A blog for everything bookish

Saturday 17 January 2015

Great books for kids: Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson

“And so Moomintroll was helplessly thrown out in a strange and dangerous world and dropped up to his ears in the first snowdrift of his experience. It felt unpleasantly prickly to his velvet skin, but at the same time his snout caught a new smell. It was a more serious smell than any he had felt before, and slightly frightening. But it made him wide awake and greatly interested.”

Moominland Midwinter is the story of the winter in which, unusually, Moomintroll wakes too early from his winter hibernation and so is thrust into a terrifying yet exciting new world. For no Moomin before has experienced winter.

If you haven’t experienced the Moomintrolls, let me explain a little about them. These are the creation of Tove Jansson (who you may be aware that I love, possibly), a family of hippo-like creatures and their extended friends and family. I was unfortunate not to experience the Moomins as a child, as all the Moomin books are magical reads. They are gentle and endearing, yet never once do they patronise and it is, perhaps, this quality which has resulted in those often-seen spin-offs like Moomintroll’s Book ofThoughts

In Moominland Midwinter, Moomintroll decides to strike out on his own having awakened early from his winter hibernation. Consequently he is thrust into a strange and uncertain land, filled with unusual creatures and scary encounters. This is the classic ‘coming of age’ story in which the protagonist must embark on some adventure of their own, to be challenged and found wanting, to rely on their own skills and capabilities, in order to discover themselves. In the beginning Moomintroll finds winter incredibly frustrating. He is angry, angry at himself for being awake, angry at the strangeness of the world, angry at the loneliness, the isolation, angry at the absent sun. He is unsettled by a world that doesn’t make sense to him. As he describes here:

“’Sing all you want,’ Moomintroll muttered, angry to the point of crying. ‘Sing about your horrible winter with the black ice and unfriendly snow-horses, and people who never appear but only hide and are queer!’

He tramped up the slope, he kicked at the snow, his tears froze on his snout, and suddenly he started to sing his own song.

He sang it at the top of his voice, so that Too-ticky would hear it and be put out.

This was Moomintroll’s angry summer song:

Listen, winter creatures, who have sneaked the sun away,
Who are hiding in the dark and making all the valley grey:
I am utterly alone, and I’m tired to the bone,
And I’m sick enough of snowdrifts just to lay me down and groan.
I want my blue verandah and the glitter of the sea
And I tell you one and all that your winter’s not for me!

‘Just you wait until my sun’s coming back to look at you, and then you’ll all look silly, all of you,’ Moomintroll shouted and didn’t even care about his rhymes anymore…”

Though Moomintroll wakes without his family, he is not alone. He is surrounded, instead, by a fascinating cast of characters like the wise and matter-of-fact Too-ticky, who is used to great effect here in helping Moomintroll come to terms with winter, without sentimentality. Too-ticky has the best lines, the greatest aplomb in the whole book and it is always wonderful when Too-ticky appears. Like here, as Too-ticky watches Moomintroll carry out a daring rescue:

“Too-ticky stood looking on for a while, and then she went inside the bathing-house and put a kettle of water on the stove. ‘Quite, quite,’ she thought with a little sigh. ‘It’s always like this in their adventures. To save and be saved. I wish somebody would write a story sometime about the people who warm up the heroes afterwards.’

Or here as Too-ticky explains about snow:

“’Tell me about the snow,’ Moomintroll said and seated himself in Moominpappa’s sun-bleached garden chair. ‘I don’t understand it.’

‘I don’t either,’ said Too-ticky. ‘You believe it’s cold, but if you build yourself a snowhouse it’s warm. You think it’s white, but at times it looks pink, and another time it’s blue. It can be softer than anything, and then again harder than stone. Nothing is certain.’”

Nothing is certain is classic Moomintroll wisdom. Truths delivered without window dressing, without dumbing it down. It is the matter-of-factness about Moomin stories which is often so enticing, endearing.

Along with Too-ticky, Little My (who I think is my favourite) is an unexpected companion for Moomintroll, also waking unexpectedly for winter. Little My is awesome! She is fearless, devilish, she does exactly what she wants exactly as she wants to. Unlike Moomintroll who struggles to accommodate winter’s strangeness into his comforting summer world, Little My confronts it, teeth bared, eking every new experience out of it that she can. Like here as she wakes from her winter sleep:

“Little My gave a snort and climbed out of the cardboard box. She closed the lid on her sister, who was still asleep, and went over and felt the snow with her paw.

‘So this is what it’s like,’ she said. ‘Funny ideas people get.’ She squeezed a snowball and hit the squirrel on the head with her first throw. And then Little My stepped out from the cave to take possession of winter.

The first thing she accomplished was to slip on the icy cliff and sit down very hard.

‘I see,’ Little My said in a threatening voice. ‘They think they’ll get away with anything.’

Then she happened to think of what a My looks like with her legs in the air, and she chuckled to herself for quite a while. She inspected the cliff and the hillside and thought a bit. Then she said: ‘Well now,’ and did a jumpy switchback slide far out on the smooth ice.

She repeated this six times more and noticed that it made her tummy cold.

Little My went back into the cave and turned her sleeping sister out of the cardboard box. My had never seen a toboggan, but she had a definite feeling there were many sensible ways of using a cardboard box.”

Winter is not all Little My takes possession of! 

Nothing very much happens in Moominland Midwinter. The threats aren’t really very threatening and the adventures nothing striking either. There is, however, a sense of Moomintroll entering a world that is strange and different, confronting a form of life of which he has no experience and in which he doesn’t belong. Through the darkness and cold of winter, Jansson shows us a child entering the adult world, facing the difficulties and responsibilities, confronting change and finding it emotionally difficult. It is a gentle and yet extraordinarily honest story, heaped with wisdom and unvarnished truth. In the end, Moomintroll makes winter his own, just as a child enters the adult world, through ordinary adversity and the aid of good, and wise friends.

Moomintroll Midwinter, along with all the Moomin books, is a fabulous read for children. Good for the independent reader, perhaps 8 years and older, or good for a bedtime story over several nights for the younger listener. And great for parents too, who may appreciate some of the complexities being explored through these delightful, soulful creatures.

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