I don’t remember the precise moment I was introduced to the Moomins. They were always just there; a cosy, comforting and slightly weird presence in my childhood that has stayed with me. My father called Tove Jansson“one of the greatest children’s writers there has ever been”, and credited her writing as one of the reasons he became an author.
My father’s family were the kind of postwar, no-nonsense British people who didn’t really do hugs or talk about their feelings. Instead, they showed their love by building things: toys, puzzles, go-carts, treehouses. It was a tradition that my father, still very much the awkward hugger himself, would continue during my childhood. He built me a market stall, a beehive (complete with toy bees), a stove and, most memorably, Moominvalley.
It was crafted out of wood and papier-mache – a staple of all art projects in the 70s and 80s. It had a forest and a river and even a dark cave. He also made the Moominhouse and crafted all the Moomin characters out of clay; then painted and varnished them. Many years later we would turn over an entire attic full of junk trying to find a box that I thought might contain a solitary hand-made Moomin. He’s still out there somewhere.
A new Moominvalley animation is due to hit our screens next year, so more children and adults alike will experience the delights of the Moomins. As for me, I discovered them through Jansson’s beautifully self-illustrated books, which my parents read to me until I could read them to myself. I was a voracious reader and I delighted in the world Jansson created, one built upon themes such as friendship, love, tolerance and empathy. (Values my own country could do with embracing a little more at the moment – in fact, the Moomins should be required reading for anyone seeking to enter western politics.)
Undoubtedly, part of the appeal of the books was that my early life was quite Moominish. I lived in a little pink cottage on the edge of a valley in deepest, darkest rural Somerset. We kept goats in the front garden, chickens and ducks in the back, and grew most of our own fruit and vegetables. I spent a lot of time exploring the valley. I never knew it by any other name than “the valley” because why would I ever need to know about anywhere else? This was my Moominvalley.
I would climb trees, collect wild herbs, milk goats and spin wool. (I am well prepared for life after the apocalypse.) I was among the last generation of kids relatively free to run around in nature, getting bruised, stung and muddy with little parental supervision. (That said, I was later told that my father used to keep watch over me from the top of the valley every time I went to collect the goats from their grazing field.)
My parents were quite Moominish themselves. I identified with young Moomintroll, being an only child and having a writer for a father and a mother who loved her garden. Moomin-related vocabulary entered the Pratchett lexicon and we would often remind each other to “throw the woolly trousers to the crocodile” when travelling abroad. This will make sense if you’ve read the fantastic Comet in Moominland.
Continuing my Moomin education, my parents taught me the importance of the natural world; of community, compassion and understanding. My dad taught me to make waterwheels out of leaves and sticks, the way Moominpappa does in The Exploits of Moominpappa. We would let them spin gently in the current of the little stream that carved its way through the valley floor. It was simple and utterly joyful. In my screenplay adaptation of The Wee Free Men, I have Tiffany Aching making one the same way, as a homage to those happy days.
I recently got the opportunity to take my mother to Moominworld in Naantali, Finland, the beautiful, island-based theme park designed hand-in-hand with Jansson. My mother said that exploring a life-sized Moominhouse, and singing and dancing with Little My, made her feel like a child again. My heart soared. When my father was lost in the murky depths of his Alzheimer’s disease and couldn’t sleep at night, I would read the Moomin books to him. As ever, it was comfort in a time of darkness. To us the Moomins meant love.