Winter Reads, Part II: Elisa Shua Dusapin, Howard Norman & Picture Books

As hoped for in my first instalment of winter reads, the weather is warmer now and signs of spring are appearing in the form of cherry blossom, crocuses, daffodils, primroses and snowdrops. So I’m bidding a (perhaps premature) farewell to winter with these two novels featuring very chilly settings. I also borrowed from the library a big ol’ pile of wintry children’s books full of bears, rabbits, snowmen, snowballs and days off school.


Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin (2016; 2020)

[Daunt Books Originals; translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins]

Another title doing double duty for #FrenchFebruary and #ReadIndies month. This was Dusapin’s debut and won the Prix Robert Walser and the Prix Régine-Deforges.

Our beaches are still waiting for the end of a war that’s been going on for so long people have stopped believing it’s real. They build hotels, put up neon signs, but it’s all fake, we’re on a knife-edge, it could all give way any moment. We’re living in limbo. In a winter that never ends.

The protagonist is a young mixed-race woman working behind the reception desk at a hotel in Sokcho, a South Korean resort at the northern border. A tourist mecca in high season, during the frigid months this beach town feels down-at-heel, even sinister. The arrival of a new guest is a major event at the guesthouse. And not just any guest but Yan Kerrand, a French graphic novelist. Although she has a boyfriend and the middle-aged Kerrand is probably old enough to be her father – and thus an uncomfortable stand-in for her absent French father – the narrator is drawn to him. She accompanies him on sightseeing excursions but wants to go deeper in his life, rifling through his rubbish for scraps of work in progress.

The underemployed, self-sabotaging young woman is so familiar these days as to be a cliché (and I’d already met a very similar one, also Korean, in Ro from Sea Change by Gina Chung), but there is still something enticing about the atmosphere of this novella. I also enjoyed the narrator’s relationship with her mother, a fishmonger, which sets up for the entirely inconclusive and potentially very disturbing ending. Impossible to say more without spoilers, but I’d be interested to hear what others who have read it think will happen after the last page. (Birthday gift from my wish list)


The Northern Lights by Howard Norman (1987)

Norman is a really underrated writer and I’m a big fan of The Bird Artist and especially I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place. This is a weird one; it’s his debut and you can see the autobiographical inspiration (per his Introduction) and the sorts of interests that would recur across his oeuvre, such as subarctic Canada and its Indigenous peoples, absent fathers and hotels (not the only reason this reminded me most of early John Irving).

The Canadian settings represent the two poles of isolation and the urban: Quill, Manitoba versus Toronto in 1959–60. The novel opens with the death of teenage Noah’s best friend, Pelly, who fell through a frozen lake while riding his unicycle. Noah’s family dynamic changes quickly, as his cousin Charlotte, orphaned by a factory disaster, comes to live with them and then his cartographer father leaves them to become a hermit in a remote cabin furnished with musical instruments. Noah stays with Pelly’s parents, Sam and Hettie (a Cree woman), to brave a harsh Quill winter –

January and February mornings you would get a crack of icy static in the nostrils when first stepping outside and have to shade your eyes against the harsh glint of snow, if the sun had worked its way through. Certain days neighbors were seen only on their way to their woodsheds. Chimney smoke was our windsocks. Enormous drifts had built up against the houses, sculpted in various shapes. Even brief walks were taken on snowshoes. Winter might be seven months long.

– while his mother, Mina, takes Charlotte to Toronto to run The Northern Lights, the movie theatre where she met her husband as a young woman. The previous alcoholic owner has run it into the ground; “the curtain smelled like a ten-thousand-year-old moose hide.”

At the time that Noah joins them, he’s never seen a movie before, but as “manager” of the theatre he soon sees The Magnificent Seven 15 times in quick succession. Norman does a peculiar thing here, which is to introduce a key character quite late on in the action. Noah hires Levon, a Cree man, to be the projectionist and he promptly moves his entire family into the building. Had Noah relocated to Toronto earlier, we might have seen more of these characters. Norman’s habit of mimicking broken speech from non-native speakers through overly frequent commas (indicating pauses, I suppose) irked me. There are lots of quirky elements here and I enjoyed the overall atmosphere, but felt the plot left something to be desired. I’d start elsewhere with Norman, but could still recommend this to readers of Robertson Davies and Elizabeth Hay. (Secondhand – 2nd & Charles)


And a DNF:

Snowflake, AZ by Marcus Sedgwick (2019): I wanted to try something else by the late Sedgwick (I’ve only read his nonfiction monograph, Snow) and this seemed ideal. I could have gotten onboard with the desert dystopia, but Ash’s narration was so unconvincing. Sedgwick was attempting a folksy American accent but all the “ain’t”s and “darned”s really don’t work from a teenage character. I only managed about 20 pages. (Public library)


Plus a whole bunch of children’s picture books:

The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen [adapted by Geraldine McCaughrean; illus. Laura Barrett] (2019): The whole is in the shadow painting style shown on the cover, with a black, white and ice blue palette. It’s visually stunning, but I didn’t like the language as much as in the original (or at least older) version I remember from a book I read every Christmas as a child.


A Polar Bear in the Snow by Mac Barnett [art by Shawn Harris] (2020): From a grey-white background, a bear’s face emerges. The remaining pages are made of torn and cut paper that looks more three-dimensional than it really is. The bear passes other Arctic creatures and plays in the sea. Such simple yet intricate spreads.


Snow Day by Richard Curtis [illus. Rebecca Cobb] (2014): When snow covers London one December, only two people fail to get the message that the school is closed: Danny Higgins and Mr Trapper, his nemesis. So lessons proceed. At first it feels like a prison sentence, but at break time Mr Trapper gives in to the holiday atmosphere. These two lonely souls play as if they were both children, making an army of snowmen and an igloo. And next year, they’ll secretly do it all again. Watch out for the recurring robin in a woolly hat.


The Snowflake by Benji Davies (2020): I didn’t realize this was a Christmas story, but no matter. A snowflake starts her lonely journey down from a cloud; on Earth, Noelle hopes for snow to fall on her little Christmas tree. From motorway to town to little isolated house, Davies has an eye for colour and detail.


Bear and Hare: SNOW! by Emily Gravett (2014): Bear and Hare, wearing natty scarves, indulge in all the fun activities a blizzard brings: snow angels, building snow creatures, having a snowball fight and sledging. Bear seems a little wary, but Hare wins him over. The illustration style reminded me of Axel Scheffler’s work for Julia Donaldson.


Snow Ghost by Tony Mitton [illus. Diana Mayo] (2020): Snow Ghost looks for somewhere she might rest, drifting over cities and through woods until she finds the rural home of a boy and girl who look ready to welcome her. Nice pastel art but twee couplets.


Rabbits in the Snow: A Book of Opposites by Natalie Russell (2012): A suite of different coloured rabbits explore large and small, full and empty, top and bottom, and so on. After building a snowman and sledging, they come inside for some carrot soup.


The Snowbear by Sean Taylor [illus. Claire Alexander] (2017): Iggy and Martina build a snowman that looks more like a bear. Even though their mum has told them not to, they sledge into the woods and encounter danger, but the snow bear briefly comes alive and walks down the hill to save them. Delightful.


Snow (2014) & Lost (2021) by Sam Usher: A cute pair from a set of series about a little ginger boy and his grandfather. The boy is frustrated with how slow and stick-in-the-mud his grandpa seems to be, yet he comes through with magic. In the former, it’s a snow day and the boy feels like he’s missing all the fun until zoo animals come out to frolic. There’s lots of white space to simulate the snow. In the latter, they build a sledge and help search for a lost dog. Once again, ‘wild’ animals come to the rescue. /


The Lights that Dance in the Night by Yuval Zommer (2021): I’ve seen Zommer speak as part of a conference panel on children’s nature writing. The Aurora Borealis unfolds across the sky above the creatures and people of the far north: “We sashayed for an Arctic fox. We swayed above an old musk ox.” I expected more anatomical accuracy (i.e., faces not flattened so that eyes appear to be next to each other on the same side of a face) but I loved how vivid and imaginative it all is.


Any snowy or icy reads (or weather) for you lately?

30 responses

  1. I do find Sedgwick a bit hit and miss, but I adored The Book of Dead Days as a teenager (another wintery setting!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the rec — I’ll see if my library has a copy.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear Rebecca
    Thank you for the list of all these children’s books about snow and winter.
    All the best
    The Fab Four of Cley
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I enjoyed my session with them.


  3. I love a snow theme – and yes, thank you for having a #FrenchFebruary link! I did like Winter in Sokcho quite a bit… but no, am not optimistic about the (implied) end of the story.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you may be right!


  4. Nice theme Rebecca, I read The Ice Palace recently and it would fit in well!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d like to read that!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s fab – a good one for Novellas in November too!


  5. I read – and enjoyed – Winter in Sokcho over a year ago, so if I ever wondered what would happen next, I certainly can’t remember bow – sorry! The only other author I know here is Emily Gravett, whose work I love. I don’t know this particular one: it would be an good/odd choice to give to Barcelona granddaughter who may never see snow anytime soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It has to do with the preparation of fugu, if that jogs your memory?

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I must be getting old and decrepit, Rebecca (I am!), so no – it doesn’t 😦


  7. I read The Northern Lights shortly after The Bird Artist which I loved and was left feeling disappointed. Not come across I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place but I’ll see if I can track a copy down.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Autobiographical essays — superb. I own two unread novels by him, and I think there are more I haven’t tracked down yet.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Lots of the children’s books are ringing bells from my time at HH! I remember sending lots of copies of The Lights that Dance in the Night, in particular.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a very sweet one!


  9. Oh, Natalie Russell wrote two of my son’s favorite picture books when he was little: Moon Rabbit and Brown Rabbit in the City. I have such fond memories of those!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Brown Rabbit was in this one! It must be a whole series. I hadn’t come across it before.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I’m lucky, I’ve not had a Sedgwick miss so far. Loved Blood Red, Snow White; Midwinterblood; Ghosts of Heaven; The Monsters We Deserve – (the latter snowy and Frankenstein inspired).

    I’ve just read The Pachinko Parlour by Dusapin and sort of enjoyed it. Another under-employed self-damaging protagonist, but a sort of almost happy ending, but only ‘sort of’.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sounds like Dusapin’s books are much of a muchness; I can skip The Pachinko Parlour.

      My library has The Monsters We Deserve, so I’ll try that one in future.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Just finished a reread of Le Guin’s Planet of Exile which focuses on two groups of humanoids as a 15-year long Winter approaches. I suppose that’s the closest I got to snow in the past few weeks! Oh, and I read most of the unfamiliar pieces in a collection of Hans Christian Andersen fairytales but, as ‘The Snow Queen’ was an old favourite I didn’t read that, nor the depressing ‘The Little Match Girl’…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 15 years of winter sounds like a nightmare!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hah! Luckily we only leave at its onset, not the whole miserable decade and a half.


  12. I don’t think I’ve read anything particularly wintery at all (not even in that whole mass of Love Heart Lane novels I read). There is a New Zealand summer in our wintertime in Windward Family, but that’s it! Love the children’s books.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had a lovely sit with the pile of picture books.


  13. I lost one of my favorite snowy kid reads–The Christmas Cat by Efner Tudor Holmes–on Christmas, coincidentally. A pipe fitting burst in our ceiling and water rained down onto our living room coffee table. Time to replace a few old cherished books!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, what a disaster! That can’t have been nice to deal with on Christmas day. I hope you can find copies you’ll love just as much.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. […] Plus a load of picture books about winter and snow; I reviewed them here. […]


  15. He was riding a unicycle on the ice?!

    So many picture books about snow and I don’t think we have any of these at our library. We may have them at some of the other branches, but I don’t recognize them from our own branch.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, that’s what one calls an accident waiting to happen 😉

      There must be Canadian children’s authors we’ve never heard of here, too.

      Liked by 1 person

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