Sommarboken, by Tove Jansson, was published in Finland, in Swedish, in 1972. It was translated into English by Thomas Teal, as The Summer Book, and published in 2003. It is illustrated by the author.
The Summer Book is a short novel about six-year-old Sophia and her grandmother, their friendship, and their summer on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland. Rather than one continuous story, it’s a collection of brief stories, like vignettes. It’s character-driven, with hardly any overall plot.
Sophia’s mother has died. Her father is on the island, but we see him only occasionally. Although Sophia is the only named family member, she isn’t the narrator, and neither is Grandmother.
The stories center around Sophia, but she’s not always the main character. The stories are sometimes about visitors, friends, and neighbors on the island.
Sophia is full of curiosity. She’s prone to tantrums. Grandmother is patient, and talks through Sophia’s questions, but she is also a bit of a curmudgeon. Sophia asks how God is able to answer all prayers, about the anatomy of angleworms, or if it’s possible to love a cat who doesn’t love you back, and so on, and Grandmother does her best to provide an answer.
Sophia thinks it’s unfair that Papa is the only one who gets to call someone “Mama”. Grandmother won’t let Sophia call her “Mama”, even during play acting.
Grandmother is not above breaking the rules occasionally, if the need arises. Sophia is often her partner in crime.
The Summer Book is a quiet, leisurely novel. It feels like summer. There’s not a lot of drama. There’s some humor, but it’s not a comedy. It’s a picturesque description of life on a tiny island. The stories are delightful.
There’s a strangeness to this book. I don’t mean that in a positive way. The introduction and the back cover both tell us that these stories take place over a single summer. Yet, at least three stories start with “One summer…” The stories are not in chronological order, and span different lengths of time – anywhere from hours to months. One story covers a year of gardening. Sophia is always six years old – as if it really is all one summer. Yet, the book doesn’t always feel like a single summer. It’s almost as if these are unfinished outlines of stories not meant for a single book. Or maybe the introduction and back cover are misleading. It’s this confusion that kept me from truly enjoying The Summer Book.
Tove Jansson was primarily a children’s book author and illustrator. She created the Moomin series of comic strips and books. The Summer Book is one of her few novels written for adults. The introduction, by Kathryn Davis, tells us that it’s somewhat autobiographical. Tove Jansson died in 2001.
- A book with one of the four seasons in the title