It’s cold today. Yesterday was warm beyond belief for December in Boston, but today is cold, and a few days ago we had our first real snow of the season. All of that means that I’m finally feeling winter arrive, if a bit tenuously, and I just got my daughter a book which fits the feeling of the season: First Snow, by Bomi Park.
I was inspired to pick this book up because the cover reminded me so strongly of a perennial favourite in this house, The Tea Party in the Woods. Feast your eyes on that soft black and white with occasional pops of colour in the child’s red scarf and the cat’s fur. The whole book is that lovely, and, if you want to be really infuriated, please note that this is Bomi Park’s debut book (first published in Sourth Korea in 2012, and just now brought to the American market by, you guessed it, Chronicle Books). I think it’s entirely unfair that such a lovely book is her first, but, on the other hand, I’m so smitten with it that I’m just glad it exists.
The story is very, very simple. A little girl is lying in bed when she hears something go “pit, pit, pit” against the window. Snow is falling. She quickly gets dressed and sneaks out into the snowy night. She begins to shape the snow into a ball, and then rolls it to make it bigger (remember how to do that?). She rolls it through her yard, through her town, through fields, past a train, through the woods, until she arrives somewhere– somewhere special with other children all rolling snowballs, building snowmen, and simply enjoying the first snow. And that’s the story: just a girl playing with the snow.
It’s a beautiful balancing act between the very real, very tangible delights of first snow and a rather magical idealization of children playing in the snow. On the one hand, what is more real than children bundling up and rushing outside to pat and roll snowballs when winter first arrives? On the other hand, somewhere along the way there’s a turn for the more-than-real: our little girl goes rolling her snowball through the woods until she sees a bright light and breaks through into a snowy landscape where all the other children are also enjoying the snow. It never stops being realistic, in one sense. After all, it’s simply children playing in the snow. In another sense, however, it’s consistently mysterious. From the very beginning, starting with a girl waking in the night, we get the impression of a dream landscape, and so a magical journey is no more unexpected than in, for example, The Nutcracker. And yet there’s no journey to the Land of the Sweets in our book; from our girl’s backyard to the forests, it’s all a journey through snow. In other words, it never stops being realistic, even though it’s dreamlike and magical from the very first page.
But let’s take another look at the art. You see, the very same balancing act is going on in the art as in the story. On the one hand, you have the dreamy haziness of the black and white, which functions (again, think of The Tea Party in the Woods) as a muted reflection of the world: familiar, but a bit unfamiliar at the same time. You’ll also notice as you read that it starts out darker, a nighttime scene, but gets whiter and whiter as you progress farther into the snowy landscape with the story. (I’m sorry, this is where I’d normally talk about the medium the illustrator used, but, sadly, I can’t find that information! I’d hazard a guess at pencils and maybe charcoal. Perhaps also some digital effects.)
And yet, even through the dreamlike shades of charcoal-like blacks, greys, and whites, we’re constantly being grounded into reality by occasional pops of colour. Our girl’s red scarf, the orange in the cat’s fur, and a variety of red accents on the other children’s clothing all serve to bring us back to the realism of playing in the snow. And there’s something else I wonder whether a non-parent would notice: Bomi Park gets the posture of a young child bending over in a snowsuit spot-on perfect, absolutely 100% real. Children move and bend their legs differently in snowsuits, and that touch of realism makes me smile every time I flip through this book.
You know, I grew up in a very snowy place (New Brunswick, Canada), and I have to say that it’s been a long time since I saw anyone capture what perfect, fresh snow feels like as well as this book does. I’d say that it handles snow as beautifully as Ellen Bryan Obed handled ice in Twelve Kinds of Ice. And as winter begins to arrive in earnest, I can use a book like this to remind me of the beauties and joys of the season. So I have one recommendation right now: Go and get this book (it’s 20% off at the Harvard Book Store!), and then read it with your kid. Then get bundled up together and just walk outside and see what winter looks like for you.