All my life I’ve had a fascination with winter. Maybe it’s because I grew up in coastal Southern California, so winter for us was a novelty, an annual drive up into the mountains to experience sledding, snowmen, and other winter fun. But we always went on a clear day (so as not to get stuck in a storm!) so I never witnessed snow falling or saw a snowflake until I went to Wisconsin for grad school at the age of 25! You should have seen me when we had an early snowfall, one of those perfect snows where the flakes are perfectly formed and separate. I was astonished by the small size of the flakes, and stunned by the beautiful intricacy of each one. I spent a very long time just standing out in the falling snow, studying each perfect flake that landed on my gloves and coat.
You see, I spent hours as a child poring over Wilson Bentley’s gorgeous book of snowflake photographs, Snow Crystals. Each of the over 2,000 photographs in the book is about an inch-and-a-half in diameter, so as to show more of the amazing detail. I didn’t think snowflakes were really that big, but I had the vague impression that there were probably close to an inch across. Boy, was I wrong!
Bentley was a remarkable man, a Vermont farmer who invented a way to take microscopic photographs of snowflakes, which included keeping them cold enough not to melt before the photographs were achieved! He made thousands and thousands of photos over the course of many years. His biography has been written both for adults, The Snowflake Man: A Biography of Wilson A. Bentley and for children, Snowflake Bentley.
Another fascinating man who has written a lot about winter is Gary Paulsen. Paulsen is probably best-known for his Brian Robeson fiction series for children, including Hachet and Brian’s Winter. But he has written many other books, children’s and adult, both fiction and non-fiction. Paulsen hasn’t just written about outdoor adventures, he really has lived them. One of my favorite Paulsen books is Winterdance, which is a witty, hilarious, terrifying memoir for adults about Paulsen’s adventures with dogsledding, including running the Iditarod. I laughed so hard at some points reading it that I actually fell out of my chair. He also wrote a memoir for children covering similar material, Woodsong, which is a wonderful read for adults as well as older children.
I also love reading novels with winter settings. I’ll never forget reading Charlotte MacLeod’s hilarious winter-set mystery Rest You Merry while stuck out in the California desert on a 100+ degree day (great time for a car breakdown, eh?). Cold weather never sounded so good! The dramatic opening of Dorothy Sayers’ magnificent mystery The Nine Tailors is also a marvelous winter scene — and a great Lord Peter Wimsey mystery.
One of my all-time favorite books is Susan Cooper’s superb fantasy The Dark is Rising (part of a series of the same name). It, too, is set in winter — a chilling, unnatural winter full of danger and magic. While written as a children’s book, many adults (myself definitely included) continue to love reading and re-reading this wonderful story, which is part of a five-book series but can be fully enjoyed as a stand-alone. There’s even a The Dark is Rising Worldwide Readathon! I’ll also put in a plug for one of my dad’s favorite children’s books, Arthur Ransome’s Winter Holiday, which is a rollicking good read from the 1930s, part of the Swallows and Amazons series.
A beautiful adult-fiction fantasy is Winter Rose by Patricia McKillip. McKillip writes in beautiful, poetic prose and spins wonderful fantasy tales. I find myself getting lost in the worlds she creates, both like and utterly unlike our own world. Winter Rose is one of McKillip’s most exquisite and compelling novels, at times dream-like, definitely otherworldly. A brand-new fantasy novel that features winter very strongly is Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver. It’s a modern take on Rumplestiltskin, but with marvelous twists. Winter is practically a character in the novel, it’s so important to the story. This and Novik’s other recent fantasy, Uprooted, are both generally housed in Adult Fiction, but they make great teen/young adult reading as well.
I’m tempted to go on and write about my favorite winter picture books, or branch out into winter cooking (soups, stews, dinner pies, and other hearty cold-weather fare) but I think I’ll save those for future blogs. Meanwhile, what are your favorite winter books? Whatever they are, happy reading!