This week, the first major UK exhibition devoted to the Moomins opened. As well as featuring original artwork and archive material, the exhibition at London’s Southbank Centre captures the true spirit of the artist and writer behind some of children’s literature’s most enduring creations.

Tove Jansson was born in 1914 in Helsinki, and often said that her leading character, Moomintroll, was her alter ego; an imaginary friend who loyally followed her everywhere. Initially, the “Moomintroll” was imagined as a terrifying, threatening beast; conjured up by Jansson’s uncle when she was young to prevent her from sneaking down to the pantry in the dead of night to steal jam and liver paté. The first time Jansson rendered Moomintroll visually was as a scrawl on the family outhouse wall, with a longer snout and an awful glare. But over the years the troll evolved and softened in shape, and developed friends who lived together in a magical setting: Moominvalley.

Inspired by the Nordic scenery of her youth, Jansson painted a luscious terrain, with steep sloping mountain peaks and blossoming flowers. She began creating from a young age, going on to art school in Stockholm and then Paris, not only producing paintings and illustrations but also a contributing to the satire magazine, Garm, in the 1930s and 40s. During the bombing of Helsinki in 1944, Jansson found sanctuary in her attic studio. It was there that she finished her first book featuring Moomintroll, The Moomins and the Great Flood, in 1945.

Through the eyes of the Moomins, Jansson was able to convert the ugliness of the world around her into something new and beautiful. She used the tales to tackle difficult subjects and challenge taboos. The characters of Thingumy and Bob, who are inseparable and carry a suitcase containing a ruby, are thought to be fictional representations of herself and her lover at the time, theatre director Vivica Bandler, who was married. Unlike Jansson and Bandler, eventually Thingumy and Bob are able to open up their case and show the ruby of their love to the world.

The Moomin series is read in more than 60 countries, and has spawned magazines, theatre performances and television programmes around the world. These plump, delightful creatures have shaped the childhoods of many with their simple lives of eating, sleeping, playing – as well as their deeper, layered meanings. But I can’t help think that it’s the essence of their maker that has made the Moomins so charming and relevant. Not only do the stories offer sweet escapism, they are underpinned by honesty, grace and grit. Their roots are deep, alive, and here to stay.

Laura Dockrill has written the audio soundtrack to Adventures in Moominland at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, until 23 April. southbankcentre.co.uk.