Winter Books For Reading Aloud

Is it any wonder that so many of the best works for reading aloud are set in winter? It's then we need our stories most. Come December, when the winds rattle through the bones and the cold pierces the flesh like an ice dagger, when the trees are black and leafless, and only the beauty of words can hope to carry us safe to the other side, there's nothing for it but to huddle indoors by the fire, close together, with mugs of hot chocolate, mulled wine, or cider, open a book, and let the old unhurried, familiar syllables fill the room.

Here are a few to see you through.

MOOMINLAND MIDWINTER by Tove Jansson. Every year, when Autumn turns frigid and the darkness crouches quivering and anxious to strike, I mix together a pound of butter and two pounds of brown sugar to prepare a season's worth of hot buttered rum makings. Then I gather my family about me and begin to read this book. It's how we prepare for winter.

Moomins, like the sensible creatures they are, avoid the whole thing by hibernating from November to April, their bellies full of pine needles, snuggled deep within their heavily-quilted beds in the parlor. One year, however, young Moomintroll wakes up in early January and cannot get back to sleep. Nor can he awaken anybody else in the family, not even Moominmamma.

Jansson could be the most despairing of the major children's writers when the mood was upon her (Moominpappa at Sea is far too painful for children), but here that Scandinavian bleakness serves her well. By slow degrees Moomintroll has to come to terms with the winter and its shy denizens, the lonely and rum creatures who haunt the woods, the eight invisible shrews, and the ancestor who lives behind the stove. It's not a tale you could trust an optimist with.

Little My, that unexplained girl who haunts the series like a gremlin or a bratty little sister, awakens also and adapts instantly. Her kind always does. But she is, of course, of slight comfort to Moomintroll. Nor is the kindly and quiet Too-ticky, who simply insists he accept things as they are. In the end, Moomintroll has to grow internally to learn that there is beauty and something to cherish even in winter.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, asked why he wrote for children, said it was because they believed in obsolete things like God, and love, and courage. Jansson too, I think. Her work touches on true things, and deep.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL by Charles Dickens. "Marley was dead, to begin with ..." Come on, say the words aloud; you know them by heart. "Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge's name was good upon the 'Change for anything he chose to put a hand to." Pause a beat. "Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail."

On a bleak and heartless night, not far from the end of the nuclear winter that separates our civilization from the next and better one, when the pitiable remnants of humanity sit shivering about their lone campfire and eying one another hungrily, the tribal storyteller will get up to recite, word for word, this tale. And three people will live to see the dawn who otherwise would not.

ROOTABAGA STORIES by Carl Sandburg. To be perfectly frank, these are tales that can only be read aloud. The people have names like Gimme the Ax or Susan Slackentwist or Hatrack the Horse. The stories make no sense. Two skyscrapers decide to have a child, which turns out to be the Golden Spike Limited, the fastest long distance train in the Rootabaga Country. The Potato Face Blind Man describes his yearly dream of the white moon toboggan. Henry Hagglyhoagly plays the guitar with his mittens on. You can skim through the lot in an hour, and be none the better for any of it.

But these are children's stories as poetry. Read aloud, the rhythms, repetitions and pauses make glorious music, the jangly voice of an America long lost, one rawer and cruder and poorer than ours, but filled with hope and strangely eloquent. These are tales too rich and dense for silence.

L. Frank Baum and Carl Sandburg both set out to write fairy tales for American children, rooted in the language and soil of the common experience. Sandburg was one hell of a writer and Baum was not, but Baum lucked into a story that will live forever. Sometimes, though, I wish it had been old Carl who'd gotten the idea for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS by Kenneth Grahame. The best of all talking animal stories. My copy was bought used and has pencilled in it the date 1/17/34 and the words "I am happy to say I have visited the Author at his home in 'Pangbourne' near Oxford. A very lovely old gentleman, just what the writer of this book would have to be." But you knew that already.

A CHILD'S CHRISTMAS IN WALES by Dylan Thomas. Dylan's wife Caitlin, who had not a grain of sentimentality in her, described him reading to an roomful of rapt college students, with his great baritone "booming through their bras and briefs." So maybe you want to get the recording of the man himself reading this reminiscence of a long-ago Christmas, back when there were wolves in Wales and people wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and Auntie Hannah, who liked port, stood in the middle of the snow-bound back yard, singing like a big-bosomed thrush.

But once you've heard the man, you can read the thing yourself the way it's meant to be read, with the stops and emphases all in the right place. Because the voice not only penetrates, it lingers.

Originally published as "Read This Aloud" in the New York Review of Science Fiction.

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