Discovering the Moomins

The Moomin books. Image from

I have a superpower: I can (usually) read in a moving car. For a long time. On windy roads. Thus was born the earliest of traditions with my then-girlfriend-now-wife: road trip read-alouds. She drives; I read. And this has continued now that we have a child.

We’ve done a lot of the ones you can probably imagine reading to a two-, three-, or four-year-old, but we recently started the Moomin series written and illustrated by Tove Jansson. Some of you may be nodding sagely. After all, Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman are among the luminaries blurbed on the covers. But most people I talk to—if they’ve heard of the series at all—have never read them. I was in the “hadn’t even heard of them” camp, so I’m discovering them alongside our daughter.

Moomins are vaguely hippo-like creatures who walk on their hind feet. They share much in common with Snorks. The three-member family at the center of the series lives in a blue, turret-shaped tower with rope ladders hanging from the windows. And they seem to have no problem taking in the many friends they make along the way: a philosopher Muskrat, a vaguely kangaroo-esque creature named Sniff, a wanderlust-filled Snufkin, a fuddy-duddy Hemulen, and many more.

Each book we’ve read so far has a definite story arc, but many tangential things happen as well. Magic of a mostly gentle kind infuses the Moomin world, and there is a surreal, dream-like quality to many of the scenes: Ghostly Hattifatteners that can neither talk nor hear and thus voyage about in quiet swarms, a king whose reign seems to mainly be about constructing odd surprises for his subjects, a flood so large it overwhelms the world.

But there’s much to ponder for the adult readers. It’s not hard, as this article notes, to draw a line between Moomins huddling in a cave as a comet comes perilously close and people huddling in bomb shelters as enemy planes destroyed the city above. When Moomintroll and Snork Maiden spend the night outside the group’s flood-riding home, it reads as a metaphor for a wedding night.

Even if your kids don’t get the subtext, they’ll enjoy the interesting stories and fun characters.

Be warned, though, that the book has more than a dollop of gender bias. Snork Maiden is painted as vain, and Moomintroll at one point tells her to brush her fur because he wants her to look beautiful. Women are in charge of all domestic activities, while men are free to idle about. It’s clear that Moominmamma has her own big adventure before she meets Moominpappa, but we never hear about it (or at least we haven’t by now, well into book 4). I don’t have to do as much on-the-fly editing as I did with Mr. Toad’s rants about women, but I do have to do some. If the Moomin comic I got on Free Comic Book Day is any indication, its universe has only gotten more overtly sexist in modern times.

On a lighter note, if you’re prone to doing voices when you read aloud, be warned that there is a sprawling cast of characters in these books. I’ve managed it a bit by using the same type of voice, pitched higher or lower, for similar characters, but I still find myself reusing a voice and forgetting what voice I assigned to this or that character.

Are you already a Moomin fan? Let us know your favorite scenes in the comments!

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