Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Lessons in life in children's books

The importance of reading as a child was made clear by the new British Children’s Laureate, Malorie Blackman. She told in an interview how her father thought reading fiction was useless and how she read it despite, learning, as she said, “more about people and relating and communicating with other people through fiction books than I ever did through non-fiction.” When I shared the interview on Twitter, one person told me that he had learned about black culture for the first time through Blackman’s books. And those lessons had stuck. A child’s mind is very flexible and impressionable so what we read as a child makes an impact for life. If we’re lucky, the impact is positive, the lessons learned those that make us better people.

There wasn’t any racial diversity in my country when I was growing up so there wasn’t literature for children about it either. Instead, children’s books addressed social issues like growing up with a single parent, though I was an adult before I understood that aspect of those books. Nevertheless, the lesson learned; I can’t remember ever wondering why some of my friends didn’t have two parents.

Some books taught me about empathy, for example. At seven, I read a series about a girl who had to face the horrors of two wars between Finland and the Soviet Union (1939-44). She had to twice leave her home village on what eventually became the Soviet side of the border and relocate among people who didn’t really want all the refugees they now had to deal with. While written especially for children, it was heavy reading for a small girl. However, I learned immensely from those books and three decades later, when reading about refugees of any war, the books and the emotions I felt when reading them still return to me.

One series is above all else, however, when it comes to learning about being different and accepting people as they are: the Moomin (1945-1970). Their author, Tove Jansson (1914-2001), was a member of two minorities. She was a Swedish-speaking Finn (about 10% of population in her youth) and she lived in a same-sex relationship at the time when they weren’t acknowledged socially or legally. She was also an artist. While the cultural elite in her youth consisted mostly of the Swedish-speaking Finns, giving her slightly better chances at becoming an artist, it still wasn’t an easy career choice for a woman.

Moomins were first created as a diversion from the horrors of the war, which explains some of the tone, although the characters got their inspiration from Jansson's family. They are trolls with big snouts and pretty tails who live in the Moomin Valley, a peaceful place away from everything. Their big house is always open for friends and a wide cast of characters visit them constantly, each quirkier than the other. Everyone is accepted as they are, the scary ones included, and even the silliest find understanding in the end. The lifestyle of the Moomin family is rather bohemian; they head on adventures on a moment’s notice and show fondness for good Whisky. They’re anarchic too, defying authorities at every chance.

Despite the idyllic settings, the Moomin books aren’t exactly light reading for children. From the more easily understood lessons like ‘always be kind to others’ they stretch to handling natural disasters and the end of the world. I was especially impressed with Comet in Moominland, which I read when I was about seven. In it, a great comet threatens the Moomin Valley, the tone of the book that of immediate doom as the comet comes nearer. There are portents along the way, and even the cover is scary. It didn’t surprise me in the least to learn – as an adult – that the book is thought to be a commentary on the atomic bomb. As a child of the Cold War, the fear I experienced reading the book was the same I felt about the nuclear threat. The book allowed me to process that fear.

The Moomin books were written at a time when books for children could handle truly difficult issues, like death. Nowadays, the trend is different. When the Moomin characters were turned into a Japanese animation in the 1990s, everything controversial was cleaned away. The series is beautiful – and lifeless. If it’s the first encounter one has with the Moomins, one will never learn all about them. And while the animated series most likely creates a beautiful childhood memory, it won’t teach you the life lessons the books do. Moreover, it won’t make you grow as a human. Luckily, the books are still there.

Here's a snippet from the animated Moomin series. You can find most of them in English on YouTube.