Tove Jansson, Tales from Moominvalley (Sunburst, 1995)
One day long, long ago, when I was still young enough to allow my mother to dress me, I was wandering through my aunt's house during a ritual family visit, looking for anything to relieve the boredom of listening to adults chatter at each other about adult things. In a dusty corner of a bookshelf I'd never examined before I found a cheerful yellow and blue book with a drawing of a disgruntled troll on the front cover. The "Hans Christian Andersen" award on the front, if I recall, didn't mean anything to me at the time, but the lure of a book I hadn't read yet was irresistable.
Within a few pages, I determined I was going to keep that book, come death or destruction -- it was obviously underappreciated, sitting lonely on that dusty shelf. I would cherish that book and keep it forever in a shrine to its glory.
Well, I haven't actually built a shrine to Moominvalley, and I didn't have to destroy anything to get it out of my aunt's house -- although my cousin did put up a terrific fight about my taking the book. (At this late date, I offer a heartfelt apology to all parties involved. I was an insufferable child, used to getting my own way in all things -- and all I can say is, karma has had its revenge on me for that.) I do, however, still have the book: somewhat frayed, definitely faded, and beginning, in spite of all my care, to come apart at the seams.
I still pick up my stack of Moominvalley books when I've had a bad day or just want to remember what being a child is like, and the beginning story of Tales, called "The Spring Tune," is one I always read. Snufkin, the central character of the story, is one of my heroes. He's independent, creative, and adventurous -- all the things I wanted to be as a child. The story itself is simple; Snufkin is wandering through a forest, composing a tune in his head, and meets a forest-dwelling creature, called a creep, who is so small he's never been given a proper name. The creep, deeply in awe of Snufkin, begs for the honor of being given a name by his hero, "a name that would be only mine and no one else could have it." Snufkin is so disturbed to find that he's famous among the small forest creatures for his adventuring that he's terribly rude to the creep and the tune flies right out of his head as the creature slinks away. The story winds down to a cheerful ending, having casually introduced the reader to multiple aspects of Moominvalley along the way.
The next story, "A Tale of Horror," actually gave me nightmares when I was a child -- I had an imagination that easily matched that of the small whomper featured in the tale. I was completely absorbed in his ramblings as he created mangrove swamps out of lettuce rows, enemy scouts out of mosquitos, invented marsh snakes to eat up his baby brother and a Ghost Wagon to roll across the marsh menacingly. His imagination is so intense that he actually convinces himself that his baby brother was in fact eaten, and runs back to his parents sobbing, frightening them badly until they look outside and see the younger child still playing in the yard. He's sent to his room without supper for his "lies"; in a rage at the unfairness of it all, he sneaks out and sets off into the forbidden marsh, where he encounters something far more dangerous than marsh snakes: his own imagination.
The remaining seven stories in Tales handle topics ranging from the quest for independence to the greed of shallow people, skipping lightly past the trap of drawing obvious morals. The characters are delightful and memorable, the scenes richly detailed, each character's voice unique. Fillyjonks, mymbles, hemulens, moomins, woodies, and creeps dance through the pages, bringing a refreshingly alive, original world to life.
The drawings in Tales, also by Tove Jansson, have a rough, sketchy freedom that shows the motion and emotion of the characters depicted. With a few swift strokes, Jansson manages to capture expression perfectly; Moominpappa sulking on the verandah, the whomper's mother jumping up in distress, a frightened fillyjonk running from imaginary disasters.
I am profoundly grateful to my cousin for (reluctantly) allowing me to kidnap the book years ago. I believe there was a promise made, somewhere along the line, that I would return it. Liz, if you're reading this review, and you really want your book back.... well...
...I'll buy you another copy. I've grown rather attached to this one.