Tove Jansson is my current favorite author-artist, because her text and her imagery are equally powerful. Taken together, her total word/image deal offers a completely transportive experience into a troll-packed fantasy world. I've been reading her Moomintroll books for about ten years now, seasonal treatments of the Moomintroll family that illustrate in ink-drawn panels how these hippo-like, miniature intellectuals have fun through the most tumultuous disasters. Comet In Moominland, for example, shows how the family weathers imminent apocalypse as if it's a tea party. Playtime and craft-making is a balm that soothes all fears, in Jansson's world, but above all she shows how wilderness, in all its fierce mystery, is both deadly and life-affirming. How does she pull it off?
I recently dug into Jansson's novella, The Summer Book (New York Review Books), to see how her "adult" text stood up to her illustrated cartoons. I don't even care to differentiate here between book-types because, one, I don't really believe in genre-restrictions, and two, Jansson works with similar themes (facing one's fears by accessing positive forces in nature) regardless of whether or not she offers ink drawn accompaniments with her text. There are tiny drawings in The Summer Book, but in all the novella is troll-free, focusing instead on little Sonia, who summers with her grandmother on a remote island in the Gulf of Finland to recuperate from her mother's death. Flipping through the book, chapters titled "The Enormous Plastic Sausage" or "The Magic Forest" foreshadow Jansson's typical inflection of smart silliness to treat such a sad topic as losing one's mom.
Sonia is a pre-teen, and the chapters, functioning as short stories, offer scenes in which she acts out on her loss. But more interestingly Sonia offers windows into child psychology. One learns about how children process difficult information. "Of Angleworms and Others" investigates why irrational fears take hold of a juvenile mind. It begins: "One summer, Sonia was suddenly afraid of small animals, and the smaller they were, the more afraid she was." Of course, Sonia's grandmother is her foil, the mature, pragmatic caretaker who catches herself if she gets grouchy:
One calm day, a little white boat with an outboard motor approached the island. "It's Verner," Grandmother said. "He's back with another bottle of sherry." For awhile she considered being ill, but she changed her mind and went down to meet him.
Tove Jansson was a Swedish-speaking Finn, born in Helsinki to an artistic family. Her first comic strip, Moomintroll and the End of the World, appeared in Scandinavian papers in 1947, and became an instant hit. Throughout her long career, Jansson wrote many books and did the strip, working from a remote island cabin where she became resident expert on plants and animals. Her knowledge of flora and fauna is clear in her writing, as her characters use plants as medicine and often identify wildflowers, especially. She is a national hero in Finland—when I stopped through Helsinki airport recently, I did some major shopping in the Moomin shop there. It's hard to miss: a giant, human-sized Moomintroll statue invites one in. The one thing I lament most about breezing through such an awesome country, aside from not seeing live reindeers, is that I missed visiting the Moomin Amusement Park.
Lucky for Jansson fanatics, there are fans who have collected information about Moominworld for our on-line wonderment (see links below). On YouTube now, there are clips of the animated series'. I prefer the puppet series over the drawn cartoons from BBC. I'd say a great place to start reading the comics would be the Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strips:MOOMIN published by Drawn & Quarterly in four volumes (so far). The fourth just released.