Review: Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words: The Authorised Biography by Boel Westin + Tove100

SCHILDT, 2008/2097

The Finnish-Swedish writer and artist Tove Jansson achieved worldwide fame as the creator of the Moomin stories, written between 1945 and 1970 and still in print in more than twenty languages. However, the Moomins were only a part of her prodigious output. Already admired in Nordic art circles as a painter, cartoonist and illustrator, she would go on to write a series of classic novels and short stories. She remains Scandinavia’s best loved author.

Tove Jansson’s work reflected the tenets of her life: her love of family (and special bond with her mother), of nature, and her insistence on freedom to pursue her art. Love and work was the motto she chose for herself and her approach to both was joyful and uncompromising. If her relationships with men foundered on her ambivalence towards marriage, those with women came as a revelation, especially the love and companionship she found with her long-time partner, the artist Tuulikki Pietilä, with whom she lived on the solitary island of Klovharu.

In this meticulously researched, authorised biography, Boel Westin draws together the many threads of Jansson’s life: from the studies interrupted to help her family; the dark shades of war and her emergence as an artist with a studio of her own; to the years of Moomin-mania, and later novel writing. Based on numerous conversations with Tove, and unprecedented access to her journals, letters and personal archives, Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words offers a rare and privileged insight into the world of a writer whom Philip Pullman described, simply, as ‘a genius’.

— blogger note: the cover pictured is not the final version, which explains the wrong title —

The year 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of Tove Jansson’s birth. Growing up, Tove Jansson’s Moomin characters offered a fantastic world of adventure and excitement. My mother used to go to the library and bring back two Jansson books: one Moomin book for me and my brother, and one adult book for herself. I guess love for Jansson is a family trait. Nevertheless, the author has always carried a certain mystery around herself. Attending the Helsinki Book Fair last autumn, I noticed that the approaching anniversary of Tove Jansson was starting to show in the stalls and flyers and decided to “some day find out more about Tove Jansson”.

Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words is the first and probably the most in-depth biography written about Tove Jansson. It was originally published in 2007 (in Swedish), and has been recently translated and published by Sort of Books. Boel Westin, a Swedish professor on Literature, started the project when Tove Jansson was still alive, and after her death had almost unlimited access to her files, studio, and correspondence. She also interviewed Tuulikki Pietilä, Jansson’s long-time companion, and people who worked with the author. To say the material was sufficient would be an understatement.

Westin writes chronologically, focusing on Jansson’s literary works (she was also painter and cartoonist). The book introduces Jansson’s family, describeds her years of studying art and the effect that the raging WWII had in giving birth to the Moomin. She devotes a considerable amount of pages to the literary analysis of Jansson’s books and their themes. For me, it was immensely fascinating to see her pull different aspects and elements out of books that I’d read a long, long time ago but still remembered. I kept pausing to think about the different experiences the readers have, based on their knowledge of the context and the author.

I loved how Boel Westin constructs the space and time around the author so that I could almost feel what she was feeling at those moments. I don’t read much non-fiction, and was expecting this to be dry and long-winding, but in fact it kept me up for late hours, hooked on the “story”. It’s wonderful, and I definitely recommend this book to everyone who wants to learn more about Tove Jansson or the Moomins!



As 2014 marks the 100th year anniversary of Tove Jansson, many bloggers are celebrating this through reading and reviewing her books. I’ve only ever read Moomin books and cartoons, both of which I read when growing up. This year, I hope to read at least 4 adult books written by Jansson (in addition, I’d love to read the new biography written by Tuula Karjalainen – which will be published in English by Penguin!). I’ll probably end up re-reading some of the Moomin books too, but I hope to focus on the adult novels that are new to me.

The books I review will be linked back to this post, as well as any update posts on the topic. In 2014 I’ve read:

For more information about the celebration year and the global events, visit the Tove100 web page.