Children's column: let it snow

Nicolette Jones
Opinion - Children Friday, 6th February 2009

This snowy week has made me reflect on the influence of childhood reading. The salient characteristic of the British in the snow is that they immediately become more playful, more childlike. And not just, it seems, because they don t have to go to work and can t drive anywhere. We all play games, having snowball fights, hurtling down hillsides on slidy things and building snowmen. What other circumstances can make adults throw things amiably at each other in the street, chase each other around, stop to make something useless but aesthetically pleasing out of material that is to hand, and whiz downhill shouting Whee! before landing on top of each other in a laughing heap? Maybe we do this because there is something intrinsically play-inducing about the snow, or something Proustian that reminds us of the fun we had with it as kids that we all want to relive. But I think there is something more, something about snow in our imagination, born of what we have read.


Francis Spufford in The Child that Books Built talks about how our internal lives are formed by childhood reading. He remembers looking for Piglet in the snowy woods with an au pair, recreating the Woozle-hunting episode in Winnie-the-Pooh in which Pooh and Piglet follow their own footsteps round in circles. (The au pair, charmingly, had already put a home-made Piglet sitting on a log in the wood.)
But Spufford also wrote a whole book about snow and ice: I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination, in which he traced a national interest in polar exploration back to Byron, Coleridge, Tennyson, Melville, Conrad, and the Shelleys. Grand expeditions may be inspired by great poets and novelists; larky trips to the park may be inspired by children's books.
When Raymond Briggs invented The Snowman he was already tapping into our sense that a figure we make, Pygmalion-like, feels like a sort of imaginary friend. But surely every snowman built since his book is more evocative, containing more latent magic, more potential to turn into an amazing companion. We build our snowmen with even more glee. (And incidentally The Snowman was originally set around this time of year, snow being rare in Sussex before Christmas; it was the elongated television adaptation that added Father Christmas and a Christmas tree, absent from Briggs's book.)
The snow in my soul (not like the chip of ice in The Snow Queen) includes the snow on the other side of Lewis's wardrobe reflected lamplight on the snow is always instant Narnia. And there is Mole trudging behind Ratty in Dulce Domum , forever associating snow with somewhere near Home, somewhere we came from and want to go back to.
And though I didn t grow up with these, I think the next generation will be influenced by the playfulness of Nick Butterworth's Tiger in the Snow!, of Martin Waddell's Snow Bears and of Kipper's Snowy Day (Mick Inkpen). The magic of the snow, too, will be an echo for those children of Chris van Allsburg's illustrations to The Polar Express. They will have learned, from Shirley Hughes's The Snow Lady, not to make unkind likenesses of other people out of snow. And when they lie in the snow and slide their arms up and down it will be a tribute to Angela McAllister and Claire Fletcher's The Snow Angel; while every child who rushes to the classroom window to see snow will be reliving Allan Ahlberg's own childhood memory as recorded in 'Only Snow' (from Please Mrs Butler).
Booksellers who have found business quiet this week because of the weather might use the time ordering and assembling a special display of snowy books, for the moment when it is all melted, like Briggs's snowman, and everyone wants their souvenir. It will only nurture children's enthusiasm for the next blizzard.
What favourite snow books or references can you remember, to add to that display?