Did you know a letter from a young reader inspired Tove Jansson’s iconic picture book Who Will Comfort Toffle? Read the touching backstory!
Tove Jansson said she wrote for the unseen and scared little creatures. This becomes especially evident in one of her most loved works, the picture book Who Will Comfort Toffle? It was inspired by a letter from “one of those miserable little ones who are always on the outside”, as a young reader wrote to Tove Jansson.
A journey in a landscape of mixed emotions
“Tove Jansson had this way of writing for children in ways that the child might not be able to articulate themselves, but would massively validate their own feelings. The child might not know that they’re lonely, but reading it, they understand it or know that they’re feeling very isolated or scared. It helps to understand those feelings. And the great thing is that Tove Jansson shows you how to overcome them. So it’s not just ‘let me show you a feeling and leave you in it, but let’s take a journey and you can find your way to a resolution”, says Natania Jansz, publisher at Sort of Books.
An example of how Tove Jansson does this comes towards the end of Who Will Comfort Toffe? The main character Toffle, who at the outset is a shy and scared little creature, has won his own fears and rescued Miffle from the fearsome Groke.
Toffle tries to reach out to Miffle and tell her about his feelings. He decides to write her a letter but realises he doesn’t know how to formulate his feelings. So, the narrator asks the reader to step in and help Toffle – here you can watch an animated version of the scene narrated by Tove Jansson’s niece Sophia Jansson here:
But when he tries to write about how lonely he has been,
About his house and Hemulen, the smooth white shell he’s seen,
The Groke, the night he sailed the sea, he finds no words will come.
He is too shy to write his tale. Poor Toffle is struck dumb.
So Who Will Comfort Toffle now? Will someone lend a hand
And help him write to Miffle so that she can understand?
(Find some writing paper. You won’t need a stamp.
Just stick the letter on a rosebush
where you’re sure Miffle will see it.)
Tove Jansson got hundreds of letters comforting Toffle
By asking her readers to write to Miffle, Tove Jansson opened her own letterbox wide, writes Boel Westin in her biography Tove Jansson – Life, Art Words.
“Hundreds of children wrote comforting letters to Toffle and Miffle, but they usually didn’t end up in any rosebush but in Tove’s letterbox, whether with a stamp on or not. ‘To Miffle, Moominvalley, perhaps near Helsinki, Finland’ is just one of the addresses that reached her.’ One letter-writer took the story literally and sent the letter in a bottle with the instruction to ask ‘Mummy’ to iron it if it got wet.”
The backstory: the real-life Toffle who inspired the book
The book Who Will Comfort Toffle? was actually inspired by a letter from a child, Tove Jansson explained. Boel Westin quotes Tove Jansson’s workbooks, where she described the backstory:
“Actually the story was the result of a letter from a child. It was signed “Toffle”. ‘You don’t know me,’ he wrote, ‘But I’m one of those miserable little ones who are always on the outside, that no one ever notices or invites anywhere or looks at when they speak. I’m afraid of nearly everything.’ Tove went on: ‘I suppose the simplest way to give a Toffle self-confidence is to find him a Miffle, someone even more frightened than he is. So I sent my Toffle out to find Miffle and save her.’”
In her biography, Boel Westin writes about one of the “Toffles” who got in touch with Tove Jansson. He was a 16-year old Swedish boy called Karl Sundén. According to Westin, his letter tells of his longing for Moominvalley and how difficult it is for him to be brave.
“‘You gave me the idea of Toffle,’ Tove later wrote to him, but there were many ‘Toffles’ among those who wrote to her.
Tove Jansson wanted to answer all letters
Tove Jansson took pride in answering all letters she received, especially those written by children. According to Boel Westin, Tove Jansson loved telling the story of how her brother Per Olov wrote to the President of France and asked him to get rid of the Foreign Legion. But when the President didn’t answer, their mother Signe Hammarsten-Jansson answered in the President’s place, saying the President would think the matter over.
And for those who don’t have a personal letter from Tove Jansson, the story about Toffle reads like a love letter to shy creatures who can blossom through a well-formulated letter and the right person to care for.
Curious to learn more about Who Will Comfort Toffle? Watch this mini-documentary!
Who Will Comfort Toffle – an iconic picture book about loneliness and courage
Who Will Comfort Toffle is a classic by Tove Jansson, loved by readers of all ages. Watch this documentary about Who Will Comfort Toffle.
The first Moomin picture book was a praised breakthrough – how did Tove Jansson do it?
Curious about the first Moomin picture book? Watch our short documentary about the Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My.
The shadow of war in the first Moomin story
How much has the war influenced Tove Jansson’s first Moomin story? And what can it teach us on how family can also be chosen?