Tove Jansson, best known for dreaming up the eccentric, magical world of the Moomins, should have won the Nobel prize for literature, according to Philip Pullman.
The Finnish artist and writer, who died aged 86 in 2001, "responded to the world with a freshness and originality that have hardly ever been matched in the field of children's books", Pullman writes in the new issue of children's books magazine Books for Keeps. The His Dark Materials author believes Jansson "could convey all the excitement of wonder as well as the reassurance of comfort and familial love – and in her final Moomin books, such as Moominvalley in November, evoke a mood of apprehension, loss, and mystery." And she should, according to Pullman, "have had the Nobel prize".
Jansson may not have won literature's highest accolade, but her books have been translated into 35 languages and, 13 years after she died, continue to resonate with new generations of children. As well as her Moomin stories, she also wrote novels for adults. Pullman describes The Summer Book as "magical", and Jansson's memoir Sculptor's Daughter as "a marvel and a classic".
The British children's author reserved most praise for Jansson's Moomin books, however, about the family of white, hippo-like creatures and their acquaintances who inhabit Moominvalley, where "very often unexpected and disturbing things used to happen, but nobody ever had time to be bored, and that is always a good thing".
The first Moomin tale, The Moomins and the Great Flood, which Jansson published in 1945, "set up a contrast between catastrophe and security that a number of the other Moomin stories also play with", says Pullman, with the security embodied by "the nurturing, comforting, utterly reliable Moominmamma, who is perfectly happy to indulge the fantasies and playfulness of her top-hat-wearing husband and son, and always ready to paint flowers on the wall herself". The danger, meanwhile, "comes from all kinds of creatures: ghosts, the mysterious and silent Hattifatteners, the horrible Groke, as well as from the gleefully wicked Little My, and from natural phenomena like comets and floods."
"Jansson's inventiveness seems effortless," writes Pullman, recalling the hardback of The Exploits of Moominpappa he was given at the age of eight, when he was "enchanted" both by the story, and the information about "Miss Jansson" given on the back. "That was the way to live," Pullman writes, of what the cover copy told him of Jansson's "very large studio in Helsinki which is littered with designs for enormous murals, frescoes and all the paraphernalia of the artist", and where "the leading actors and actresses from the Finnish and Swedish theatres meet … for long discussions, which sometimes extend far into the night. They also sing songs in many languages and dance many national dances. During these nights there is a Moomin atmosphere in Miss Jansson's studio."
Pullman praises "the perfection" of Jansson's drawings, where "the sheer ingenuity of the way she represents rain on water – a few separate lines each curving down to end in its own little oval – has never been surpassed".
Since her death, a collection of Jansson's adult fiction has been published in English for the first time, adding further to her fanbase. Of The True Deceiver, Ali Smith wrote on its release that the fact "there can still be as-yet untranslated fiction by Jansson is simultaneously an aberration and a delight, like finding buried treasure", calling the novel "an unassuming, unexpected, powerful piece of work"; Ursula K Le Guin commented that Jansson's "description is unhurried, accurate and vivid, an artist's vision. Her style is not at all 'poetic' – quite the contrary. It is prose of the very highest order; it is pure prose. Through its quiet clarity we see unreachable depths, threatening darkness, promised treasures."