It’s cold today. That means I’m getting nostalgic. One winter way back in the antediluvian days of my childhood my sister found a book, read it, and gave it to me. This was not an unusual event, but this is a book that stuck with us both even though no one else seemed to have read it: there was a creature called a Moomin who woke up from hibernation in winter, we remembered. We liked it a lot. And it didn’t feel like a kids’ book, precisely. Somehow the book disappeared soon after that (that’s one of the annoying things about having a lot of books– sometimes one gets lost in the shuffle), but since I always hate stories that leave the reader fretting about what’s going to happen next I’ll let you in on the secret right now: I did find it again, and it was called Moominland Midwinter, written and illustrated by Tove Jansson, and ultimately I was to read it with the Changeling, who also liked it. There, now you’re set and can read on with assurance. It’s a happy ending.
The years passed, I moved to Boston, got married, and got pregnant, and found the Children’s Book Shop in Brookline. I walked in, and they had Moomin pictures on the wall. I knew I’d like this place. They had Moomin books on the shelves. I fell in love. And I, well, I bought them all because, you know, would you want to bring a new baby into a house with insufficient Moomin books? Of course you wouldn’t, that would be irresponsible parenting, right? Right. I’m so glad we agree on these points. Also, don’t you agree that all obstetricians should be located right near well-curated children’s book shops, and, if they are, that’s obviously a sign that all visits to the obstetrician should be followed by trips to the book store? You do? Why, I knew we’d get along!
Well, thus began my annual impulse to reread Moominland Midwinter whenever the weather got very, very cold or I hit the first big snow. When very wintery weather hits I start to think about the Moomin family, sleeping away the winter in their house in Moominvalley, and Moomintroll’s eyes opening to the dark, snowed-in parlour. I think about the winter creatures he meets, the Lady of the Cold, and his growing friendship with Too-ticky. I think about his initial fear of winter, and his growing comfort with that alien world of snow and darkness. I hear Too-ticky’s patient voice in my head saying, “Take it easy,” and then I hunt up the book wherever it’s migrated to since last year. (I honestly try to organize my books, but they move around anyway. It’s hopeless.)
And so this year it finally got snowy and cold, and I curled up and opened my book. Then a head of slightly tousled curls popped up. “What’s that book?” “It’s called Moominland Midwinter.” There was a scramble and then someone was on my lap and the curls were tickling my nose. “Read it to me.” I thought for a moment, because Moominland Midwinter is really not aimed at toddlers, but it goes against my principles not to read to children when asked to do so, and, besides, the worst that could happen would be that the Changeling would scramble down again, so where was the harm? And, most of all, I was curious to see how the book would work when read aloud.
Well, what do you know? It’s a beautiful book to read aloud. The occasional pictures act as little landmarks for small children, or just points to engage them (“Start here, with Little My.”), and you’d better be prepared to get a small foot lodged between your ribs whenever one of Tove Jansson’s brilliant drawings pops up and someone shouts out “oh, is that Too-ticky?” And all those character voices you’ve been hearing in your head as you read to yourself? It turns out they’re really fun to say aloud.
As I’d expected, the conversations are perfectly paced and sing along. What I’d been more concerned about were the paragraphs of meditation, poetry, or simply exposition in between those conversations. To my surprise, they engaged the Changeling almost as much as the conversations. Perhaps it was because they’re accompanied by those little illustrations which show what’s going on, but I’d also credit the pace and rhythm of the prose. The meditations can be quite lyrical and lovely. Try reading this aloud, for example:
“One flake after the other landed on his warm nose and melted away. He caught several in his paw to admire them for a fleeting moment; he looked toward the sky and saw them sinking down straight at him, more and more, softer and lighter than bird’s down.” (Moominland Midwinter, pp. 95-6.)
Exposition moves in its own way: rapid and clever, or in almost philosophical detail, depending on what the characters and plot demand. Always, it’s fun to share aloud.
How did the Changeling take to it? I asked her, because I was still a bit surprised that she’d sat through it, one chapter a night, and wondered how much she’d taken in. She loved the characters, and told me she particularly liked Too-ticky (“Too-ticky says ‘take it easy!'”), Little My, and Moominmamma. But what do I think really clicked with her? Well, it’s winter right now, and I don’t think I’m the only one who feels the seasonal appeal.
This morning it was really cold, and I was trying to get the Changeling’s mittens on (I feel a great rustling across the world, as though millions of mothers suddenly dropped their heads into their hands and moaned in recognition). I was trying to get across that it wasn’t just chilly, it was cold, and she really needs her mittens today, and an idea popped into my head: “Do you remember in Moominland Midwinter when the Lady of the Cold comes?” “Oh, yes.” “Well, it’s a cold like that today. A big cold. That’s why you need your mittens.” I won’t say she didn’t grumble, but there was a definite click, and those mittens did go on.
Moominland Midwinter, as I said at the beginning, really doesn’t feel to me like a kid’s book. It didn’t when I first read it, years ago, and it doesn’t now. It’s a seasonal book, a winter book, and it’s there for anyone who’s ready to just tumble through into winter. It distills winter, it shares winter, it talks with you about cold and snow, blizzards and ice, and about that first moment at winter’s end when the wind changes and you sniff the hint of the beginning of spring. The Changeling might be a toddler, but she’s a toddler who’s learning all about winter, and Tove Jansson is talking to her, too, through all her voices of winter: Too-ticky, Little My, and Moomintroll and Moominmamma, too, who are just discovering it along with us. If you’re feeling wintery, bundle up in your warmest clothes, head over to the bookstore (look near your obstetrician’s office, you may find a great one) and ask for Moominland Midwinter.