My first festive read of this Christmas holiday was The Way Past Winter by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, with design by Helen Crawford-White, which I highly recommend.
Firstly, this book is gorgeous and simply compels you to pick it from the shelf. It’s a green hardback with a beautiful Scandinavian-style front cover design, delicate peach endpapers and the pages throughout are wonderfully illustrated by the cover designer, Helen Crawford-White. The cover design, comprising an outline of a girl, white trees, wolves, snow, a bird and a bear, neatly summarise the content of the story but does not quite prepare you for the breathtaking prose within the covers.
The story takes place in a mythical northern land, with the opening setting being Eldbjorn Forest. You almost begin to shiver on reading the opening paragraph:
“It was a winter they would tell tales about.”
And at the end of the paragraph:
“A winter that came, and never left.”
At various moments throughout the story I found myself rubbing my hands together to warm up, the descriptions of snow, ice and cold were so vivid!
Within the opening chapter we are introduced to a family of four children, desperately trying to survive in this frozen landscape: the three sisters, Sanna, Mila and Pipa, and their brother Oskar. Their mother died giving birth to Pipa and their father disappeared into the forest five years previously, since then, spring has never returned.
Their daily struggle to maintain their strength on a diet of boiled cabbage is suddenly interrupted by the arrival of a sinister stranger on horseback, accompanied by a group of boys, riding ponies and carrying a pennant embroidered with a bear beneath a tree. On the night of their arrival Mila noticed that all the boys had fine golden cords wrapped around their ankles, she also sees her brother talking to the mysterious, huge stranger during the night – and the next morning Oskar has disappeared, along with the night-time visitors.
Sanna, Mila and Pipa harness their two dogs, Dusha and Danya to their sleigh and begin an epic adventure to rescue their brother and many other boys from the frozen north. They are helped in this undertaking by a “mage” called Rune, who seems to have an understanding of the mysterious kidnapper, although he will not divulge all of his knowledge to Mila as he says that she will know how to rescue her brother when the time comes.
The author’s writing is so skilful and well-plotted that I found myself unable to put this book down. On the one hand it has a page-turning plot which you read whilst trying not to hold your breath for too long, and on the other, paragraphs full of lyrical prose and deep words of wisdom. One of my favourite quotes is when Mila remembers her mother saying to her,
“Stories are just a different way of telling the truth,”
Which I think is one of my favourite lines from any story I’ve ever read.
I will not give away any more of the story, as I do not want to spoil anyone’s enjoyment of it. Suffice to say that I adored this story with its themes of bravery and love and the family ties that bind us together. I would highly recommend this book to anyone in upper key stage 2, and probably as a class reader to Year 4; I would have read it to my own children as a bedtime story at this age, had it been around then!