chosen by Margery Fisher Editor of Growing Point
The invitation to write this article came to me on the hottest day of the year and naturally the books that first came to mind were those that gave the strongest impression of cold. Looked at in a more detached way, this still seems a valid way to choose. The stories most important to the young are surely those that transport them to a different world for the time of reading – books that offer, not the instant scenic effects of television but the pictures that imagination builds from powerful words.
I must first define my territory. Two obvious subjects must be discarded for lack of space. In leaving out Hallowe’en I deny myself the chance to recommend many sparkling witch-comedies, including Eleanor Estes’ incomparable romp, The Witch Family. Picture books on the Nativity and family festivities would make an article in themselves, with Jean de Brunhoff’s endearing Babar and Father Christmas, Brian Wildsmith’s electrifying set of images, The Twelve Days of Christmas and, in contrast, Jenny Overton’s ingenious seventeenth-century pastiche, The Thirteen Days of Christmas; no space either for Graham Oakley’s diverting The Church Mice at Christmas, the latest delights from that superb newcomer Gabrielle Vincent, Merry Christmas, Ernest and Celestine and of course Raymond Briggs’ uniquely crusty Father Christmas.
But it is not only at Christmas that joy and affection keep out the cold. First, picture books, with the visual impact paramount, and in one notable case, complete in itself, for in The Snowman Raymond Briggs brilliantly expressed a child’s delight in winter without using any words. The snow-model (cinder buttons, doughnut nose) quickens into a friendly companion who in return for a tour of the house takes the ecstatic small boy on a snowy flight; though the dream ends in melted snow, the memory of warm friendship remains. Following an exquisite sequence of crayoned views we `read’ the boy’s alternating moods of joy, alarm, sorrow and amusement.
Few books will stand comparison with this masterpiece but it is worth remembering here another comment on children’s approach to what we call `bad weather’, Peter Spier’s Rain, another almost textless book depicting brother and sister as they stamp through puddles, float paper boats and finally take refuge at a cosy fireside, the necessary dénouement. Water-colour here, precisely detailed and joyously varied, says it all.
Deep in the Swedish countryside the secret benefactor, the Tomten, mounts winter guard over the farm. Astrid Lindgren adapted poems by Victor Redbird to accompany Harald Wibird’s superb paintings for The Tomten and The Fox and the Tomten. In the first book the brownie-like creature tours barn and stable to remind the animals of summer joys: in the second he offers prowling Reynard his traditional porridge and forbids him to touch the hens. Simple, evocative words link scenes based on the farm of the author’s childhood; they strike at the heart with homely details and finely composed scenes.
Pictures stir imagination to extend the stories in these books; certainly imagination is strongly moved be Ruth Craft’s few selected words and Erik Blegvad’s pictures for The Winter Bear. Under a frosty sun children rampaging in the cold see a strange fruit on one bare tree, a battered toy bear which they happily refurbish in the warmth of home. Nor has Ezra Jack Keats’s black hero Peter any wish to escape the rigours of New York’s winter: the sensuous colours and shapes of The Snowy Day touch closely a child’s delight in snow-games.
So, pictures must do more than set a scene – more, even, than make us feel winter in our bones. In all these picture books we see high spirits and familial affection defeating the cold. Never was this more delicately shown than in The Tailor of Gloucester, Beatrix Potter’s tale of the poor tailor and his malicious cat and the grateful mice who saved his reputation by finishing the Mayor’s wedding clothes while he lay sick. Words set the scene:
`The moon climbed up over the roofs and chimneys, and looked down over the gateway into College Court. There were no lights in the windows, nor any sound in the houses; all the city of Gloucester was fast asleep under the snow.’
and pictures of supreme, fine detail confirm it, capturing human feelings and the impersonal silence of winter for all time.
The seasons march through folk-tale, never more significantly than in Hans Andersen’s stories, in The Little Match Girl or The Ugly Duckling or Thumbelina or, most notable, in The Snow Queen. Words should be left to do the work alone here. Between the simplest domestic detail (Kay and Gerda heating coins to melt peepholes in frozen window-panes) to the stern symbol of the fragment of ice in Kay’s heart, there is an unforgettable panorama of scenes as faithful Gerda traces her lost playmate to the snow palace with its windows and doors made of `the sharp winds’ and its halls `lighted be the sharp glare of the northern lights … huge, empty and terrifyingly cold’. This deeply reflective tale makes its first impact on children through atmosphere, through the distillation of cold and the fear of cold deep in all of us: best, perhaps, if they listen to it first.
Reading to themselves, at around seven, they can enjoy the activities of the three brothers in William Mayne’s tale, The Man from the North Pole, as they sledge on steep Yorkshire fields. Mayne’s simplest stories have deep meaning. In this one the stranger in the fields raises problems of belief and reason. Words compose a vivid picture of a farm in winter, with wet boots `their mouths open to the fire’ and the snow-plough `butting its giant head through the drifts’. From Yorkshire into Cheshire, where in Alan Garner’s Tom Fobble’s Day a boy whose sledge has been purloined watches as his grandfather builds him another and at last triumphantly coasts down the slope of Lizzie Leah’s field in the light of war’s searchlights, in the `black and glittering night and the sky flying on fire and the expectation of snow’. A total experience of time and place is encapsulated in this short book, one of four in the `Stone Quartet’, a modem classic in which every turn of phrase is vital to a reverberant unity of style, feeling and idea.
Two more books for (but not exclusively for) those middle years, up to ten or so, depend on winter for plot and images. E. W. Hildick’s Louie’s Snowstorm is the third tale of the idiosyncratic milk roundsman Louie Lay. Unwillingly accepting an American observer for the exacting Christmas Eve deliveries (his reluctance intensified when he learns the visitor is a girl), Louie has to give her best as she battles with one crisis after another. The melodramatic ending suits the wise-cracking, hyperbolic narrative of a day of emergencies. A book for fun, as Paul Theroux’s London Snow is a book for thought. This novella may seem no more to children than a winter adventure with Dickensian characters (a malaprop shop-keeper and her young charges and a morose landlord whose threats to turn the sweet-shop into a launderette disappear when he is marooned in a lighter halfway across the frozen Thames), a bizarre happening rather than the occasion for an almost Victorian repentance. Never mind, here is the city under snow, and if the young (for whom the book was re-published) are captured by the well-crafted prose and the compelling feel of winter, they will have gained much.
London is the setting too for a fanciful tale that really deserves reprinting, The Tinsel November by Julia Rhys. Not the Thames this time but Richmond Park and an adjacent street of old shops where Emma, helping mysterious Signor Arlechino (‘dark-browed, fine-featured, weather-beaten and – distinctly wooden’) out of the cold, finds herself involved, with her friend Guy, in the search for other members of this Harlequinade, puppets almost life-size sadly separated but joyously re-united. The feel of London streets in winter is strong in a book of special quality.
Another story which really should be made available to young readers of today is Robert Lawson’s fable of Vermont snow and ice, The Tough Winter. This sequel to Rabbit Hill describes how young Georgie and his father and cantankerous old Uncle Analdas, rabbits of personality, with their friend Willie Fieldmouse, face starvation when the benevolent couple in the Big House move south, leaving caretakers who have no idea of helping the local animals. Enlivened with idiomatic dialogue and racy narrative, and with some intriguingly unusual characters (skunk, gopher, chipmunk) the story fairly crackles with ice and humour. Not long ago a new author presented in a tale set in a Yorkshire town some seventy years ago a group of animals facing dangers from men as well as weather. In Nora Wilkinson’s The Snow House small Fred’s unusual construction becomes a refuge for mice driven from the cellars by indefatigable housewife Aunt Jen; when a thaw threatens, a friendly cat helps Fred to move the mice to a new home and escape the ambitious proprietor of a mouse-circus. This tale of tension and excitement is full of entrancing detail and cosy humour.
No familiar mice or rabbits in Tove Jansson’s tales but her own imagined creatures – rotund Moomins, melancholy Hemulens, the egocentric Little My and the rest. Of all her books I particularly like Moominland Midwinter for the total identification of theme and setting. Put simply, this is the story of a hibernating animal waking by mistake to a world at once familiar but different: but Moomintroll’s experience is so haunting, his adventures with Too-Ticky so entertaining and his brush with the grey, icy Groke so terrifying that the book will stand any number of re-readings. So, of course, will Masefield’s gloriously exciting second tale of Kay’s contest with villainous Abner Brown, The Box of Delights, where bitter cold and dark, lowering hills contrast with glowing lamplight and the comfort of secret, magic allies. Of all winter fantasies, this one is pre-eminent in rich, plangent prose, broad comedy and multifarious incident.
The challenge of winter may take many forms. There can be fun in confronting difficulty – for instance, in two books long vanished, Margaret J. Baker’s cheerful Castaway Christmas and Richard Garnett’s spirited skating adventure, The White Dragon, and, of course, in Arthur Ransome’s Winter Holiday, where the two town visitors, Dorothy and Dick, trudge their way to the `North Pole’, determined not to accept help from the knowledgeable Swallows and Amazons. For indefatigable readers there is that capacious, digressive picture of old Holland, The American classic, (no less than 123 years old now) Mary Mapes Dodge’s Hans Brinker, with humble Gretel’s triumph in a skating race as the centre.
A far more severe challenge is faced in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter when Pa, Ma and the children battle with prairie blizzards to tend the beasts and roll’. straw to feed the hungry stoves – no more hungry than the isolated family when supplies are outpaced by exceptional weather. This utterly simple, unexaggerated’ book, like the rest of the sequence, offers an authentic picture of the pioneer past which readers as young as eight could appreciate. Honest and direct, too, Rutgers van der Loeff in Avalanche! reveals one of winter’s worst dangers through the eyes of a Swiss boy evacuated from a village where his home and parents are engulfed. Beyond the uncompromising detail of the disaster lies a strong message. A group of boys, with their teacher, from a Pestalozzi village are caught by the snow near the village and the theme of international comradeship is carried through a narrative full of humour and warm feeling.
Cold becomes a dread symbol in two remarkable fantasies. Susan Cooper in The Dark is Rising chose the environs of Windsor for the second (and, for me, the best) of five books centering on the contest between Good and Evil. The dark of blizzard is matched by the efforts of the Dark Rider and his minions against the Old Ones and especially the youngest of them, a boy whose twelfth birthday involves him in magic adventures calling on all his courage. The reader is held by atmosphere conveyed in magnificent pictures of wood and river as much as by the suspense and mystery of event. Patricia Wrightson’s The Ice is Coming gives a twist to winter menace, for when the Ninya move south from Queensland to attack the Eldest Nargun, a spirit born of molten rock, and so to win power over the whole land, they bring unaccustomed ice to hot desert and dry hillside and, with the ice, alarm to Wirrun, involuntary champion of the People whose country it rightly is.
I will end, though, on a happier note. In the Western world, where cold is the mythical enemy, fireside and family affection become prime weapons, and what more reassuring picture of winter too offer than the sight of Mole and Ratty entertaining the carol-singing field-mice deep underground after their struggle through the snow-bound terrors of the Wild Wood. Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows is indisputably a classic for its urbane wisdom and lyrical style, its robust humour and shrewd perception, its serene country settings; in the present context, it can be guaranteed to hold back the shadows of winter with its assertion of the value of warm days and warm friendship.
The Witch Family, Eleanor Estes (1962), Longman (o/p)
Babar and Father Christmas, Jean de Brunhoff (1940 France/1941 UK), Methuen, 0 416 57380 0, £3.95
The Twelve Days of Christmas, Brian Wildsmith (1972), OUP, 0 19 272115 1, £1.75 pb
The Thirteen Days of Christmas, Jenny Overton (1972), Faber, 0 571 09918 1, £3.50
The Church Mice at Christmas, Graham Oakley (1980), Macmillan Picturemacs, 0 333 32483 8, £1.50 pb
Merry Christmas, Ernest and Celestine, Gabrielle Vincent (1983), Julia MacRae, 0 86203 146 X, £4.95
Father Christmas, Raymond Briggs (1973), Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 02260 6, £3.50; Picture Puffin, 0 14 050.125 8, £1.50
The Snowman, Raymond Briggs (1978), Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 10004 6, £3.25; Picture Puffin, 0 14 050.350 1, £1.25
Rain, Peter Spier (1982), Collins, 0 00 195165 3, £3.50
The Tomten, Astrid Lindgren (1962), Kestrel, 0 7226 5188 0, £5.25
The Fox and the Tomten, Astrid Lindgren (1966), Kestrel, 0 7226 5189 9, £4.95
The Winter Bear, Ruth Craft, ill. Erik Blegvad (1974), Collins, 0 00 195869 0, £3.95; Picture Lions, 0 00 660872 8, £1.00
The Snowy Day, Ezra Jack Keats (1962 USA/1967 UK), Bodley Head, 0 370 00776 X, £3.95
The Tailor of Gloucester, Beatrix Potter (1903), Warne, 0 7232 0594 9, £1.50
The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories of Hans Andersen, Erik Haugaard (Trans. 1974), Gollancz, 0 575 02188 8, £6.00
The Man from the North Pole, William Mayne (1963), Hamish Hamilton (o/p)
Tom Fobble’s Day, Alan Garner (1977), Collins, 0 00 184832 1, £4.95; Fontana Lions, 0 00 671601 6, 75p
Louie’s Snowstorm, E.W. Hildick (1975), Deutsch (o/p)
London Snow, Paul Theroux, ill. John Lawrence (1979), Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 10450 5, £4.95; Puffin 0 14 03.1442 3, £1.00
The Tinsel November, Julia Rhys (1963),Hart-Davis (o/p)
The Tough Winter, Robert Lawson (1954 USA), not available in this country
The Snow House, Nora Wilkinson (1980), Kestrel, 0 7226 5687 4, £5.25; Puffin, 0 14 03.1289 7, £1.25
Moominland Midwinter, Tove Jansson (1958), Puffin, 0 14 03.0502 5, 95p
The Box of Delights, John Masefield (1935), Heinemann, 0 434 95050 5, £4.50; New Windmill Heinemann Ed., 0 435 12041 7, £1.95
Castaway Christmas, Margaret J. Baker (1963), Methuen (o/p)
The White Dragon, Richard Garnett (1963), Hart-Davis (o/p)
Winter Holiday, Arthur Ransome (1933), Cape, 0 224 60634 4, £5.95; Puffin 0 14 03.0341 3, £1.50
Hans Brinker or The Silver Skates, Mary Mapes Dodge (1865), Dent (o/p)
The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder (1940 USA), Lutterworth, 0 7188 0520 8, £4.25; Puffin, 0 14 03.0381 2, £1.25
Avalanche!, A. Rutgers van der Loeff (1954 Holland), Puffin, 0 14 03.0131 3, £1.10
The Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper (1973), Chatto, 0 7011 5020 3, £4.95; Puffin, 0 14 03.0799 0, £1.35
The Ice is Coming, Patricia Wrightson (1977), Hutchinson, 0 09 129150 X. £3.50 Puffin Plus, 0 14 03.1628 0, £1.50
The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame, ill. E. Shepard (1908), Methuen, 0 416 39360 8, £4.50; Magnet, 0 416 25500 0, 65p