By Anna Ursu
If you gently shook a snow globe, you might find that the snowflakes come down on an enchanting story much like this one. Hazel’s best friend Jack has disappeared, and the quiet, scrappy fifth grader must overcome her fears—not to mention a mysterious witch and numerous other challenges—in order to save him.
This lovely story, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, unfolds slowly and beautifully. As an adult who still reads or rereads a lot of children’s books and an avid lover of fairy tales—I’ve made a Wild Swans pincushion and Nightingale calling cards and Cinderella schereschnitte over the past year—I was very much looking forward to reading this book. Hazel turns out to be a brave, imaginative heroine whose love of books and quiet wonder at the world made me overjoyed in finding such a kindred spirit. My heart also ached in sympathy for Hazel’s puzzlement and pain over the real life problems she faces, including her adoptive parents’ divorce, her sense of being an outsider as a child of Indian descent, and Jack’s sudden coldness to her before he goes away.
The strongest and most compelling part of this book for me was how the author so seamlessly modernized this classic story. It is extremely difficult to retain the fairy tale elements of timelessness and mystery and magic while working in unforced contemporary references, but the author managed to do so with a great deal of ease and charm. Above all, the rift between Jack and Hazel, which is explained away by a cold shard of magical glass that got into his eye, works exceptionally well as a metaphor for growing up, much as it worked for the children of Narnia. The writing is just gorgeous, with wonderful descriptiveness and moments of true beauty. You can practically feel the sting of ice and the flurry of snow on your face as you read this story, and you can definitely feel Hazel’s wistfulness and longing to simply…belong. And to matter, to someone, somehow.
I am a little puzzled by the audience for whom this book is intended, however. The jacket copy lists ages 8 – 12, but the narrative really sounds more like it’s a bedtime story for adults—or perhaps one that’s meant to be read aloud to children. It doesn’t really get into Hazel’s head so much as explain to you what she’s thinking or what it might mean, as there’s a little too much exposition for the reader to be unaware of the adult who is writing it.
And while I was so thrilled with the literary references in the first half of the book, with subtle nods to everything from C.S. Lewis to Philip Pullman to J.K. Rowling, I have to confess that this eventually became a little distracting to me because there were so many of them. I appreciate that Hazel is a voracious reader, and the reader in me rejoiced to be reminded of so many beloved classics, but even with the knowledge that books are her windows to understanding the world, it all became a little too much. The writing is so strong, the images so evocative, and Hazel so thoroughly winning that I didn’t feel as though it was necessary to spend so much time focusing on other books. Some of the fairy tale elements that Hazel encounters later in the forest did interest me quite a bit, especially considering their dreamlike quality, but again, I think this would have been a perfectly strong book on its own–with its own mythology and its own unique feel—without relying so heavily on other people’s stories.
The ending also feels very rushed and rather underdeveloped, in both story and emotional satisfaction. Overall I found that the first half of the book, as readers get to know Hazel and her quirks and her insecurities, is much more compelling than the second. For while the idea of a child being so immersed in stories is certainly a bewitching one, at some point that child must step out of that fairyland in some way in order for this to be a true story of personal growth.
Still, this is an exquisite book in many ways, and one well worth reading. (Certainly more so than the other recent YA nod to The Snow Queen story, Frost.) I wouldn’t be surprised to see this as an awards contender when all is said and done, and the book will no doubt deserve it on the strength of its writing and its premise alone. I do wish, however, that this fairy tale had trusted in its own merits—and that of its valiant little heroine—a little more. It could so easily have been something more than merely a charming and well-written homage.
Release Date: September 27, 2011
An advance copy was provided by the publisher for this review.