A glittering collection from Abi Elphinstone, author of the Dreamsnatcher trilogy, who brings together some of the brightest stars in children’s fiction for an anthology of winter tales. From ice cold chillers to fairy tales as deep and dark as Christmas itself, Winter Magic is a brilliantly broad and hugely imaginative book that reminded me of the greatest collection of them all, Alison Uttley’s Stories for Christmas.
If there’s one thing these varied stories have in common it is snow, ideally several feet thick and bringing with it the possibility of a little winter magic. I asked Abi and her contributors, Piers Torday and Michelle Harrison, why this is such an important ingredient and what, for them, is the book that best captures the magic of the season.
Piers Torday is the acclaimed author of the Last Wild trilogy and creator of this year’s most unique Christmas story, There May be a Castle. Here he contributes the Wishing Book, a Christmas tale of the unexpected, which will make you think twice before being unkind to your least favourite visiting relative.
I was lucky enough to grow up during a time when snow actually fell not only over Christmas but often for a lot of the winter. We lived far out in the countryside, and were snowed in on a number of occasions. What I remember most is the extraordinary sense of quiet from the white blanketed landscape, muffling all sound. It felt like a new country, and when my brother and I weren’t sledging or pelting each other with snowballs, it was the perfect time to curl up inside by the fire and escape into a story. That silence, the incredible light, everything frozen in time and that sense of a world transformed – for me, that is what I want in a good wintery story.
I think the best book which does this for me has to be The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper – she captures the mystery and potential of a deep midwinter, which feels timeless, magical and yet comforting all at the same time.
This is followed by The Box of Delights by John Masefield, one of my all time favourite books, which exploits the midwinter festival of Christmas to maximum effect – Victorian festive traditions like carol services and puppet shows set against a backdrop of ancient history and deep magic, which both feel all too plausible in the winter setting, as if that alone has taken us out of time.
Abi Elphinstone is a writer who has proved herself to be greatly adept at bringing the not so hidden magic of our landscape to life. In her Joan Aiken meets Edith Nesbit like tale, an unloved orphan escapes to the valleys, moors and mountains of the Scottish highlands in the company of a magical snow dragon.
For me, the best winter stories are poised on the edge of miracles. There has to be a sense of longing and when the snow falls that longing is somehow brought closer. Perhaps it is because the snow won’t last forever – one day it will melt – and before it does you have a window, a short period of time where miracles might be possible after all. And so although I love that many winter stories boast sumptuous food, bulging stockings and brilliantly-decorated trees, I feel that the real wonder of these stories lies in the capacity for hope, the belief that as the snow falls it might bring magic with it, too.
In The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, the youngest of four siblings, Lucy Pevensie’s heart is filled with longing. She wants to be believed by her brothers and sister and treated as their equal and it takes a world locked in the depths of winter and hidden behind a wardrobe to make her siblings understand. But Lucy not only dares to hope that Edmund, Susan and Peter will believe her stories of Narnia; she dares to hope that together with them she can save an entire land from the grips of the White Witch. And I think it is Lucy’s ability to hope against the odds and against the cynicism of her siblings that makes this story so powerful. Without it, the way through to Aslan’s values – forgiveness, friendship, courage and compassion – might never have been found.
Several of the stories collected here draw on the primal magic of fairy tales, and the Voice in the Snow with its mute central character, icy forest setting and dark enchantments certainly delivers. Michelle Harrison’s story is a sequel to her 2016 book the Other Alice and uses the frost and snow to bring thrills and chills to an atmospheric adventure.
In my opinion, the vital ingredient in a good winter story has to be snow. Winter can be pretty miserable if it’s just cold and wet, but snow changes everything. In a story setting it’s even more dramatic, with so much potential for fun, as well as the beauty and peril it presents.
I’m fond of many stories with winter settings, but two in particular come to mind which capture the above essence. The first is Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, a story I’ve always been enchanted by. It’s a strange, unsettling tale. My favourite version is the one illustrated by P.J. Lynch – it’s stunning.
A more contemporary favourite is Dark Matter by Michelle Paver, a ghost story set in the Antarctic. A truly bone chilling novel in which the adverse weather is a prison the protagonist cannot escape, and ultimately changes his life for ever.
Winter Magic is published by Simon & Schuster.