The Moomins hibernate in winter, so Moomin stories happen in spring and summer. Except this one. All the Moomin stories begin with the natural world shaking off the long Arctic night, and bursting into colour and possibility. Except this one. In Moominland Midwinter, the young Moomintroll wakes from hibernation while the rest of his family sleep on. He can’t wake them. The clocks have stopped. The sun does not rise. His warm, busy home is empty as a tomb. Maybe he’s dead. Even now I cannot think of a more vivid and chilly image of isolation and loss.
I was about ten when I started being allowed to go to our tiny, airy local library by myself on a Saturday morning. I’d already read Finn Family Moomintroll in school and it felt exciting – and vaguely scholarly – to spot another book by the same author, the Finnish writer and artist Tove Jansson. I curled up on the big chair ready for more stories about these jolly, Nordic, large-snouted trolls with their magic hats, stolen rubies and family picnics.
It’s hard to overestimate the impact. Imagine a sequel to Peppa Pig in which Peppa’s head is on a stick in a glade on a desert island while painted children dance around her shouting “Kill the pig, Spill her blood” and you’ll get the idea. And yet, although I love all the Moomin books, this is the one that has stayed with me and that I go back to.
I think one of the great things that children’s books do is point us towards the small pleasures and comforts that get us through long dark days such as the ones we have just lived through. Part of the power of Moominland Midwinter is that it celebrates those comforts – family, sunlight, a fire – by taking them away.
It’s not all darkness! It is shot through with the amazing poetry of winter. There are visitors. Admittedly one of them (spoiler) dies of cold. It contains one of the funniest and warmest friendship stories I’ve ever read – the story of a dog who thinks he’s a wolf until one night he is surrounded by wolves and realises with terrible clarity that he’s a dog. At the book’s heart is the character of Too-ticky, who – to Moomintroll’s fury – thinks the family boathouse is her home. Competent, kindly and matter-of-fact, she is a portrait of Jansson’s life partner, Tuulikki Pietilä. A stranger who breaks into your life during dark days and starts fixing things – is there a better image of unexpected love than that? And then summer comes.
I cherished this book even before I could understand it because at some hidden level I knew Jansson was pouring her whole heart into it. The darkness wasn’t some phoney jeopardy or super-villain and the light came slowly as happiness. Moominland was a powerful place to return to during the long, dark isolating days because I knew she’d been there before and found beauty. Another of the – most timely – wonders of children’s fiction is its ability to pass through borders and ignore demographics. Jansson was a posh bohemian lesbian who lived on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland, but I honestly thought she was writing just for me.