As the nights draw in the temptation to close the door on the outside world at nightfall and escape to another through the pages of a book is enticing both to adults and children. My own memories of childhood are filled with the sensations that I associate with winter reading. The feeling of warmth and security, the smell of hot buttered toast and roasts cooking in the oven, the sound of the radio in the background as I lay on the carpet lost in an imaginary world of adventure or magic. Sometimes we need a different type of book at this time of year. Snow covered landscapes or dark houses with secrets are perfect settings. These are a small selection of my favourites that may tempt young readers.
The Way Past Winter
“Stories are just another way of telling the truth” says Kiran Millwood Hargrave in this beautifully written tale of winter, family love, loyalty and adventure. The narrative and the prose ensure that her book conveys the feeling of a fable and its themes add to the sensation of familiarity as one reads about Mila and her quest. The sprinkling of fantasy in the story adds to its fairy tale feel.
Mila lives with her two sisters, Sanna and Pipa and brother Oskar, deep in the heart of the forest, alone following the death of their mother and disappearance of their father. For years they have been caught in a never ending winter that arrived and never left. When Mila wakes one morning to find that Oskar has disappeared she believes that it is linked to the visit of a mysterious stranger the previous day. Then she learns that all the boys in the nearby village have gone except for one, the boy-mage called Rune. Together they set out to find the missing boys and their extraordinary journey will test their courage and their commitment in ways Mila could never have foreseen.
I completely fell under the spell of this atmospheric and beautiful story. At times poignant and thoughtful and then unexpectedly intense and dramatic this is a book that carries the reader on the journey alongside the characters. The relationships between the siblings had a ring of truth with love binding them together even during disagreements and friction. Kiran Millwood Hargrave writes with a perception and understanding that I find affecting and as with all the best children’s books I grew to care about Mila.
A perfect winter read that is full of warmth and tenderness underlying the gripping adventure.
Frost Hollow Hall
The ten year old me would have absolutely adored this Victorian ghost mystery and I’m now considerably older than 10 and still devoured this lovely book in one sitting when it was first published.
Winter, 1881 and Tilly has sneaked into the grounds of Frost Hollow Hall. She is not supposed to be there. Ten years previously a young boy, Kit Barrington, drowned in the lake and as Tilly skates on the frozen surface she forgets the stories she has heard in the village and is no longer afraid. Then the ice breaks and she is underwater. Close to death, Tilly is saved by a beautiful boy. It is Kit’s ghost and he needs Tilly’s help.
Emma Carroll has now become known and loved by many as her fiction is wonderful for making history relevant to children. If you missed this, her debut, it is deliciously spooky with bumps in the night, secrets and strange happenings that are not too terrifying for those of a very sensitive disposition. The house looms large in the story and has an important role. For me this had a similar feel to Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce and would suit the type of reader who would move on to Rebecca or Jane Eyre as teenagers.
The sense of time and place is conveyed extremely well and there is a proper period-feel to the story. The voice of the narrator, Tilly, is appealing. She is an engaging character being just the right balance between feistiness and warmth.
Alongside the mystery this book also deals with the important themes of grief, loss and forgiveness giving young readers something to think about. Tilly’s relationship with her own family is interesting too and as we watch her grow and develop we see her character learn that things are not always as they seem and we can at times not appreciate what we already have.
This is an excellent read to curl up with on a winter’s evening and highly recommended for confident readers of about 9 or 10 years upwards.
This contains all the ingredients that contribute to a wonderful fireside read, a Russian winter, deep snow, wolves, ballet, and a traditional adventure.
‘Once upon a time, a hundred years ago, there was a dark and stormy girl.’
Who could resist a character described in that manner? Feo is a strong and determined young woman around whom this story with its magical, fairy tale air, centres. She and her mother are wolf wilders, they teach wolves formerly kept as pets how to be wild again. When the hostile and ruthless General Rakov of the Russian Army threatens her very existence, Feo is left with no option but to go on the run. What follows is a story of revolution and adventure, about learning how to be brave and resourceful and the importance of friendship. The writing mixes gripping adventure with sensitive characterisation and builds to a satisfying and exciting climax.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
“It was dusk – winter dusk. Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills, and icicles hung from the forest trees.”
The opening lines of this classic novel by Joan Aiken transport us to a wintry landscape set in an alternative historical England. The combination of train journeys in the darkness, sinister villains, an old mansion house hiding secrets, skating on a frozen river and the lurking presence of the wolves of the title bring together all the elements of classic children’s literature in this wonderfully entertaining adventure.
When Bonnie’s parents embark on a cruise she and her cousin Sylvia quickly discover that their new governess is a danger to them both. As the story unfolds the reader accompanies the two girls as they try to outwit the evil Miss Slighcarp and her network of criminals. Inspired by the stories the author enjoyed reading as a child this traditional tale works brilliantly and would be a great introduction to Victorian Gothic novels.
Winter Magic is a treat, a collection of stories by some of the very best of today’s children’s authors. This is simply perfect to curl up with on a dark evening and find yourself transported in both time and place. There are adventures, thrills, thoughtful ideas, loyal friendships, time travel, bravery, kindness and plenty of snow in the selection. I particularly liked that some of the stories refered to traditional stories and fairy tales such as The Snow Queen and the Pied Piper giving them a new twist.
An utterly lovely book to dip in to this would probably also work well in the classroom as a read aloud and would prompt discussion on the different ways the writers tackle the theme of winter.
I’m hard pushed to choose a favourite. I enjoyed Berlie Doherty’s Snow Queen based tale very much and the visit to a Victorian frost fair by my favourite children’s historical fiction writer Emma Carroll was the treat I hoped it would be. The final story, the Snow Dragon by Abi Elphinstone, who curated the collection, is a very special one. I closed the book with a contented sigh.
From the opening lines of the prologue with its fairy tale feel readers are transported to the snowy kingdom of Erkenwald, a majestic land of icebergs and soaring cliffs where polar bears and wolves roam. Inspired by the beauty of the Arctic this is a world brought vividly to life and yet the stunning landscape is marred by evil as it has been torn apart by a wicked ruler. The Ice Queen, a truly terrible villain, is ruthless and the people of the land must stay hidden or they risk becoming prisoners in her Winterfang Palace.
It is children who bring hope to this troubled land. As the story unfolds it is Eska, a girl who is freed from her cursed music box, Flint, a boy who loves inventing and believes in the magic that others have abandoned, and little Blu, Flint’s younger sister, whom we follow on their quest to find the special song with the power to defeat the wicked Queen. Those who have read Abi’s Dreamsnatcher trilogy will be familiar with the excitement and drama that she includes so brilliantly in her stories and in Sky Song the epic nature of the children’s journey and the dramatic setting make the action scenes feel almost cinematic in their appeal. There are scary moments too but this is all handled at an appropriate level for the book’s target audience.
One of the things I think young readers will like about Sky Song is the way in which the child characters, despite the peril they face and the tasks they undertake, remain very much the children they should be. This undoubtedly adds to the sense of involvement for the reader who is more likely to readily identify with the characters. This is a book full of the wildness the author so loves and may well encourage her readers to make the most of the natural world around them. The relationship between the children and some of the creatures of Erkenwald is a thoughtful and appealing feature of the story.
The adventure is wonderful and has a feel of some of the stories I loved as a child particularly in the echoes of the Narnia books. I was gripped by the excitement of it and yet the quality of the writing and the thoughtful underlying themes of the book encouraged me to slow down and appreciate every page. Eska, Flint and Blu show great courage and bravery throughout the story and it’s lovely to follow the developing friendship between Eska and Flint. However even more important, I feel, is the way in which trust and acceptance are described and displayed. The tribes of Erkanwald have grown to fear and mistrust each other and yet as the story develops we watch as characters learn the importance of acceptance, understanding, kindness and trust.
At its heart this is a story about finding your voice and using it for good. No matter how small or insignificant you may feel each small voice makes a difference if you use it well and combine it with others. This is a comforting message for children and an important one for us all in today’s world.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Finally, the classic by C.S. Lewis is synonymous for me with winter and curling up as a child to accompany Lucy into the bewitching world of Narnia. That moment when she brushes the coats in the wardrobe aside to feel the crisp snow beneath here and the icy wintry air on her face is etched in my memory as the moment when a fictional world became a possible reality. I wanted to be there with Lucy.
There is little I can add to all that has been written about the Narnia Chronicles and this book in particular other than to confess that I am reluctant to reread it now in case that magic is lost but I have witnessed its magic working on children over the years. Either read aloud by an adult or for a child to enjoy snuggled up in a corner, this is the perfect winter story. When I first read it the Christian symbolism did not register with me as a nine year old, I simply loved the adventure and the characters. The story of good conquering evil is such a heartening one and I will always have a soft spot for Lucy and Mr Tumnus. Sometimes in our haste to discover the new we neglect the old and I hope the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is cherished by children for many years to come.
Other children’s books with a winter theme on my to read list include, The Girl Who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson and The Snowglobe by Amy Wilson both of which come highly recommended by book lovers.
I hope you find something among this selection that works its magic on the children in your life.