A silhouette of a moomin in a red heart, surrounded by a rainbow border, against a backdrop of floating hearts.

The unlikely queer family at the heart of the Moomins

In recent years, Moomins creator Tove Janssen has become a queer icon. What her stories capture, says Elizabeth Lovatt, is the importance and joy of choosing your own family.

Elizabeth Lovatt

Since they were first published in 1945, the popularity of children’s books The Moomins has only grown. Intriguingly, awareness of their creator, Tove Jansson, has also risen in recent years – as a queer icon. Most grown-up Moomin fans are by now familiar with those irresistible pictures of Jansson with her long-term partner, the artist and graphic designer Tuulikki Pietilä, on their island home where they summered together.

I was introduced to the Moomins, that funny family of hippo-like creatures, by my mum. Admittedly, I found them rather scary as a child and it took years before I read the books for myself. I finally re-discovered them well into my twenties, not long after I realised I was gay, and that Jansson was too.

Jansson was never publicly open about her sexuality, but she still found ways to celebrate her loves in the world of Moominvalley. Indeed, two of her female lovers found their way into her stories. First, in the characters of Thingumy and Bob who arrive in Finn Family Moomintroll and carry a big secret hidden in their suitcase – the precious King’s Ruby. In the original Swedish, their names can be clearly traced to Jansson’s muses: Tofslan and Vifslan, the same pet names Jansson and her lover, the theatre director Vivica Bandler, used for one another during their brief affair. Suddenly Thingumy and Bob’s shiny red gem that must be hidden from others makes a lot more sense.

'I was curious what the Moomin family meant to other LGBTQ+ fans, especially at a time when our families can feel very far away'

Then, there is Too-Ticky, who first appears in Moominland Midwinter and is based on Jansson’s long-term partner Tuulikki, known to her friends as “Tooti”. The two share many traits as optimistic, practical craftspeople and Too-Ticky makes a fitting homage to Jansson’s real life love.

Reading the Moomins as an adult and knowing about the parallels between Jansson’s own life and mine, I now see how they represent a chosen family, that community of queer friends so many of us have who protect and celebrate our true selves. Similarly, the Moomins are quick to invite others into their lives. So while there is a central trio of the adventurous Moomintroll, caring Moominmama and (mostly) reliable Moominpapa, there is also a constantly changing and expanding cast of creatures who are welcomed into their home without question.

I was curious what the Moomin family meant to other LGBTQ+ fans especially at a time when our own families, both those we were born into and the ones we made for ourselves, can feel very far away, so I spoke to a few of them to find out why the Moomin family are so special to its LGBTQ+ readers.   

For Angelica, an NHS worker and organiser of queer sober dance parties, the Moomins represent an alternative way to think about family beyond its traditional remits. She explains that in Moominsummer Madness Fillyjonk realises she doesn’t have to invite her aunt and uncle to dinner, who aren’t very nice and never come anyway. “They’ve got no family feeling!” Fillyjonk sobs and instead invites Moomintroll and Snorkmaiden, who are nice.

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“It’s a revelation to a true and happier life,” Angelica says, “We as queer people know the many ways we can be unsafe within families. We need families that are expansive, that go into the communities that are concerned with all our safety – as in the case in Moominvalley, where outside the Moomin family there is also an extended range of characters who are treated every bit as much as family.”

Sarah, a children’s bookseller and queer histories researcher, has loved the Moomins since childhood but it was only when she was older that they found out the author wasn’t straight. Their childhood edition of Finn Family Moomintroll made no mention of Jansson’s long-term partner. “When I discovered Tove also had relationships with women, I felt like I’d been a little robbed as a child, not having a queer children’s author to look up to,” they say. New editions now acknowledge Tuulikki Pietilä as Jansson’s partner and for Sarah this is an important step forward. “We need to let young readers know that their beloved stories are created by queer people, and that it isn’t bad or “inappropriate” to be like them.”

Finding a queer children’s illustrator was similarly vital for Kate, a British-Iranian illustrator, who was intrigued by the queer subtext they found in the Moomins’ approach to family: “It seems chaotic but ultimately welcoming of many different kinds of characters, like queer community should be.”

'I always thought that if I got lost in Moominvalley, there would be a door open to me'

The fluid approach to gender in the Moomin family is also a source of celebration. Kate says that in characters like Moomintroll, Too-Ticky and Toffle they found “an unconventional expression of masculinity I could relate to as a non-binary butch lesbian”. For Sarah, too, this ambiguity around gender was both freeing and welcoming: “The Moomins know themselves so well and are unapologetic of that. All the characters are content with who they are as individuals. I always thought that if I got lost in Moominvalley, there would be a door open to me.”

Everyone I spoke to remarked on how the Moomin family created a place where you can simply be yourself without fear of rejection. Something that the Moomin family offers explicitly in the short story The Invisible Child. It tells of Ninny, who has become invisible as a result of being frightened too many times by the woman who “had taken care of her without really liking her”. Instead, The Moomins offer an alternative family that is capable of kindness and love as well as hasty words and mischief (most often from Little My, but Moomintroll has his moments). It’s this that ultimately returns Ninny to visibility, when she bites Moominpapa’s tail to stop him pushing Moominmama in the sea. It’s her laughter and the laughter of her newfound family that allows her to be seen fully again.

Whether writing for adults or for children, Jansson understood family deeply – both the one we are born into and the one we create for ourselves. In the Moomins she gave readers a family that was not bound to a particular place or rigid hierarchy. Most importantly, she knew that family is not about living in idyllic harmony, but understanding and accepting change and difference. It is knowing the bad days will come and facing them together anyway. As she wrote to Tuulikki in one of her letters: “I’m not afraid of the shadows. When they come (as I suppose they must, for all those who care for one another), I think we can manoeuvre our way through them.”

These days the home I share with my girlfriend feels a little like the island Tove and Tuulikki shared, distanced for now, at least, from our families and friends. It’s a comfort to know that I still have the one Tove Jansson made for readers everywhere — after all, the Moomins are only a bookshelf away.

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

Image: Ryan McEachern / Penguin

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