I don't read a lot of juvenile fiction - that is, stuff aimed at the 8-12 demographic - because, well, it's been a long time since I've had the concerns of the prepubescent. Juvenile fiction is often too linear, straightforward, sexless and light for me to find much interest there, though I am not saying that juvenile fiction should change to suit me. I've got grown-up books to keep me happy. But a certain elegant Tomato of my acquaintance has been feeding me the really good stuff lurking on the juvenile shelves, like When You Reach Me or The True Meaning of Smekday.
I admit I have only passing familiarity with The Snow Queen. It was surely read to me as a child due to Grandma Dory's enthusiastic Danishness, and I could hum a few bars the way I can with most of Andersen's stuff. The Snow Queen isn't strictly speaking a folk tale, but its literate cousin, a literary fairy story. It was not told like Märchen by nurses to children, a collection of motifs not so much written as performed, changing through the generations. The Snow Queen originated with Hans Christian Andersen, not in the mouths of the folk.
But, like the folk tale, its literary cousin keeps getting repurposed by other writers, a folk retelling where the folk are writers and readers. Arguably, the version of the Snow Queen that is best well known is the one reimagined by C.S. Lewis in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, with her Turkish Delight. (And there is a nice joke about this here.) I'm about to go full nerd here, but I love the way children's fiction are this great stew of literate and oral story telling traditions, mirroring the ways children read and repurpose themselves, the Pokemon playing with light sabers, and questing for pirate gold with Rapunzel and a knight.
Anyway, point being, one of the things I loved so fiercely about this book was the ways it wore its influences on its sleeve, a thousand hat tips that weren't just there to show that the author had readed some books, but because children are the best readers of children's fiction because they make them theirs. They try to learn from all of this fairy hokum we write for them, and the things they learn aren't necessarily the things we grown ups intend. Hazel is in the fifth grade, teetering in changes that are both a function of her age and her family situation. Her parents are newly divorced, necessitating a change in schools, diminished economic prospects, and her father's near abandonment. (This is one hat tip I liked: Hazel goes to Lovelace School, located here in Minneapolis. There is no such school, but I think it's a reference to Maud Hart Lovelace, a local children's author who wrote the much beloved by me Betsy, Tacy books about two friends. There is a Wilder School, named after Laura Ingalls Wilder, but the Lovelace books, dealing as they do with friends and how they manage a growing group of friends, are a ton better as an intertext. Nice.)
Hazel's best friend is Jack, and theirs is a fierce, fragile friendship. Jack strikes me as more socially deliberate than Hazel, able to manage relationships with boys better than she can with girls. Jack makes Hazel work; he, and I'm sorry to use this phrase, completes her. It's not that their relationship is unequal. Jack's mother is absent, lost in her depression, and when Hazel's father abandons her, they have the bondedness of lost children. (At some point I realized that a statistically unlikely number of my friends growing up came from divorced families; we recognize one another on some level. This is not to say I feel like I was abandoned at any point in my childhood, but that something changes in your mettle when you watch love die.) They play a thousand games of the imagination, refer to a thousand books of fantasy – their hang out is the Shrieking Shack – build a thousand worlds only known to them. Their relationship is incredibly sweet, but I keep feeling that tinge when I read fantasy, that sometimes people engage in escapism because there is something to escape from. This was deft, and deliberate, I felt.
But 10 is a tricksy age, struggling out of childhood and into adolescence. What was cute two years ago is now babyish. While Jack and Hazel's relationship is never sexualized, the great sort has begun between boys and girls, a tensing in anticipation of the fires of puberty. And one day, Jack stops, his heart gone cold, his friendship with Hazel over. This is due to a magic mirror that shatters in the atmosphere, sending shards down everywhere. One hits Jack square in his eye, and then moves down to his heart. You can choose to believe this or not; you can read this as only metaphor if you wish, but I felt this was the heart of magical realism, the explanation to children why daddy will not be coming home tonight as real as the wardrobe. The sections of Hazel's grief rended me, how she went from this wild, unfocused child to a numb automaton, better suited for the class. And you can see how horrified her mother and teacher are - despite the first person narration by Hazel - even though they have been hoping for her to settle down and achieve better, because they can see the loss when Hazel can't. That's some amazing writing.
Jack is taken by the Snow Queen, the way you are, and Hazel follows him into the land between, the dangerous forest of lost people and places. I think I read a review somewhere that calls this section muddy, which is true, as far as it goes. I liked the mud. I liked that there were no easy answers, no obvious person to turn to, the fair who were fair mixed in with the fair who seemed fair, but were foul, the foul who were enigmatic, the foul who were foul. I'm pretty sure it's no spoiler to say that Hazel does find Jack in the snowy palace iced over with his loss because this a fairy tale, and literary or not, certain things will out.
I want to talk about the ending, but I think it's probably unwise, because I want you to read this yourself, if you care at all about this sort of story. There is something rushed about it, unconcluded, but now, several days after I finished, it's both devastating and perfect how it ends. I feel like this like I do about the ending of The Hobbit, or of Tam Lin,* a happy ending that is happy because it isn't the sadness preceding, and a conclusion that tenses with its inconclusiveness, because in life, no story ever ends. Hazel and Jack will not be able to return to their idyllic friendship that was never truly an idyll, predicated as it was on loss. They will have to struggle through the changes they have lived and felt. They will find love and loss with other people, as they have with each other, and that is the saddest thing about growing up, and also the happiest. Wow. So amazing.
*Sidebar to Elizabeth, I think this book does for children's fictions and grade school what that book does for literature and college. You might dig.