A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I’ve always had a slightly rocky relationship with winter. As a child, I used to feel absolutely distraught when summer was over. Summer meant swimming in the river, walking the dog in the woods and playing cricket in a meadow. Or at least those are the bits I most remember. Winter, on the other hand, meant sports on the telly, rain outside and the horrors of school.
But, the winters of my childhood were evidently nothing like the crisp, snowy winter of Winter’s Child by Angela McAllister and Grahame Baker-Smith. Its protagonist, Tom, loves the winter. He skates on the lake, sledges on the hill and comes home to a warm house where he can dry his wet gloves and boots by the fire.
Tom’s mother is glad her son loves the winter, but she’s also worried about her own mother, who is elderly and anxiously awaiting the warmth of spring. The contrast between Tom’s youthful delight in snow and cold air and his nana’s longing for warmth, is beautifully depicted and weaves tension through the story. It also means that as the story progresses, Tom has to face his grandmother’s mortality – a painful part of growing up that I’ve not seen represented in a picture book before.
The plot swerves in a mysterious direction when Tom meets a strange boy with ice-blue eyes who steps out of the snow. The boy wants to play and, eager for a friend, Tom agrees. They embark on adventures that involve secret valleys, reindeer rides and frozen waterfalls, and Tom has such fun that he never wants the winter to end. Meanwhile though, Nana is growing ever weaker, his mother’s store cupboard is running low on food and the last of the firewood has been used, so that Tom can no longer dry his wet boots and gloves in the evening, and Nana cannot get warm. Tom tells his playmate of his worries, and eventually the mysterious boy confides that he is to blame for the prolonged winter, as he is Winter’s Child and the winter will not end until he and his father are both asleep. In his joy at having a friend, Winter’s Child has played too long and the consequences for Nana could be fatal. The boy calls his father who appears (in a spectacular, breathtaking illustration) to fetch his son. Then, the book’s snowy pictures give way to the lush greens and pink blossoms of spring, and Nana is saved.
The book, whilst being lovely and magical and everything one would hope for in a wintry picture book, also has a poignant edge of pain. I kept thinking of the Medieval poem “Sumer is Icumen In” and its refrain of “Sing Cuccu”, and how people who live off the land wait desperately for the arrival of better weather, and with it: food. Figuratively and literally insulated from the perils of winter, it is easy to underestimate just how devastating a long winter might be for those whose lives are so closely tied to the land, but Winter’s Child depicts this perilous relationship, and in doing so it looks at winter through both the eyes of a child and the eyes of an adult, which makes the book even more powerful.
With an emotionally satisfying story arc and some of the most wonderful illustrations I’ve ever seen, Winter’s Child gets my vote for Best Picture Book of 2013.
Templar Publishing (1 Oct 2013), ISBN-13: 978-1848775459, 40 pages, hardback, RRP £12.99.