Jessica Day George’s Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow has just taken its place among some of my favorite stories. It is a wonderful mix of folklore and fairytale, a retelling (and expansion) of an old Norse legend.
A ninth child–a daughter, much to her mother’s dismay–is born to a woodcutter and his wife. Frida, the mother, is so disgusted by having not just another mouth to feed, but a useless girl as well, declines to give the child a name. She is simply called “pika,” which means “youngest.”
In the tradition of fairytales, Pika is good and kind and loved by her family–her father and her oldest brother Hans Peter in particular. She frees a white reindeer who has become trapped in brambles by his horns so that he may escape her brother Askeladden and other villagers trying to capture him, believing the animal can grant wishes. The reindeer is indeed a magical creature and, although he cannot grant her first wish, he does give her a name. And he kisses her with his black nose. Pika shares her experience and new name only with Hans Peter. She soon discovers that due to the reindeer’s kiss she can now understand animals’ speech and develops quite a reputation in the village. (This does nothing, however, to change her mother’s opinion of her.)
A huge polar bear appears at their cottage asking the Pika to accompany him to an Ice Palace where he needs her to live for a year, after which she may return home. In exchange for the safety and security of her family, and the promise her pet wolf Rollo may accompany her the Pika agrees–against Hans Peter’s strenuous objections. When the Pika arrives at the Ice Palace she encounters all manner of mysterious creatures and carvings and symbols. Her curiosity proves to be a catalyst for her entrance into the world of trolls (well-known magical, evil creatures in Norse folklore).
The Pika sets herself the task of undoing the many tortuous troll enchantments she now realizes have encompassed her life and the lives of those she loves. She comes face to face with both the troll Queen and the troll Princess, seeks to restore Hans Peter’s lost true love, discover her own and return to the loving embrace of her family.
A fairytale in novel form, the story bears none of the simpering, empty-headedness that is sometimes found in the main characters (particularly princes & princesses) of more well-known fairy tales. The Pika, Hans Peter, the trolls and other magical creatures, Rollo the Wolf, and Tova, her brother’s lost love have wonderfully developed characters that remain traditional yet possess their own strength and individuality. The lesser characters of her mother and father and other siblings, as well as the neighbor who gives her the wolf pup are also well-defined and add much to the story whenever they brush up against it.
This is a great read-aloud in a classroom as a magical adventure, or as a great example of Norse folklore–or folklore in general. It’s also an excellent and captivating independent read selection in the middle grades. It stays true to the traditional fairytale format without feeling like a cliche. I enjoyed immmensely the thrill of the adventure and the warmth of the story beginning to end!