The Summer Book, by Tove Jansson

I loved this book. It’s quite short, a series of vignettes about a young girl named Sophia and her grandmother, drawn from summers spent on an island in the Gulf of Finland. Sophia’s father appears in some of the stories, but he is a peripheral presence, busy working at his desk or taking the boat out to get supplies. They are the only people on the island.

What is remarkable about these little stories is how tough they are. Jansson enters fully into the child’s world of magic forests, special bathrobes, and visiting friends. She manages to write about that world without a trace of sentimentality and so truthfully that I found myself stumbling over long-buried memories of my own childhood foraging in summer woods, clambering over rocks and peering at insects.

Even more refreshing is the grandmother’s resilient candor. The stories are most often from her point of view, and I loved the way she treats the child, directly, as an intelligent being who could be expected to hold up her end of things. The old woman doesn’t cater to Sophia or fawn over her, not even when the girl is shouting with anger or trying to hide her fear when swimming in deep water, not even when the subject of Sophia’s dead mother comes up. Yet the grandmother—whose aches and pains are relayed without self-pity, who crawls under bushes to hide the fact that she’s smoking a cigarette, who is not above using a swear word to distract the child—will work behind Sophia’s back to carve animals out of wood or create a Doge’s palace for a pretend Venice.

I find it incredibly hard to write about children. In many stories they are either syrupy sweet or too prescient, miniature adults. The child as lonely outsider has been done to death, and the bratty, know-it-all children who populate sitcoms are just plain annoying. But this book is a perfect model for how to write about a child in a way that is new and honest.

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