DECEMBER 23, 2014
This was the polar night, the morbid countenance of the Ice Age. Nothing moved; nothing was visible. This was the soul of inertness. One could almost hear a distant creaking as if a great weight were settling.
— Richard E. Byrd, Alone: The Classic Polar Adventure
WE TAKE WINTER personally. In the Northern Hemisphere, winter brings with it the cold and the dark; unlike other seasons, whose progression can be marked by things growing and ripening and changing colors, winter is simply death. Amid the long nights and the bitter winds, winter feels impossible to clock; it will last however long it lasts. Stories of wintertime often are, at heart, stories about holding on until the spring.
The folklore tradition has deliberated on winter across generations and genres; there’s perhaps no season that’s clung to its pagan roots quite so tenaciously. Christmas, itself the patchwork vestiges of much older midwinter rituals, has absorbed the folktale power of its predecessors in distinctly secular ways: gift exchanges, symbolic fires, and trees lit to ward off the darkness. And in dozens of fairy tales, long after spring and summer became painted backdrops for the characters — the season marked, maybe, by a single exceptional fruit that had ripened with magic inside it — snowstorms were blamed on malevolent goblins, and the gusts of winter regularly blamed on anthropomorphized winds who could create storms and carry maidens.
Even the devout Hans Christian Andersen succumbed to the idea of winter as something beyond the holy. “The Snow Queen” features a demon raining mirror-ice upon the world, and the Snow Queen as a winter avatar whose power was so great that God-fearing little Gerda has to make her way past sudden, distinctly pagan manifestations of every season, just to reach the Snow Queen’s wintry palace and fight for the release of her dear friend Kai. (She wins, eventually, by melting the ice in his eye and his heart with her hot tears; the only way to win against winter is to be warm and wait.) Thanks to Disney’s Frozen, a new generation of children will grow up with a very different version of the story. But though the sisterly love between the leads precludes this Snow Queen being the story’s true antagonist, she’s as much an active player as ever; the icy blizzard that blankets Arendelle is a direct extension of Elsa’s will — and her need to be loved. Even when you control the weather, turns out you’ll always need something comforting in order to reach the other side of winter.
Taschen’s new A Treasury of Wintertime Tales seems crafted with just that in mind: bound thick as a shield, an arc of readability that’s balanced between early childhood and later curiosity. Though the stories feel carefully chosen to represent 70 years of storytelling and illustration, there’s little deviation in their content: set so staunchly in the most mysterious season, it’s 300 pages of happiness and hope.
NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little —”
YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
“So we can believe the big ones?”
YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.
— Terry Pratchett, Hogfather
I’ll admit that, while I’ve always been a sucker for a nice creepy fairy tale, I’m a positive grinch about kids. (Well, most kids. I have a few unofficial nieces who have somehow managed to become exceptions to the rule and remain utterly charming, a state delicately sustained by visits that are frequent enough to build fondness and short enough that I avoid the tantrums.) But even as a kid, I was a grinch about kids. I ditched “kids’ books” as soon as I could slog through words myself; my favorite fairy-tale movie was a creepy children’s ballet retelling of “The Red Shoes” that spared no dismemberment. So I’ll admit, when I opened the book and the first story was Joan Walsh Anglund’s minimally-narrated “The Cowboy’s Christmas,” in which the littlest cowpoke of all — rendered in black ink with Holly Hobbie gormlessness — and his imaginary bear friend have a lovely, dull Christmas, I felt a spike of worry. Was I in for 300 pages of treacly read-along?
As I read further, the answer became: a little, but at intervals, and clearly by design. A Treasury of Wintertime Tales, as one might expect from a Taschen publication, is as much about art as story. (The table of contents features several Caldecott Medal winners.) In fact, greater emphasis has been placed on a variety of artistic styles than on the thematic range of tales; those vary mostly in terms of reading difficulty, as befits a book meant to grow up alongside the child who receives it. And Wintertime Tales works hard to become a volume to which families will return every year when the nights get long: there’s a reason “The Night Before Christmas” is included with the iconic 1912 illustrations by Jessie Willcox Smith, the classic Edwardian cutouts hovering against the crisp white ground like a childhood badge of honor.
It’s also something of an outlier in a book most deeply connected to later work: though its chronology begins with “The Night Before Christmas” and 1905’s “Marilyn and the Snow Children,” this gentle bell curve really takes off in the 1930s, with its own midcentury golden age in the center, and trails to a close by 1972 (that little rascal cowboy brings up the rear). Several of these stories are being given new life after decades spent out of print, which lends them an air of rarity, and the resurrected art nearly always stands firmly amid the variety on view. And how easy it is to get lost in this art! This is a volume of illustrations in conversation, styles and themes touching and being reimagined across more than half a century.
The preternatural calm of the Snow Queen and her subjects in “Marilyn and the Snow Children” was my introduction to author and artist Sibylle von Olfers — an introduction clearly overdue. She gives the Rackhamesque sense of nouveau movement some visual breathing room with elegantly balanced compositions and a limited palette — little Marilyn a glossy trapezoid of red against the delicate blues and whites of winter. It’s echoed in Marie Hall Ets and Aurora Labastida’s “Nine Days to Christmas” — where Ceci’s neighborhood in Mexico is rendered in dreamy black pencil on sepia, with bright bursts of warm color — and “Too Many Mittens” (by Florence and Louis Slobodkin), in which the parade of little red handwarmers are pops of brightness against the whites and greys and deep blues of a snowy neighborhood. While tastes will vary (the heavy, satiny paper renders gorgeous color but didn’t quite sell the deeply stylized “The Friendly Beasts”), there’s no way to describe Ilonka Karasz’s exuberant, slightly Cubist “Twelve Days of Christmas” except “delightful,” especially as the ever-more-crowded frame takes on the atmosphere of Yule’s biggest party. Then again, that’s something that becomes hard to avoid.
Why, it is she that has got all Narnia under her thumb. It’s she that makes it always winter. Always winter, and never Christmas; think of that!
— C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
It’s an ineffable irony of popular culture today that the community and celebratory aspects of Christmas have so vastly outstripped its Christian overlay; we’re once again hewing closer to the pagan roots of marking the winter solstice. Despite being the season of those gentle, guilt-inducing ads reminding everyone that the doors of their lapsed denomination are open and waiting, Christmas in the cultural imagination is decidedly more about exchanging presents to keep goodwill going for another 12 months, feasting to celebrate a bountiful year or erase a lean one, and hanging lights to keep the darkness from the door. And yet, a single appearance from a Christmas angel, a donkey in a Nazarene barn, or St. Nick is all it takes to remind us whose holiday this is. (Jesus is the reason for the season, after all — we all get assured in those ads.)
The Christmas cheer is somewhat de facto in A Treasury of Wintertime Tales, which has a distinct taste of Christianity about it. It’s perhaps difficult to avoid, given the ubiquity of the Christmas holidays in children’s literature, even those not expressly religious, but it seems a little odd that Christmas is the only religious holiday acknowledged in the book. There’s a brief foray into the traditions surrounding Chinese New Year (Leo Politi’s “Moy Moy”), but even the more secular tales here heavily feature Christmas and surrounding traditions, and the only other non-European story in the volume, “Nine Days to Christmas,” is still under no illusions why we’re gathered here today.
Luckily, some of the best stories in Wintertime Tales sidestep the issue by sidelining any religious undercurrents and trading on the slightly perverse streak that marks many of the classic fairy tales. This seems particularly true of the longer stories written in the 1930s, as if editor Noel Daniel timed just when the proportions of whimsy and savvy were at their peak; they pop up like a punk track on a mixtape every time the anthology’s sweetness threatens to overwhelm. “A Trip to Gingerbread Land,” a 1939 story written and illustrated with Scandinavian flair by Einar Nerman, follows two children who are so excited about St. Lucia’s Day they can’t stop sneaking gingerbread dough against orders. Luckily, they find themselves whisked away to Gingerbread Land in their sleep — which would be a charming visit, if it didn’t seem quite so much like cookie cannibalism with all the creepy logic of a fever dream. Luckily, the narrator’s sly voice occasionally interjects through the festivities. (“Good-bye,” they said. “We had a lovely time.” But they were so full of gingerbread they could hardly talk.)
“The Red Horse,” Elsa Moeschlin’s fairy tale about an adventurous boy and his little brightly painted wooden horse, comes as close to a standard Aarne–Thompson classification as we see in this volume. (Magic Items, for the record: numbers 560 through 649.) Peter schemes to feed his little wooden horse until it’s big enough to carry him on adventures; he promptly finds himself learning some duly wry lessons and having to explain a very odd horse to the locals, whose personalities are sketched with the particular efficiency of the best children’s stories:
An old woman, who was just finished baking, called out of her window: “Wait a minute, wait a moment.” And then she came out with a large roll, which was still quite warm, and gave it to Peter. “That is the custom here,” she said, as if she needed to excuse herself […] And Peter observed that the world is very beautiful when one is not hungry.
It’s also the only story in the anthology with a decidedly bittersweet ending, but as Moeschlin wisely notes, “life isn’t always gay.”
But the crowning glory of the book is saved very nearly for last. I’ll admit to being partial, given that “Children of the Northlights” comes from the beloved duo of Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire, Caldecott winners and National Book Award finalists; as soon as I saw their signature colored-pencil style I was already smiling. Their books of myths were my introduction to the sorts of twisted stories I loved as soon as I was old enough to hide from my parents and devour them alone. I still remember the chill that ran through me to look at cruel Aphrodite, smiling blankly at nothing as Trojans bleed to death behind her. (I also remember how sad it seemed that Hestia, goddess of the hearth, had no adventures of her own; I fixed that in a fourth-grade project where Hestia pities the Greeks suffering a harsh mountain winter, and cuts her shawl into snow to insulate the ground until the spring. By then I understood that in stories, winter was somehow an act of intent.)
As Lisse and Lasse, two Lapland children, go through the work of winter and a season at the schoolhouse, the d’Aulaires spin a tale with enthralling specificity and elegant turn of phrase: “Almost at once a gaily colored star slipped out from the tent. This star was a cap, and behind the cap there was a boy.”
“Children of the Northlights” offers no single momentous occasion. Its closest equivalent in the Wintertime Tales, merely by focus on community rather than the adventures of a particular child or two, might be “Winter and the Children” (written by Hilde Hoffmann and illustrated by Beatrice Braun-Fock), a midcentury fable in which the well-meaning mayor scoops snow out of the town center until Winter gets so annoyed with the interference that he has his puffy-cheeked revenge, scattering his entire stack of winter snow right into the city center — we take winter personally.
But that snow day is the whole reason that “Winter and the Children” exists, and much of the appeal of “Children of the Northlights” is how uneventful everything feels. This isn’t a magical winter or a special winter; it’s just winter. And in that ordinariness the story draws on details from life (the d’Aulaires spent time with the Sami people before writing) and sketches it in prose that gives the everyday an endless appeal. There’s even a little of the fairy-tale darkness that creeps in around the edges, and makes it feel all the more alive. This is the only story in which the winter is acknowledged in all its facets, the frightening alongside the rest: “The dark winter lasted a long, long time, and Lasse and Lise began to wonder if the sun had quite forgotten them and the Polar Night would never end.”
At the end of “Children of the Northlights,” still utterly charmed and already seeking out the ribbon bookmark to read it again, I began to wonder what I would have made of the story as a child. Then I wondered absently what my erstwhile niece would make of it, if we sat and read it together. She’d like it, I think; I certainly wanted to find out. And so, quietly and at the very last, A Treasury of Wintertime Tales worked its magic even on the cinderhearted.
Our hearts grow tender with childhood memories and love of kindred, and we are better throughout the year for having, in spirit, become a child again at Christmas-time.
— Laura Ingalls Wilder