Winterfrost by Michelle Houts, 259pp, RL: 4
Winterfrost by Michelle Houts features a mythical creature that captured my imagination as a child - gnomes, also known as "nisse." Gnomes was one of the first books I remember purchasing with my own, hard earned money, and I think it also is the first encyclopedic book about a fictional creature. Winterfrost is a superb story that combines holiday and cultural traditions with a story of determination and bravery that makes for an exciting story for readers of all beliefs and traditions. And, while Winterfrost begins on Christmas Eve and is filled with lovely images of the natural world covered in white, (especially the winterfrost of the title, a glistening cover of frost that comes when a heavy fog settles and freezes - a rare event) it is a wonderful read, all year round.
On Christmas Eve, twelve year old Bettina Larsen, a resident of Lolland, an island in the south of Denmark, is preparing for the holiday without her grandfather, Farfar, when the phone call comes in. With a flurry of frantic activity, both of her parents (and for very reasons that are not farfetched) are packing their bags and preparing to depart, leaving Bettina in charge of the farm and her infant sister, Pia. While this may seem shocking to modern Americans, Houts writes in a way that conveys the culture of the region while also seeming believably reasonable, especially since the Pedersens are right next door! And Bettina does do an admirable job taking care of her little sister and the barnful of animals. That is, until one terrible oversight is noticed. Farfar had always kept the belief and traditions of the nisse, small and sturdy gnomes who are both protective and caring of the human family's farm and animals, but also easily offended. Tradition dictates that a bowl of buttery rice pudding is left in the barn on Christmas Eve as a tribute to the nisse, and this has always been something that Farfar and Bettina did together. With Farfar gone and the excitement of Mor and Far leaving, the tribute is forgotten.
This sets off a chain of events that begins with baby Pia's disappearance, followed by the shrinking of Bettina and a visit to a nisse home, the revelation of a long-held grudge, as well as the abduction of Klakke, the Larsen's nisse by a seagull. Houts tells this charming story in a way that will remind readers of traditional fairy tales. While dangers are faced, there is a comforting tone in the narrative that allows readers to never fear for the fates of Pia, Bettina or even Klakke, the young nisse with questionable decision making skills. Hoult does a magnificent job conveying the culture of the country and the wonder of the winter world and the accompanying traditions. As the Kirkus reivew aptly notes, Winterfrost is a "timeless story that upholds and nurtures the magical worlds of nature and childhood."
Source: Review Copy