There’s a view that the fantastical is a failing in children’s literature. In the 2009 BBC4 series Picture Book, Shirley Hughes (author and illustrator of the finely observed Alfie books) explained her scrupulous realism like this: small children have so much work to do simply coming to terms with what is that it’s unfair to tell them stories about things that aren’t. Fairy stories and supernatural characters are a distraction at best, at worst a sort of dishonesty that obscures the child’s view of their own world.
Hughes is wrong, I think – reasonably wrong, because so much good art comes from being committed to some sort of exaggeration, but definitely wrong to make realism an absolute. The warm, round-faced and mobile illustrations of Alfie show children how much there is to be loved and noticed in their everyday lives; but fantasy is the register in which children can come to know the strange and scary things which may not affect them often, but which are all the same unavoidable – and often a source of deep, instinctive terror to the small.
This week, I’ve been reading Moominland Midwinter to my children (aged nine and five). All Tove Jansson’s Moomin books take a good deal of oddness and darkness in their stride, but the frozen world of Midwinter is the most unsettling of them all. When Moomintroll has an untimely awakening from hibernation, he finds his valley transformed by snow and occupied by all the peculiar people who can’t feel at home in the warm seasons. Winter isn’t just another time – it’s a wholly alien place.
To Moomintroll’s outrage, he finds his family’s bathing-house occupied by a character called Too-ticky, and she describes the residents of winter like this :
“There are such a lot of things that have no place in summer and autumn and spring. Everything that’s a little shy and a little rum. Some kinds of night animals and people that don’t fit in with others and that nobody really believes in. They keep out of the way all year. And then when everything’s quiet and white and the nights are long and most people are asleep – then they appear.”
Too-ticky is a fine and wise character, practical without being a needling rationalist, handy with a fishing rod and unconcerned by strange happenings. “All things are so terribly uncertain, and that’s exactly what makes me feel reassured,” she tells Moomintroll. In Too-ticky’s world, the aurora borealis are as easily embraced as invisible shrews; the Lady Of The Cold (a terrible, beautiful personification of winter) is real, and so is death.
The death of the Squirrel With The Marvelous Tail is one of the least sentimental endings in fiction. The Squirrel is a fleeting character: he appears, we learn that he is foolish and the possessor of a marvelous tail, and then he meets the Lady Of The Cold and dies. The reactions to this death, though, are probably the most delicate and subtle part of the entire Moomin world.
Moomintroll is distressed, and looks for sentimental compensation (“At least [the Squirrel] saw something beautiful before he died,” he says to Too-ticky and Little My). The ferocious Little My is thoroughly sanguine. (“In any case he’s forgotten it now,” she tells Moomin. “And I’m going to make myself a sweet muff out of his tail.”) Too-ticky adjudicates: “It’s very hard to tell if people take any pleasure in their tails when they’re dead,” she says – although she nixes Little My’s efforts to score a warm fur, and helps Moomintroll to organise a funeral. And then she says:
“When one’s dead, one’s dead… This squirrel will become earth all in his time. And still later on, there’ll grow new trees from him, with new squirrels skipping about in them. Do you think that’s so very sad?”
It’s important that we’re told she says this “kindly”. This is a harsh statement, after all: death comes, and the individual is finished as far as we can know (perhaps spectacularly harsh for a children’s book). But unlike Moomintroll’s slightly desperate hope that the Squirrel’s last experience was a fair exchange for extinction, Too-ticky’s recompense of life emerging organically from death has the benefit of being observably true. In Jansson’s fiction, because the extraordinary is acceptable, the most unbelievable thing of all – that you and me and everybody we know will cease to be – can be acknowledged without dread.