I suspect that, unless you have immediate European ancestry or are very well acquainted classic European children's literature, you probably don't know much about the Moomins and even less about their amazing creator, author and artist, Tove Jansson. This year, while reading Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World by Pénélope Bagieu, I learned details about Jansson's life that intrigued and delighted me and left me bumping that one Moomins book I have up to the top of my TBR pile. Happily, The Dangerous Journey, originally published in 1977 and beautifully reissued by Canadian publisher Drawn + Quarterly, arrived at my door, prompting me to learn more about the author/artist and her creations. Falling down the rabbit hole that is the internet, I found this review of The Dangerous Journey by British author Frank Cottrell Boyce and this 2014 article from The New Yorker most helpful in my understanding of these internationally loved characters, their history, staying power and deeply philosophical nature.
Jansson's father was a sculptor and her mother and illustrator who created a home for her family where exploration of the world and creative expression through art, storytelling, cooking and hosting parties, were encouraged and nurtured. Jansson studied art in Stockholm and Rome, but found it challenging to be taken seriously as a woman. Amidst the horrors of WWII, Jansson imagines a family of peaceful creatures forced to flee the beautiful valley they live in when a comet threatens to destroy it, and in 1945, The Moomins and the Great Flood is published. Several novels, picture books and decades of a comic strip (which Jansson's brother took over) followed, making Jansson and the Moomins, a household name. There is even a Moomins theme park in Finalnd! Basically, I think Jansson and her Moomins are kind of the elegant, thoughtful European version of Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney - who wanted to buy the Moomin brand but was firmly rejected by Jansson.
From Bagieu's book, I learned that the Moominverse and Jansson's writing was largely autobiographical, the setting mirroring her own childhood exploring the enchanting islands she grew up on. When she began creating the Moominverse, Jansson was in a secret relationship with a married woman at a time when homosexuality was illegal in Finland. The characters Thingumy and Bob (in Swedish, which is the language Jansson spoke and wrote in, their names are Tofslan and Vifslan, Jansson's nicknames for herself and Vivica Bandler, her lover at the time), look very similar and are always seen holding hands and carrying a suitcase that contains a secret they can't tell anyone (a secret that others are constantly trying to steal from them). Later, Jansson's life partner, Tuuliki Pietilä, entered the Moominverse as Too-Ticky, a dear friend of the Moomin family who knows how to solve all sorts of dilemmas in a sensible and practical way.
As I learned from Boyce's review, The Dangerous Jounrey, which is the story of discontentment and traveling from a threatening, bleak world to one of beauty, joy and connection, was written shortly after the death of Jansson's beloved mother. Knowing this, and a brief history of Jansson and the Moomins, helped me to make sense of The Dangerous Journey (and also left me with so many questions). However, a young reader will dive into this rhyming, curious story and be at one with Jansson's world immediately. The book begins with a clearly put out girl sitting in a field with her sleeping cat. Susanna is, "bored and confused and cross," and she chastises her cat for being too "peaceful, too serene." To top it off, she is sick, "all this green," referring to the expansive field, dotted with flowers, she is parked in. Taking her glasses off so that she doesn't have to see her contently napping cat, she discovers a different pair of glasses and puts them on. Her world instantly changes to a chaotically strange, alternately dark and beautiful, upside down world. Susanna is not too upset though. At one point she secretly enjoys the "dreadful sight" of the gaping void left by a sea that has drained away.
As Susanna wanders and explores the "bright unknown," she meets up with characters from the Moominverse just as the ground begins shaking. A volcano erupts, followed by a blizzard, and the group struggles on, meeting up with new friends (and enjoying soup) along the way. At a true moment of danger, a red and gold hot air balloon appears out of the sky and they are rescued by Tooticky, who flies them over the Moomin Valley, which is "bathed in sun." Moominmamma and Moominpappa grab the ropes and guide the balloon to ground where flowers bloom in a beautiful green field filled with all the characters from Jansson's books.
Naturally, they have a, "lovely party - well what else should they have done? (They throw a party every day quite often more than one, Sometimes outside beneath the starts, or, when it's cold, indoors.)" Susanna calls for Mr. Paws, telling him it's, "Hometime!" Jansson ends her book with this lovely thought,
"Whether things turned out okay
She's never going to know.
When adventure comes your way
Enjoy it. Let it go."
If you don't know anything about Tove Jansson and the Moomins, The Dangerous Journey is a great place to start. Jansson's watercolor illustrations are spectacular - they are brooding and fluid, sometimes surrealistic, dotted with pops of color and detail in the form of Susanna and the Moomins. I definitely suggest taking a look at more of her artwork. And I definitely recommend you start and bring some Moomin joy and creativity into your world!