Winter Tales

Posted February 24th, 2011

For us cross-country skiers, this has been the winter that just keeps on giving. And this weekend is the American Birkebeiner Race and I’m getting to ready. In celebration of snow and winter, here are some favorite winter tales to curl up with after your adventures in the snow, be they shoveling, sledding, snow-shoeing, skiing or making snow-angels.

You need, of course, to read my book, The Race of the Birkebeiners, which is the story behind the very race I am doing this weekend. It is the tale of the Birkebeiners, the bravest, fiercest Norwegian warriors that ever lived and how they rescued the heir to the throne, baby prince Haakon, by skiing across blizzard-wracked mountains.

Snowshoe Thompson (Nancy Smiler Levinson) pairs beautifully with The Race of the Birkebeiners. While technically not a folktale, it hovers between legend and historical fiction and is too good to miss. When mail delivery is halted because of heavy snows, Norwegian-born Thompson, one of American’s skiing pioneers, volunteers to deliver a young California boy’s letter to his father in Carson City, Nevada. The boy helps him make a pair of skis and although most of the town-folk think Thompson is foolhardy to attempt a crossing, he succeeds and earns the nickname “Snowshoe Thompson.”

The Mitten is probably on everyone’s top list of favorite winter folktales to share with young children. It is 20 years since the publication of Jan Brett’s version of this story about a boy who loses his mitten, which is then promptly taken over by a line-up of increasingly larger woodland animals that burrow inside its stretchy, cozy wool interior. Finally a mouse proves to be one too many and the animals are all dislodged. For comparison check out the older, but wonderful version by Alvin Tresselt. Also terrific is a brand new retelling by Jim Aylesworth with funny and charming illustrations by Barbara McClintock.

While on the subject of mittens, another of my books, Noah’s Mittens, tells a funny legend about how Noah discovered felted wool. When the ark lands on Mount Ararat, it is covered in snow and Noah quickly figures out how to use the felt to make mittens and other warm winter clothing.

The Month Brothers (Samuel Marshak, illustrated by Diane Stanley) is a Slavic tale and one of my favorites. It tells the story of a young girl whose cruel step-mother orders her out in the middle of a January blizzard to find snowdrops. In the frozen woods she meets twelve magical brothers who make the impossible happen. Other variants on this classic story are Marushka and the Month Brothers by P. Sturges and A. Vojtech and the recently reissued Little Sister and the Month Brothers by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers and illustrated by the amazing Margot Tomes.

The Snow Child (Freya Littledale) is also a Slavic tale, about an elderly couple whose wish comes true when their little snow girl magically comes to life. Each spring the snow child must leave, but every winter she returns with the first snowfall and comes to life with a kiss.

One of the classic winter stories is H.C. Andersen’s The Snow Queen (Amy Erlich with stunning illustrations by Susan Jeffers) about the coldhearted Snow Queen who lures away a young boy. His friend Gerda must undertake a magical and perilous journey into the frozen north to find him and release him from the Snow Queen’s treacherous spell.

If you fancy a story about a trip to the Snow Queen which is not so scary, check out The Story of the Snow Children by Sibylle von Olfers.  She was a German art teacher and a nun who lived from 1881-1916. Her stories are folktale-like, but it is the Art Nouveau style illustrations that really grab your attention. Another old, but classic story is Ollie’s Ski Trip written and illustrated by Elsa Beskow. In this story, six-year-old Ollie is given his first pair of real skis. As soon as the snow begins to fall he sets off on an adventure by himself to the palace of King Winter. He meets Mr. Frost and Mrs. Thaw and like me, he is very sad when the snow begins to melt.

The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren, illustrated by Harald Wiberg, is based on Swedish folklore about the Tomten, a house gnome that guards all animals and takes care of the farm while everyone else is sleeping. The reassuring story and the wonderfully moonlit, snowy scenes of winter make it perfect for winter reading.

So grab a book, snuggle up with a child, or your inner child, and enjoy some winter tales while we still have snow on the ground. Yeah!