Review of the Day: Twelve Kinds of Ice by Ellen Bryan Obed
Every year the children’s librarians of the New York Public Library system come together and create a list of 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing. The list, now entering its 101st year, originally had a dual purpose. On the one hand it was meant to highlight the best children’s books at a time when finding books written specifically for kids was difficult in and of itself (the “100” number idea came later). On the other hand, when printed out the list was intended to serve as a Christmas shopping guide for parents looking to give away quality works of children’s literature with the potential to someday be considered “classics”. These days, that idea of using the list as a shopping guide has become less important, but the search for books that aim for “classic” ranks never ceases. Such books are difficult to find, partly because the ones that try to feel that way utilize this sickening faux nostalgia that, in particularly egregious examples, can make your hair curl. That’s why a book like Twelve Kinds of Ice strikes me as such a rarity. Here we have something that feels like something your grandmother might have read you, yet is as fresh and fun and original as you could hope for. Difficult to categorize, the one thing you can say about it is that it defies you to sum it up neatly. And that it’s delightful, of course. That too.
In this family there are twelve kinds of ice. All the kids know this fact. “The First Ice” is that thin sheen you find in pails. “The Second Ice” can be pulled out like panes of glass. As the winter comes on, the days grow colder and colder and the kids wait in anticipation. Finally, after the appearance of “Black Ice” it’s time to turn the vegetable garden into a skating rink that will last the whole winter. The whole family creates the sides and uses the hose to create the perfect space. With crisp prose designed to make you feel excited and cozy all at once, the author goes through a full winter with this family. There are sibling rivalries for ice time, skating parties, comic routines, an ice show, and then finally those spring days where you can only skate an hour before the sun starts making puddles. Fortunately for all the kids there’s one kind of ice left and that is dream ice. The ice where you can skate everything from telephone wires to slanting roofs and it will last you all the year until the first ice comes again.
My instinct here is to just start quoting large sections of the text out of context so that you can listen to the wordplay. The trouble is that much of this book works precisely because those very words, when read as part of the story, simply feel like there was no other way to say that exact thing at that exact moment. So, for example, when we read “Black Ice” section where the ice has arrived before the snow, we have to know that the kids are skating on a Great Pond. We read that “We sped to silver speeds at which lungs and legs, clouds and sun, wind and cold, race together. Our blades spit out silver. Our lungs breathed out silver. Our minds burst with silver while the winter sun danced silver down our bending backs.” It helps to know that until now the kids have been limited to Field Ice (narrow strips) and Stream Ice (uneven and broken by rocks). This is the moment when they’re free to skate the way they want to at long last for the first time that season. Context is everything, but even out of context you can see how beautifully Obed phrases things.
Libraries may find it difficult to place this book though. Is it really an early chapter book when the text contains such sophistication at times? Yet you can’t really put it in the full chapter book section when it’s only 64 pages, can you? This isn’t the first time author Ellen Obed has thwarted catalogers’ inclinations. Her picture book (first book?) Who Would Like a Christmas Tree : A Tree for All Seasons stymied a lot of us when we realized that in spite of the fact that the word “Christmas” was in the title, that book really wasn’t holiday fare. Indeed the book is actually an incredibly lovely year long look (Obed’s a fan of the big picture) at what a coniferous tree does during the entire year, not just December. It’s rare to find an author willing to upset expectations in this way. Rare and, I’ll confess, kind of nice too. So how do we use this book? My suspicion is that it will find an audience with already existing ice skating fans (the ones not quite old enough for Kate Messner’s Sugar and Ice, be bedtime fare for sleepy young, and be beloved of those kids for whom the idea of having your own backyard ice skating rink verges on unbridled fantasy. There may be parents out there who have to explain patiently why they can’t have an ice skating rink too. Beats explaining why they can’t have a pony, I suppose.
If we were to have objections with the text, it wouldn’t be with the prose but the subjects. At one point we see that the rules of rink state that the kids who want to figure skate get one hour and the hockey skaters another. And, of course, the girls all do the figure skating and the boys the hockey. It would break with the narrative to mention the boy who wanted to figure skate or the girl who wanted to play hockey, I know, but you can’t help but wish for at least one small casual aside about the girls playing hockey once in a while or the boys doing leaps of their own. This way it just reinforces the old stereotypes, true though they may often be.
When I was young my favorite picture book was Tasha Tudor’s A Time to Keep. What entranced me about the book wasn’t necessarily the prose or the pictures (though I loved them very much) but the sense of watching a large group over time have a great deal of fun with their family traditions. There was this overwhelming sense of a huge loveable community, and that intrigued me to my core. Twelve Kinds of Ice taps into that same sense and feeling, and illustrator Barbara McClintock could certainly be seen as the second coming of Tudor sans the whole living like it’s the 19th century thing. Never adequately recognized as the genius she is, here her black and white pen and inks run rampant over the pages. Sometimes serving as spot illustrations, as humorous asides (as when the dad does his clown routine on the ice), and sometimes as glorious fantasy spreads over two pages, she consistently wows. I also enjoyed the fact that though the pictures seem timeless in a sense, they’re still contemporary (one girl sports a hoodie in the “locker room”, etc).
There was a great little YouTube video out last year that made a running catalog of phrases overused by book reviewers. Ask any reviewer and they’ll confess that there are certain terms they fall back on when the brain shuts off but the fingers keep typing. One of mine is the term “gem”. I’ve made a little vow to never use it again, but it’s killing me not to whip it out right now because there’s no word in the English language to describes this book quite as clearly. In desperation I turn to the authors that blurbed the book early on. Joyce Sidman said it was “glorious as a perfect stretch of ice” (she also said it was a gem, but she’s allowed). Chris Raschka said it was “grand and ethereal”. Reeve Lindbergh said it was “sharp and fresh”. And the great Newbery Award winning author Laura Amy Schlitz who, up until this time has never blurbed anything at all said it best with, “Obed’s prose is crystalline: clear, pure, and entrancing.” For my part I’ll put aside the word “gem” and simply say that this is a bedtime book, a storytime book, a precious book that will be remembered but some folks long after we reviewers and blurbers are dead. Let’s just say a book like this one doesn’t come along every day. Would that they did.
On shelves November 6th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- A Time to Keep by Tasha Tudor
- Sugar and Ice by Kate Messner
- The Night Fairy by Laura Amy Schlitz
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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