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On Kristin Cashore’s “Different Drums: Embracing the Strange” (from 2013)

Author Kristin Cashore’s “Different Drums: Embracing the Strange” appeared in the Magazine’s March/April 2013 special issue, “Different Drummers.” The short piece is her response to the Horn Book editors’ question, posed to a handful of authors, publishers, and critics: “What’s the strangest children’s book you’ve ever enjoyed?”

Kristin’s answer? Moominsummer Madness by Finnish author Tove Jansson. This is the fourth book Jansson wrote about the Moomins and their oddball collection of friends and acquaintances in Moominvalley. I was delighted to revisit Kristin’s contribution, as I’m currently binge-reading Jansson’s books with my ten-year-old son. Her observations get to the heart of what makes these singular characters and their off-kilter world endure:

“Strange, eerie, frightening things happen regularly in Moominvalley. Children are separated from parents, innocents are thrown into jail, families lose their homes to floods; the world is populated with malicious and unhappy people. But the Moomins move calmly along, implicitly trusting in one another’s (questionable) competence, feeding and comforting the malicious and unhappy, loving each other, embracing the strange.”

Feeding and comforting the malicious and unhappy, loving each other, embracing the strange.”  If that isn’t a prescription for what ails humanity, I don’t know what is. For all their peculiarities, the Moomins have their priorities straight, and as unfamiliar as their world seems to us, the Moomins have a lot to teach us about what matters in our own.

I wasn’t sure that a Finnish book from the fifties about a bunch of quirky creatures would hold any appeal for my screen-addicted tween. I actually thought his nine-year-old brother would be the one drawn to the stories and the characters, but Moomin magic hasn’t affected him the way it has his older brother and me.

We started with Finn Family Moomintroll. Parts of the book had both kids laughing out loud, mostly at small, unremarkable moments that you might miss if you weren’t paying attention. We found the characters unselfconsciously and enchantingly eccentric, and we were charmed by the translation’s language. There’s a lot of “clambering” in Moominvalley, and I love that Kristin used clamber in her appreciation.

As soon as we finished Finn Family, we rushed to the library for more. I have to agree that, even within the Moomins’ odd universe, Moominsummer Madness is pretty trippy. My son’s favorites so far are Finn Family and Comet in Moominland (a nailbiter about a comet on a collision course with Moominvalley). I love Finn Family, too, though Moominland Midwinter gets my vote for the most moving. In that story, as the rest of his family hibernates in their warm and cozy home, Moomintroll inexplicably wakes up early, can’t get back to sleep, and encounters winter and snow for the first time. Jansson’s evocative descriptions bring the transformed landscape to life:

“And so Moomintroll was helplessly thrown out into a strange and dangerous world and dropped up to his ears in the first snowdrift of his experience… His nose caught a new smell. It was a more serious smell than any he had met before, and slightly frightening. But it made him wide awake and greatly interested.”

And later: “He went down to the river. It was the same river that used to scuttle, transparent and jolly, through Moomintroll’s summer garden. Now it looked quite unlike itself. It was black and listless. It also belonged to this new world in which he didn’t feel at home.”

I’m probably projecting too much onto the narrative, but as we read about Moomintroll navigating this cold, unfamiliar world alone — without the bolstering of his still-hibernating family — I was very aware of the ten-year-old cuddled up next to me. Maybe Moominland Midwinter affects me the way it does because I know that my still-cuddly boy is on the verge of entering a new world where I don’t belong.

I can visit him, though. At the end of the story, Moominmamma finally wakes up and immediately sets things right: “All at once Moomintroll felt warm and calm and free of responsibility. He sighed a little and burrowed his nose in the pillow. Then he fell asleep, away from it all.” Later, however, after he wakes up from a feverish sleep, he wonders “whether he’d be ill a little longer and have Moominmamma nurse him a little more. But then he decided that it would be nicer still to take care of Moominmamma himself and said: ‘Let me show you the snow!’” It’s a relief to have Moominmamma back in charge, but Moomintroll’s self-reliant stint has helped him be less self-absorbed.

“‘Mother, I love you terribly,’ said Moomintroll.

They went strolling slowly down to the bridge… The evening sun threw long shadows through the valley, and all was calm with a wonderful peace.”

That’s what I want for my kids, to learn how to think less about their own wants and gain more of an awareness of other people’s needs. But lately I feel like I’m losing them to their screens, where it’s all about instant gratification and looking out for Number One. More and more, our days devolve into screen-time negotiations and video-game fights. Because of this state of affairs, I’m grateful to the Moomins for giving me and my son some special time together, away from our day-to-day struggles, and for helping us strengthen a connection that undoubtedly will be tested in the years ahead. And thank you, Kristin Cashore, for your loving tribute to our mutual friends.*

 

(*More Moomin magic! When I looked up Kristin’s website to link to from here, I stumbled (clambered?) on to her latest blog post about her trip to the Moomin-adjacent Arctic Circle!)

About Kitty Flynn

Kitty Flynn is consulting editor for The Horn Book, Inc.

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Comments

  1. We loved Moomins at our house, too! Comet, Finn Family, MidSummer were big hits. Midwinter was acceptable but, unfortunately, the love ended during the reading of “Moominpapa’s Memoirs” which, I have to admit was a real bore for a 5 year old. But, I keep hoping we’ll go back and read the rest.

  2. Oh, god! The Memoirs were awful. We slogged through because my son needs to read series books in order, no matter how painful. It helped to know that Moomintroll and Sniff seemed equally put off by Moominpappa’s purple prose (if that’s the right way to describe it…). We’re reading Tales from Moominvalley now (it’s okay, but it’s no Comet). I’m scared of Moominpappa at Sea, though. I hope he’s not narrating again!

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