Jansson, Tove Marika

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Tove Marika Jansson

Finnish artist and author Tove Jansson (1914-2001), whose widely translated work spoke to children and adults alike, is often compared to such timeless authors as J.R.R. Tolkein and A.A. Milne.

Creative Beginnings

Tove Marika Jansson (pronounced TOH-vay YANson) was born on August 9, 1914, in Helsinki, Finland. The eldest of three, Jansson shared her childhood with two younger brothers, Per and Lars. Their father was sculptor Viktor Jansson, and their mother was Signe Hammarten-Jansson, a successful Swedish graphic artist. All three children were raised to speak and write in Swedish, making the family a part of the country's Swedish-speaking Finnish minority.

According to Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Jansson recalled in her 1968 autobiographical novel Bildhuggarens dotter (The Sculptor's Daughter), “We lived in a large, dilapidated studio in Helsinki, and I pitied other children who had to live in ordinary flats … nothing like the mysterious jumble of turn-tables, sacks with plaster and cases with clay, pieces of wood and iron constructions where one could hide and build in peace. A home without sculptures seemed as naked to me as one without books.” Jansson spent her youth immersed in the imaginings of other authors. Her mother brought home samples of books she had been hired to design covers for, and Jansson read them avidly. Even when forced to play outside or told to go to bed, Jansson remembered hiding “behind a trash container in the yard” to read, or reading “by flashlight under the covers.”

Early Accomplishments

Jansson began sharing her unique talents at a young age. Her first official publication, a cartoon titled Prickinas och Fabians äventyr (Prickina and Fabian's Adventure), told the story of a pair of caterpillars falling in love and appeared in the children's magazine Lunkentus in 1929 when Jansson was just 15 years old. Four years later, in 1933, Jansson used the pseudonym Vera Haij to publish a picture book she wrote and illustrated, titled Sara och Pelle och Neckens bläckfiskar (Sara and Pelle and the Water-Sprite's Octopuses). While her mother undoubtedly had a strong hand in her early success—Signe Hammarten-Jansson was a standout in her field with strong literary contacts and the ability to financially support the family with her design work— Jansson had the skill and drive required to fruitfully publish on her own.

An Education in Invention

Jansson later applied herself at multiple art schools. From 1930 to 1933 she studied lettering, heraldry, ceramics, drawing, painting, and book design among other subjects at Konstfack in Stockholm, Sweden. In 1933 she continued to study multiple mediums at the Finnish Art Society in Helsinki, Finland, and in 1938 Jansson took advantage of an opportunity to attend the Ecole d'Adrien Holy and the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, France. She even supplemented this European exposure with a short period of study in Florence, Italy. In 1943 Jansson had her first private exhibition in Helsinki, a popular and critical success that quickly identified her as a young artist to watch.

The Moomins Are Born

Despite a varied authorial career, Jansson is best remembered as the creator of the Moomintrolls, a gentle family of hippo-esque creatures who lived in an idyllic valley and survived both natural and emotional disasters, from raging floods to the more subtle echoes of personal loss. She began writing the first Moomin book, Smatrollen och den stora översvämningen (The Small Troll and the Large Flood), in 1939, claiming in a later interview that she consciously chose to avoid the typical protagonists of children's literature in favor of the strange but engaging troll figures.

There are eight novels and four picture books in the Moomin anthology, all written and published in Swedish between 1945 and 1970 and later translated into a wealth of languages. Described in terms like “simple,” “spritely,” and “mythical,” Jansson's Moomin images became the foundation for a surprisingly vast international fan base.

The Moomins evolved into a lucrative comic strip that ran in the London Evening News from 1953 to 1960. Eager to prove herself capable of conceptualizing beyond Moominvalley, Jansson also contributed political cartoon work for nearly 20 years to GARM, described by Boel Westin in the Dictionary of Literary Biography as a satirical, political mouthpiece with a Finno-Swedish audience. Westin remarked that Jansson's “drawings and her sharp satirical portraits of Adolf Hitler (as well as of Joseph Stalin) contributed to the tough profile of the magazine and were on some occasions censored by the authorities.”

In 1958 Jansson's father died, and a year later her brother, Lars, took over the Moomin comic strip. Years later, Jansson's London Times obituary described how the Moomintrolls “developed a life of their own which outlasted their creator's interest in them …. As [Jansson] found, the marketing of a successful idea brought its own form of slavery, and she was heartily glad when … her brother Lars stepped in, releasing her to pursue other interests.” While she never truly shed what some scholars see as the “Moomin Shroud,” Jansson's later work took readers far from the halcyon days of Moominvalley and introduced her remaining audience to the thought-provoking and sometimes trying existence of an aging life. Acknowledged as a gifted artist in her day, Jansson's position meant she also enjoyed more than one opportunity to illustrate the work of classic children's authors she admired, and she provided art to accompany the words of both Lewis Carroll and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Jansson's Sapphic Reputation

Jansson is lauded by many sources as a prominent lesbian figure. Johanna Pakkanen commented in Who's Who in Contemporary Gay and Lesbian History that “homosexual characters, both female and male, appeared first in [Jansson's] short stories.” Tuulikki Pietilä, a graphic artist and Jansson's life partner, was the inspiration for the Moomin character Too-Ticky, described as “much addicted to bathing-houses, the sea-side in every particular in fact, and quite a philosopher in a way.” Jansson and Pietilä met when they were both art students in the 1930s, and their relationship developed quickly when they met again some 20 years later in 1954. The women eventually settled on Klovharu island in the Finnish archipelago, an environment that provided the setting for the Moomin stories because it was rich with Jansson's memories of childhood summers spent on one of the Porvoo islands with her grandparents.

Moominvalley had been brought to life at a time when the Second World War loomed large on the historical horizon. The Dictionary of Literary Biography recorded a diary entry written by Jansson that revealed how she “longed to get away so much that she [felt] she could go to pieces,” and it was then that she began to create a “happy society and a peaceful, if fictional, world,” as a way of struggling against her anguish. No stranger to the soothing effects of storytelling, Jansson's mother had been a gifted storyteller who spun tales in a way that made Jansson and her siblings feel safe. In an article on the Web site Sybertooth, Literary scholar K.V. Johansen explained, “In many fantasies of the fifties the fantastic is used to create a world that is more comforting, more contained, than the author's own times, or ours. Many children's writers of the … fifties used fantasy as a way of looking back to another time when the world did not seem so threatening, or of creating another world, as Jansson did, in which the dangers were of a scale to be grappled with and overcome.”

More Than the Moomins

Scholars and reviewers alike agree that Jansson's classification as a writer of children's literature is narrow at best. She revealed her authorial intentions in a 1971 interview cited in the Reference Guide to Short Fiction, explaining that she wrote for “the people who find it hard to fit in anywhere, those who are outside and on the margin, rather as when one says ‘small and dirty and frightened of the train.’ The fish out of water. The inferior person one has oneself succeeded in shaking off or concealing.”

Apart from the wildly popular Moomin material, Jansson was also a gifted writer of short fiction. A collection of her novellas titled Meddelande (Messages) was released in 1997 to considerable critical acclaim. The Reference Guide to Short Fiction described the Moomin books as works that developed a “blend of an adult consciousness of evil and inadequacy with the child's experience of fear and joy,” also noting that the final Moomin book, Sent i november (Moominvalley in November), is “intended almost exclusively for adults, and focuses on the problems of old age, loneliness, obsession, and change.”

National Treasure

Jansson died on June 27, 2001, at the age of 87. That same year, Sort Of Books hired poet Sophie Hannah to retranslate Jansson's Hur gick det sen? Boken om Mymlan, Mumintrollet och Lilla My (The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My) and released a full-color version of the children's classic as the first in a series of forgotten favorites. Jansson's niece, Sophia Jansson, was present to promote the new book celebrating her aunt's talents. The same publisher has continued purchasing the rights to Jansson's works and plans to release English translations until 2014, when they intend to publish something special to celebrate the author's centenary.

Jansson's legacy includes a Finnish museum in Tampere dedicated to her art and books that span numerous countries, translated into more than 35 languages, from Persian to Korean. The popularity of Jansson's troll world posthumously developed into a full-blown cultural craze in Japan, thanks to an animated television series starring the Moomins that became popular in 1980. This “Moominmania” produced everything from dolls and ceramics to towels, pens and postcards. The “Scandinavian beasties” have also been featured in opera, theater and radio, and fans can travel to a small Baltic island near Turku to visit “Moomin World,” where they will meet characters from Jansson's stories and immerse themselves in the details of Jansson's fantasy. Jansson was commissioned to paint frescoes on the basement walls of Helsinki's City Hall, and she donated many paintings to the Aurora Children's Hospital in the capital. Her Moomin illustrations have graced everything from Finnish postage to wallpaper, jewelry, and chocolates, and scholars remain fascinated and inspired by Jansson's work, which still appears regularly in doctorallevel dissertations.

According to the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Jansson loved “borders because they imply expectations to be on one's way, representing the important movement forward.” The entry praised the author's skill at both crossing and erasing a multitude of borders in her writing and art. Whether it be the meeting of water and land epitomized by island life, or the moments when an artist steps from drawing to writing and back again, Tove Jansson proved a nimble negotiator of many borders. Jansson's London Daily Telegraph obituary quoted her as saying, “I've had an exciting, varied life that I am glad of, though it has been trying as well. If I could live it all over again, I'd do it completely differently. But I won't say how.”


The Cambridge Biographical Encyclopedia: Second Edition, edited by David Crystal, Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Children's Literature Review: Volume 125, Gale Research, 1976.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 257: Twentieth-Century Swedish Writers After World War II, edited by Ann-Charlotte Gavel Adams, The Gale Group, 2002.

Jansson, Tove, Finn Family Moomintroll, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1952.

Jansson, Tove, Moominsummer Madness, Penguin Books, 1955.

Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults: Second Edition, Gale Group, 2002.

Reference Guide to Short Fiction, edited by Noelle Watson, St. James Press, 1994.

Short Story Criticism: Volume 96, Gale Research, 1988.

Who's Who in Contemporary Gay and Lesbian History: From World War II to the Present Day, edited by Robert Aldrich and Garry Wotherspoon, Routledge, 2001.


The Bookseller, September 21, 2001; February 2, 2007.

Daily Telegraph (London, England), June 28, 2001.

Independent (London, England), June 28, 2001.

New York Times, July 9, 2001.

Sunday Herald, December 2, 2001.

Times (London, England), June 28, 2001.

World Literature Today, Spring 1999.


“Famous Finnish Women on Stamps,” Famous Women on Stamps, http://home.online.no/#jdigrane/amd/finwomen/jansson1.htm (October 25, 2007).

Johansen, K.V., “The Fifties: Mary Norton, Edward Eager, Lucy Boston, and Tove Jansson,” http://www.sybertooth.com/kvj/rl7.htm#tove (October 25, 2007).

“The Rhythm of Texts: Translating for Children,” The Lion and the Unicorn, http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/lion_and_the_unicorn/v019/19.2br_oittinen.htm (October 25, 2007).

“Tove Jansson,” Fantastic Fiction, http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/j/tove-jansson/ (October 25, 2007).

“Tove Jansson Biography,” Essortment, http://www.mimi.essortment.com/tovejanssonbio_rwpd.htm (October 25, 2007).

“Tove (Marika) Jansson,” Books and Writers, http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/tjansson.htm (October 25, 2007).