Friday, February 19, 2010

Picture Books in Winter

Summer fading, winter comes--

Frosty mornings, tingling thumbs,

Window robins, winter rooks,

And the picture story-books.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Make no mistake, being snowed in has its advantages. Schedules are disregarded, appointments cancelled. Routine existence is jettisoned for the cozy comforts of a snow day; hot drinks, warm shawls and books, books, books.

I have such affection for the richly illustrated books of my childhood. The magical worlds brought to life by all those exquisite drawings that sprang from the minds of artists such as Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac - Jessie Wilcox and Howard Pyle, greatly nourished my fledgling imagination and taught me to see far beyond the words on the printed page. I have a large collection of these treasured books and I visit them often with fondness.

Nowadays however, most of my storybooks come without illustrations. But no matter; the pictures that are conjured within my head are more than sufficient. When Clarissa Dalloway pushes open the door to Mulberry’s flower shop, I can see it all quite clearly. Entering along with her, I stare, enchanted, at the jars and jars of sweet peas and lilacs, the purple delphiniums - the iris, the rose.

When Rebecca’s car winds through the wall of blood-red rhododendrons that line the drive up to Manderley, the old house is soon visible to us both, its mullioned windows reflecting our astonishment, its garden pathway leading us off to the sea.

I open The English Patient and I can see the nurse Hana drawing chalk rectangles in the hallway of the ruined villa in order to escape life’s cruelty through a simple game of hopscotch.

I peek inside the covers of Bleak House and find Miss Flite in her tiny room, surrounded by all her little birds, waiting for "the day of judgment" when she will release them from their cages.

No illustrations are needed to make these stories breathe.

Having spent my recent snow day sitting in a cushy chair by the window, gazing out on a ermine world totally bewitched by ice and snow, I found myself thinking of the most masterful pictures of cold ever drawn in words, glacial passages penned by some of my favourite authors. Their evocative descriptions unscroll a biting, frozen world right before my eyes, making me shiver, causing me to inch just a wee bit closer to the fire.

Here are seven books that, for me, describe winter in sublime fashion.

Do share some of your favourites!

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Each perfectly placed word of this classic conveys coldness - of landscape, of spirit, of past and and of future. Though a tragedy to be sure, one of the books I hold most dear.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

From the very first time I read this beloved book I could feel the cruel cold of Lowood School. I shivered as I saw poor Jane lying under her threadbare sheets, the water in her washing pitcher frozen solid. I felt the sharp needled wind sting my cheeks as I trudged alongside her through the white drifts to church, the wet snow melting inside her paper thin shoes. I thought my hands would freeze just turning the pages.

The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers

This wonderfully atmospheric mystery opens with a delightful description of a snowy winter night. One of The Songwriter’s favourites; he re-reads it every December.

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

When little Lucy climbs in the wardrobe to hide herself amongst the fur coats only to feel something soft and powdery and cold beneath her feet, I swear I can feel the temperature in my room drop a few degrees. As she pushes her way through the branches of snow covered trees, into a land where it is “always winter, never Christmas”, I find myself wishing for one of those old wardrobe coats to wrap round my shoulders as I read her adventure. A classic winter tale.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

Who amongst us has not felt the chill of that cold night as Mole and Ratty make their way through the snow? And who has not felt the sweet thrill that Mole feels when he senses the nearby presence of his beloved home - the warmth of his own fire, the familiar comfort of his own rooms? I can still see the chorus of field mice at his door, stamping their little feet to stay warm as they sing their carols in the frozen air, still feel their delight when they are invited inside to get warm. Such a snug, cordial picture of home on a cold, cold night.

All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot

How I would have hated to hear that phone ring at Skeldale House in the middle of a blowing winter’s night. Reading as James, the Yorkshire veterinarian, crawls from his toasty bed and out into the freezing dark, heading off to a farm in the driving snow, not knowing what catastrophe might be waiting... I would snuggle down further in my own comfy bed each time it happened to him.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Oh, how uncomfortable winters were for poor Cassandra in her grand, crumbling castle with its moat awash in emerald green water weeds. I see her clearly, even today, in her iron bed, clad in her school coat, with a hot brick at her feet, worrying about money and trying to get warm. A wonderful book.

And I could certainly go on.... Dr. Zhivago, Snow Falling on Cedars, The Shipping News.... so many splendidly written paintings of cold.

But I have to leave you now and look for my fuzzy slippers!

NOTE: Of course, as I was writing this, I naturally began to think of my current favourite “picture” books - lavishly illustrated wonders that are almost better than any plane ticket for whisking one out of the usual and straight into dreams.

I’ll post some of those later in the week. Should be fun!


  1. Yes, yes, yes! Books do take us to magical places.

  2. I have my cousin to thank for passing down her childhood books, Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys etc. Thus began my love of reading at 6 years of age!

  3. Now you have gone and done it! You have hit upon my favorite pastime, books and more books and childrens' books.

    I just reread Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter. I read it during a snowstorm, again, and it is a favorite of mine.

    Snow Falling on Cedars is beautifully written and captured me from the start (and the movie is pretty good too). Ah, too much to do so I can't go on, but, I do so thank you for your wonderfully written suggestions, some of which I know and some of which I will soon meet.

  4. I know that this is a bit macabre , Pamela but I think that 'Fargo' by Joel Coen, really describes an envionment of icy,freezing temperatures and desolation.
    I love your beautiful, descriptive text, Pamela. XXXX

  5. Dear Pamela, I was delighted to learn that you are obviously an admirer of Virginia Woolf and you too have been into the flower shop with Mrs. D on the day of the party. I am afraid, though, to admit that I did not get on very well with 'The English Patient', preferring, somewhat unusually, the film.

    This has been a lovely posting for what are, still, the dark days of winter.

  6. Remembrance and imagination went haywire as my unfocused eyes relived the wonders hiden in your list. Let me add Erich Kaestner's "Three Men in the Snow" which I only know in the original German and re-read every few years when I no longer remember the full sequence of words. All those wonderful Russian faerie tales of snow queens and little Johnny scaling ice mountains to rescue various captured maidens. The sad, sad story of the little match girl, oh so many that cunjure up frost ferns on the window panes and the changed light as you open your eyes and realize the world is white with the first snow fall and rush barefott to the window to gaze at the wonder. I so miss being snowed in in this too warm country where we now live.

  7. I am just catching up on your blog after a little break away. What a fabulous photograph of you and Edward and a belated Happy Birthday to the songwriter.

    "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" captures the extreme harshness of winter, brrrr! Mind you, a bowl of soup never tasted as good as it did when I had finished reading.

  8. This winter has been EXtra snowy! Lots of wonderful woolly sock time. I love your delicious wintry book list. One tale that comes to mind is Anton Chekhov's short story, "The Lady with the Dog".

  9. I love all of those, especially I Capture the Castle Pamela. Could I also add Doctor Zhivago to the list - one of my favourite ever books.

    PS Happy belated birthday to that songwriter.

  10. I do love books with illustrations-but I make up my own as well. Ethan Frome is a favorie of mine and I like the movie as well. Now I will read Nine Taylors. I have my Father's lovely collection of James Harriot-and Snow Falling on Cedars ~ I had a hard time getting into it~ but when I did!!!
    Thank you for the other wonderful suggestions. We still have a good bit of winter ahead here...although bare ground right now.

  11. Fabulous choices! I feel I need to go put on a sweater just reading them! Wonderful post as ever!

  12. I miss great picture books and I adored a pretty pop-up book. One of my winter favorite childhood reads is Little Women.

  13. I love your list! I thought of some of those...and of Little Women. Enjoy your winter wonderland! Stay warm! ♥

  14. Our minds conjure the most powerful pictures when reading books. Many of the books you mention have been my favourites over the years.
    The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz describes the escape of 6 comrades who walk across the frozen tundra and Gobi desert to freedom.

  15. Oh Pamela, I love it how you and I share such similar tastes in reading. All of those books you've mentioned are favorites of mine as well. Yet my absolute favorite is Jane Eyre.

  16. Your description of your snow-bound day is just perfect - oh how I wish I could be there with you reading all these wonderful books! Leigh

  17. Hi,
    I hope that you will tell us about your favorite summer books too !
    I can feel the snow in my shoes when you describes it.

    When I was younger, I wanted to be an illustrator of children's books.

    Have a nice weekend !


  18. Oh my! It must be in the air, I've been mulling over a book post too.

    Pamela, I'm shivering just reading this wonderful list of WInter reading, some well-loved and some yet to be discovered.

    Thanks for reminding me it's time to read The Wind in the Willows to the younger two, and maybe my daughter is ready to read All Creatures Great and Small. Right, off to the library we go!

  19. I adore books too! I love the way you can go on a trip and have a new experience without leaving your house! suzie. xxx

  20. I think of Snow by Orhan Pamuk. And his cover photograph has inspired me to no end.

    There is also a book of snowy photographs by Nature photographer Vincent Munier called White Nature that stuns me with its beauty.

  21. You know me and books, my very favorite thing!I LOVE descriptive writing. I love writing that takes me there!I just read two books that totally put my minds eye to work. :0 xoxo
    A hug to Edward and Apple?

  22. I love your choice of books...I haven't read the nine tailors which I will look out for...if the songwriter reads it every year it must be good...i read winter solistice by rosamund pilcher every has a few writers faults but i love the setting in the east coast of scotland..the sea..the snow...wonderful..have a lovely weekend and give that dog a hug from me!!!

  23. I still remember the children's bible I had with illustrations of Dore - I wonder if that was the start of my love for drawing and sketching!
    I grew up in Holland, so I read Dutch books, but I remember All creatures great and small from a TV series that I loved in the70-80ties.

  24. Love you list of books, may I add some like Jan Brett's children's stories and illustrations, Astrid Lindgren's stories or 'The Snow queen'...
    Yes, reading in wintertime, it's a delight!

  25. Books not only take us away to other places...they also bring us back to ourselves. In the dormancy of winter, they restore our souls.

  26. Oh Arthur Rackham one of my favourite illustrators! Joan Aitken is another of my favourite illustrators.

    I'm currently reading Goulds Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan and enjoying the beautiful paintings of fish that illustrate the novel.

    So even though i know that vivid writing doesn't need illustration i still enjoy a book with illustations...

  27. "Smilla's Sense of Snow"
    Peter Hoeg

    Verrrrry Cold.

  28. Oh Edward, you darling boy. We'll be back!


    Susan & GG

  29. Hi Pamela,

    Lovely post and what better way to spend a snowy day, reading your favourite books. Great choice of books.

    Stay warm and have a happy weekend

  30. For winter, snow and cold try Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy.

  31. You have crawled inside my head......
    Do you know the artist and name of the painting of the little girl reading, with her teddy bear on the floor? LOVE IT.

    thanks for such a wonderful script of your thoughts on cold days. It is cold here to day (March 14) and feels like winter. Love your blog!


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