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Cover for The Summer Book

The Summer Book

Tove Jansson, Kathryn Davis (Introduction by), Thomas Teal (Translated by)


List Price: 14.95*
* Individual store prices may vary.

Other Editions of This Title:
Paperback, Vietnamese (6/1/2020)
Paperback, Korean (11/1/2019)


In The Summer Book Tove Jansson distills the essence of the summer—its sunlight and storms—into twenty-two crystalline vignettes. This brief novel tells the story of Sophia, a six-year-old girl awakening to existence, and Sophia’s grandmother, nearing the end of hers, as they spend the summer on a tiny unspoiled island in the Gulf of Finland. The grandmother is unsentimental and wise, if a little cranky; Sophia is impetuous and volatile, but she tends to her grandmother with the care of a new parent. Together they amble over coastline and forest in easy companionship, build boats from bark, create a miniature Venice, write a fanciful study of local bugs. They discuss things that matter to young and old alike: life, death, the nature of God and of love. “On an island,” thinks the grandmother, “everything is complete.” In The Summer Book, Jansson creates her own complete world, full of the varied joys and sorrows of life.

Tove Jansson, whose Moomintroll comic strip and books brought her international acclaim, lived for much of her life on an island like the one described in The Summer Book, and the work can be enjoyed as her closely observed journal of the sounds, sights, and feel of a summer spent in intimate contact with the natural world. 

The Summer Book is translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal.

Praise For The Summer Book

“This slim, magical, life-affirming novel tells the story of a young girl and her grandmother, who spend their summer together on a small, isolated island in the Gulf of Finland. Absent of sentimentality, full of love and humor and wisdom, this is a tale about how much fun two people can have in the middle of nowhere, when they are practicing social isolation in earnest.” —Elizabeth Gilbert, The New York Times

“I loved it and it's a perfect read for a summer which will, I think, be memorable for many of us as a kind of shadow season, a time carved out from normal life and defined by the absence of normality.” —Eve Tushnet, Patheos

"It's deceptively simple, refreshingly unembellished, distilled, grounded in sensory experience, and absolutely direct. It's comforting for precisely the same reasons it's unsettling, like standing on the shore looking across a dark sea at a horizon you swear you could almost touch." —Rain Taxi

"Poetic understatement, dry humor and a deep love for nature are obvious throughout her oeuvre. . .  . The book is as lovely, as evocative as a film by Hayao Miyazaki." —Time Out New York

“Jansson's clear prose—capable of sentiment without being sentimental—contains multitudes. The Summer Book is bright but dense; it is slim enough to read in a day but holds a whole world between its covers.” —Powell’s Books 

“Tove Jansson was a genius. This is a marvelous, beautiful, wise novel, which is also very funny.” —Philip Pullman

“A wise, joyous book . . . it unfolds the knowledge and the beauty of the two lives it embraces–old wisdom and young discover, intertwining like vines.” —Rex Reed

The Summer Book manages to make you feel good as well as wise, without having to make too much effort . . . [it] says so much that we want to hear in such an accessible form, without ever really saying anything at all.” —The Independent

"Few books since Robinson Crusoe have evoked the joys of island living so powerfully as this Finnish novella." —The Observer, "Paperback of the Week"

"The Summer Book is a marvellously uplifting read, full of gentle humour and wisdom." —Daily Telegraph (London)

"A marvellous book . . . The prose is sublime: plain, but not oppressively so." —The Independent

"A . . . beautiful novel which blends humour and poetry with detailed observation of tiny things." —Daily Mail

"It's hard to describe the astonishing achievement of Jansson's artistry . . . a perfection of the small, quiet read." —The Guardian, "Book of the Week"

"A wonderful novel to devour in the sunshine . . . full of charm and character." —The Independent, "50 Best Books for Summer"

"Every so often, a book is published that captures something in us . . . The Summer Book is one of those." —Daily Telegraph

“Responses, conversations, and observations yield quietly reflective and funny ruminations on life and death.” —The Age

“Thomas Teal, a luminous translator of Jansson’s twin talent for surface and depth, simplicity and reverberation in language, and someone who knows exactly how to convey her gift for sensing the meaning embedded in the most mundane act or turn of phrase.” —Ali Smith

“This is a wonderful, life-affirming, spirited book. Reading it was a tonic.” —Chris Stewart

“Eccentric, funny, wise, full of joys and small adventures. This is a book for life.” —Esther Freud

"The Summer Book is beautiful and warm, with the kind of wisdom we can adapt to our everyday lives." —Liv Ullmann

"Take a book in which there is no plot but bucketloads of positive feelings presented simply, and it will become a cult. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Jonathan Livingston Seagull were both bestsellers; no one could say what either was really about, but everyone could quote a meaningful truism from them. The Summer Book is in this mould: it manages to make you feel good as well as wise." —The Independent

"The Summer Book is pure loveliness. The movements of tides and winds and boats and insects loom larger for our narrator than the currents of history, and the profound quiet of the setting—I’m reminded of Akhil Sharma’s description of a prose like 'white light'—allows us to hear Jansson’s unsparing and ironic tenderness, a tone that remains purely her own, even in translation."
—Garth Risk Hallberg, The Millions 

NYRB Classics, 9781590172681, 184pp.

Publication Date: May 20, 2008

About the Author

Tove Jansson (1914–2001) was born in Helsinki into Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority. Her father was a sculptor and her mother a graphic designer and illustrator. Winters were spent in the family’s art-filled studio and summers in a fisherman’s cottage on the shore of the Gulf of Finland, a setting that would later figure in Jansson’s writing for adults and children. Jansson loved books as a child, and set out from an early age to be an artist; her first illustration was published when she was fifteen years old; four years later a picture book appeared under a pseudonym. After attending art schools in both Stockholm and Paris, she returned to Helsinki, where in 1940s and ’50s she won acclaim for her paintings and murals. From 1929 until 1953 Jansson drew humorous illustrations and political cartoons for the left-leaning anti-Fascist Finnish-Swedish magazine Garm, and it was there that what was to become Jansson’s most famous creation, Moomintroll,
a hippopotamus-like character with a dreamy disposition, made his first appearance. Jansson went on to write about the adventures of Moomintroll, the Moomin family, and their curious friends in a long-running comic strip and in a series of books for children that have been translated throughout the world, inspiring films, several television series, an opera, and theme parks in Finland and Japan. Jansson also wrote novels and short stories for adults, of which Sculptor’s Daughter, The Summer Book, Sun City, The Winter Book, and Fair Play have been translated into English. In 1994 she was awarded the Prize of the Swedish Academy. Tove Jansson and her companion, the artist Tuulikki Pietilä, continued to live part-time in a cottage on the remote outer edge of the Finnish archipelago until 1991.

Kathryn Davis has received the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She is the author of many novels, including Labrador, The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf, Hell, The Walking Tour, The Thin Place, and Versailles. In 2006 she received the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction. She teaches at Washington University in St. Louis and lives in Vermont.

Conversation Starters from

1. We hear that Sophia’s mother is dead only in passing, in chapter 2 (page 9). Did you find yourself thinking about that throughout the book? How does it underlie specific details of Sophia’s behavior, or the overall feel of the story? Why do you think Jansson (or the characters) doesn’t talk about it more? Jansson also waited until after chapter 1 to reveal this important information: why would she choose to do it that way? How would chapter 1 have been different if we had known about Sophia’s mother?

2. The book is filled with beautiful descriptions of things on the island. “It was pretty and mysterious” (pages 5–6) is one of the first descriptions, and also a good description of the book as a whole. Do you think of The Summer Book as a kind of island, or a summer vacation? Do you react to it similarly to how Sophia reacts to things?

3. Which are your favorites of the games that Sophia and Grandmother play together? Did you play any games or do activities like that when you were a child? Was there anyone in your life like Grandmother?

4. The Summer Book is about an important summer in Sophia’s life, of course, but it is also a story about an important summer in Grandmother’s life. How does the book seem different when you look at it from that angle? What is the arc of the story from Grandmother’s point of view?

5. Is Papa a good father? Sophia says, “I like it when he’s working…I always know he’s there” (page 138). He is almost always working, and never says anything; we hear about him mostly from Grandmother, who describes a lot of his rules. Is he a good son to Grandmother?

6. Jansson is wonderfully wise about the different ways in which Grandmother and Sophia see the world: Grandmother tends to track and observe things, while Sophia tends to forget—for example, the blade of grass with seabird down (pages 22–23). Sophia also projects her feelings outward; for example, she asks Grandmother, “You won’t be sad now, will you?” to keep from feeling sad herself (page 50). Do you think these habits are specific to Sophia and Grandmother, or true of adults and children in general?

7. Sophia experiences unrequited love for Moppy the cat: “It’s funny about love…The more you love someone, the less he likes you back” (page 54). She trades Moppy for Fluff,who is much more affectionate, but in the end she wants Moppy back. Do you think Sophia is being childish, or is Jansson using the story to express something true about adults as well?

8. “Her children sprang up…so nothing changed” is part of the description of a rosebush(page 62). Is that true of the family in the book? Do you think Sophia will be like Grandmother when she is older? Why or why not?

9. Does the story of Eriksson, the “friend who never came too close” (page 70), make you see the family relationships differently? What about Verner, or the new neighbor whose house they break into? Grandmother is concerned about Sophia’s manners, but later thinks: “No. I’m certainly not nice. The best you could say of me is that I’m interested”(page 151). Do you think this is really true? Is Grandmother “nice”?

10. During a fight, Sophia writes to her Grandmother: “‘I hate you. With warm personal wishes, Sophia.’ All the words were correctly spelled” (page 129). Why does Sophia respond that way, and why does Jansson mention Sophia’s spelling? What is Grandmother angry or depressed about in this scene, and how much of that do you think Sophia understands?

11. What do you think of Sophia’s book A Study of Angleworms That Have Come Apart? What is it really about, and how does having Sophia write it let Jansson express a different side of Sophia’s character? How does it compare to Berenice’s drawing (pages33–34)?

12. What do you think of the drawings in The Summer Book? Do they make it feel more like a children’s book, or is this a kind of adult book that drawings belong in? In general, do you think of this book as a book for adults or for children? What’s the difference?