distracting format and one I don't particularly care for. As I noted in an earlier review, it's a bit of a spoiler.

Some of the Moomin books have a map relevant to the story, drawn by Tove Jansson and a treat to look at. Scale has nothing to do with these maps; they're a wonderful mini-picture of the world as seen by the Moomins, pointing out such details as a patch of jasmine and dotted with tiny drawings of Moomins and Fillyjonks and Hemulens all going about their lives.

One other thing that several of the books have in common is a delightful "Moomin-Gallery" at the very end, where character sketches and a lively paragraph of description for each is presented by Moominpappa. The notes, in the editions I have, are always the same, so if you're seen one "Moomin-Gallery," you've seen them all.

Once past the various title pages, prefaces, table of contents, publication credits, maps, and so on, we finally come to the stories themselves. Chronologically, Comet in Moominland is the first written and Moominpappa's Memoirs the last.

Since I've already reviewed Comet (written in 1946), I'll skip over that and start with Finn Family Moomintroll (1948). This early book features Moomintroll and his friends from Comet: Sniff, Snufkin, the Muskrat, the Hemulen, the Snork, and the Snork Maiden. The youngsters find the Hobgoblin's Hat, which causes quite a bit of trouble before they learn how it works. On the "adult" side of the roster, the Muskrat's dry pessimism is a delightful counterpoint to the rambling adventures of Moomintroll and his friends. The stolid Hemulen is much dismayed by the wild adventures that pile up around the rambunctious group:

"The Hemulen, moaning piteously, thrust his nose into the sand. 'This has gone too far!' he said. 'Why can't a poor innocent botanist live his life in peace and quiet?'

'Life is not peaceful,' said Snufkin, contentedly."

Moominmamma and Moominpappa, as always, manage the whole unruly gang, taking them on various excursions and overseeing everything with a watchful, placid eye. Moominpappa is in charge, but it's Moominmamma that soothes all the little hurts and encourages the youngsters to get up and try again when things aren't going well.

Finn Family, although it has a few introspective moments, is primarily a simple, adventure-based book. There are a few changes along the way; the Snork Maiden finds out that beauty is relative, the Hemulen gains some cunning (and uses it to play tricks back on the ones that torment him), and Snufkin sets out, near the end of the book, on the first of his long, solitary winter journeys.

Next comes Moominsummer Madness (1954), another adventure story featuring a new and more mature "cast" of characters: The Muskrat, Sniff, and the Hemulen are gone, replaced by Little My and her sister, the Mymble. Little My remains a steady feature throughout the remaining books of the series; her sharp, dry humor and almost amoral views make a great replacement for the Muskrat's self-serving mumblings. There are other new characters in this book as well — Emma, Misabel, the Whomper, and so on — but they "drop out" at the end and are never heard from again.

The plot winds around a natural disaster this time: a great volcano has erupted and the tsunami it provokes floods the valley. The Moomin family climbs to their rooftop to escape the rising waters; in typical Moomin fashion, when they discover they've left the coffee downstairs, Moominpappa drills a hole in the upper floor and Moomintroll swims down to the pantry to retrieve the can. Tove Jansson's message of keeping perspective on disasters is delightfully clear in this passage:

"Moominpappa found sawing his own floor to pieces just a little dreadful, but at the same time highly satisfying . . . A few minutes later Moominmamma for the first time saw her kitchen from the ceiling . . . all the chairs and the table were floating around near the ceiling.

'Dear me, how funny,' said Moominmamma and burst out laughing."

How many of us could hold such good humor when our house was being flooded? That kind of light touch is a major shift in Jansson's writing from the heavier lessons of Comet and Finn Family, and it continues in following books, more skillfully each time.

Just as the Moomins are about to become completely submerged, a strange house floats by. They transfer to the new building and the currents swirl them away into a whole new world — the world of the theater! The simple Moomins find many things about the house puzzling; there are stairways that end halfway up, doors that don't lead anywhere, and fruit that's nothing but of painted plaster. There's someone lurking about and laughing derisively at odd moments. It's all quite spooky and adventurous, especially when Moomintroll and the Snork Maiden get separated from the rest of the family and have to fend for themselves, not knowing if they will ever see their friends and family again. Little My tumbles through an open trapdoor and is lost; only her tiny, tiny size keeps her from drowning as the theater sails by overhead.

If I had to pick a defining book where Jansson's writing turns from good to great, this would be the one. There is compassionate, wise humor displayed on almost every page, and the adventures are mixed with increasing character development. The characters in Madness come alive in a way they never did in the previous books. Snufkin, for example, becomes more than just a wandering harmonica-player; he's got some very fierce beliefs about "keep out" signs, and his vengeance against the Park Keeper points a light finger at the foolishness of trying to "own" nature.

After Madness comes two I've already covered, Moominland Midwinter (published in 1957) and Tales from Moominvalley (1963). The only note I'll put in about those two books is that Midwinter shows Moomintroll's continuing growth as he's forced to handle issues, once again, without his family's immediate support. The short stories in Tales often return to the original cast and the heavier moral touch; but somehow the shorter stories hold that weight better than a longer format does.

Moominpappa at Sea (1963), the next one published, has a refreshing format departure: the page headers don't spell out the contents of each page any more. They're restricted to the book title on the left page and the chapter name on the right: "Moominpappa at Sea / The Lighthouse."

At the beginning of Sea, Moominpappa is in a fit of grumps because his family doesn't seem to need him anymore. Moominmamma solves the issue by coaxing the family to move to "Pappa's island," far out to sea. Out of all the characters in the previous books, only Little My accompanies the family this time. Thrown out of their comfortable routines, the family is dependant on Moominpappa. Well, that was Moominmamma's plan, anyway, but it starts dissolving when they arrive and find that the lighthouse, their new home, is locked tight with no key in sight. Before too much faith can be lost in Pappa; however, he listens to his intuition and finds the key in an unexpected spot. Once inside the lighthouse, more mysteries await: why is the beacon out? How can it be lit again? Where is the old lighthouse keeper?

As they settle into the routine of the island, even more puzzles come up, ranging from Moominmamma's attempts to build a garden on a rocky island to Moominpappa's quest to find the bottom of the black pool. The Groke, an unpleasant, lonely beast that turns everything to ice where she passes, is a prominent character in this book, and Moomintroll learns a great deal about the meaning of friendship from her. By the end of the book, as his mother says, "[H]e's growing up."

Moominmamma, at first terribly lonely and perhaps just a bit resentful of the sacrifice she's made to please her husband, comes to a gradual acceptance of things as they are and finds joy once again. Moominpappa softens from his initial stance of a gruff patriarch that must be in command to be happy. Even Little My develops compassion for Moomintroll and treats him far more kindly than in previous books. And the Groke goes through perhaps the greatest change of all, warmed by Moomintroll's friendship — but I won't ruin the ending by saying just what happens there.

This is the most emotionally complex of all the Moomin series, using adventures as a backdrop to the character development rather than as the main focus. Tove Jansson's writing goes beyond gold and positively glows with this story.

Moominpappa's Memoirs (1968), the next to be published and the last in this review, breaks the sequence by flipping back to the days of Sniff and Snufkin, as Moominpappa writes and reads to the family his life history. It's a light book, but it somehow lacks the deft touch of the preceding books. I suspect Jansson may have written it well before Moominpappa at Sea and only published it because the demand for anything Moomin was high.

Moominpappa starts his tale with an amusing, cautionary note:

"In consideration of the feelings of many persons still alive, I have sometimes exchanged Fillyjonks for Hemulens or Gaffsies for hedgehogs, and so forth, but the talented reader will have no difficulties in understanding what was actually what."

Moominpappa's rather pompous prose careens through his abandonment at the Moomin Foundling Home into one adventure after another, including one where he attends the garden party of an Autocrat with a peculiar sense of humor. He travels high in the air and far beneath the ocean, thanks to his friends the Joxter (Snufkin's father) and the Muddler (Sniff's father). He builds a beautiful house and settles into contentment for a time before adventure stirs him again.

There's nothing particularly remarkable about this book; it's actually a bit of a disappointment after Moominpappa at Sea, a throwback to the old adventure-based format of Comet and Finn Family. However, children's stories aren't always supposed to be "deep" — and these are children's stories, no matter how much an adult may enjoy them! As an adult, enthusing about them makes me feel rather like an anonymous confessor of loving children's cereal in a Frosted Flakes commercial.

Whether you read the books for yourself or to your children, whether you read the books in order or randomly, Tove Jansson's lively characters are certain to stay in your heart forever. Her work has been compared to Milne's, one of the few instances of author comparison I can agree with as more than just hype.

The Moomin books, originally published from 1946 to 1968, can be found through Amazon.com. My copy of November should be arriving soon!

And if, by chance, someone out there has a copy of Flood...and can read it . . . and can translate it for me . . . well, I'll just keep it simple and say that I'd be forever grateful.

[Leona Wisoker]

The official copyright holder for the Moomin Characters is
Oy Moomin Characters Ltd and their home page is here