I was 9 when I discovered the books of the Finnish author Tove Jansson. My father had recently died, I was in that tight-lipped daze known to any kid who has lost a parent, and Moominland Midwinter fell into my hands as I skulked through the stacks of the school library. Written in 1957, it tells of a rotund little troll who unexpectedly wakes from his family’s winter sleep to find his familiar valley turned terrifyingly dark and arctic. Yet the landscape is alive, teeming with creatures his summer-bound mind never knew existed. To say the book struck a chord is an understatement; it was the first thing I had read in months that made sense.
I devoured all the Moomin stories, and when the time came, I read them to my daughters. And as we progressed from the simple adventures of Finn Family Moomintroll (1948), it became clear to me why there are Moomin theme parks in Finland, a Moomin shop in Honolulu, Moomin anime on Japanese TV — and why the books themselves, never well-known in this country but never out of print, either, belong on the shelf next to classics like A Wrinkle in Time and The Phantom Tollbooth. Jansson was the rare children’s author to acknowledge melancholy.
That makes her books sound like Bergman for kiddies, when they’re often laugh-out-loud funny. But for every character like the tiny bundle of bratty id called Little My, there’s a silent Groke on the horizon, freezing everything she touches. For every pastoral romp like Moominsummer Madness (1954), there’s a Tales From Moominvalley (1962), with its translucent stories of wonderful disaster. After 1970’s Moominvalley in November, Jansson retreated to grown-up fiction and painting. ”I couldn’t go back and find that happy Moominvalley again,” she said before her death on June 27, at 86, in Helsinki. But surely it was her knowledge of paradises lost that speaks to the lonely corners of every child’s heart.