Simply put: A book you must read

posted in: Sam Gayton, Tomislav Tomić | 13

I’ve been trying to review one particular book since December, and I keep failing. Today’s post is bound to be yet another failure, for I find it hard to be clinical and cool-headed about the book in question.

But the time’s come. I shall beat about the bush no more.

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The Snow Merchant by Sam Gayton, illustrated by Tomislav Tomić is the very stuff of dreams.

Read it to your children (or any you can borrow), and I’m confident that for very many it will become one of those few books they look back on with especial warmth in their heart when they are all grown up; one of those books that leads into magical landscapes, with characters they desperately wished were their friends, taking them on adventures that even twenty, forty, sixty years later they still wish they could take part in.

Lettie Peppercorn (a name to full in love with, don’t you think?) is landlady of the White Horse inn, a magical house on stilts in the port of Albion. Lettie, however, is only a young girl. Her mother disappeared some years ago in mysterious circumstances, and her father now spends his time drinking more than is good for him in a quayside drinking den. Life is full drudgery until one winter’s night the Snow Merchant arrives.

He claims to be an alchemist; indeed, not just any alchemist but the greatest that ever lived, and he has created something brand new to share with the world, something which will change Lettie’s life forever.

But all is not as it seems, and soon Lettie is caught up in a wild and thrilling adventure, one that leads to many discoveries, not least the truly magical nature of snow and the sometimes heartbreaking power of love, whether for family or the best of friends.

The Alice in Wonderland-esque cast of characters in The Snow Merchant is tremendously imaginative and rich. The telling of the tale is full of laugh-aloud humour and reminiscent of the best of oral storytelling, with repetition and song that gives the text a beautiful internal rhythm. And when you’ve finished, and with a lump in your throat, closed the book for the last time, you will never look at snow with the same eyes again.

You see what I mean? I really love this book. I simply can’t do a cool, calm and collected review!

If I try my very hardest to find fault, I have to admit that I don’t like the way the eyes are drawn, in the otherwise atmospheric and rather lovely illustrations by Tomislav Tomić (You can see some examples here). They make Lettie look like a Bratz Doll, rather than the feisty, imaginative, brave, gorgeous girl she is. But perhaps this complaint is just a sign of my age; M (8) eagerly poured over each illustration as we read this story together.

And M really took this book to her heart as much as I did. She made lego models of the characters, and drew picture of scenes not illustrated in the book.

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This is a model of the wonderful boat that carries Lettie across the seas (if you’ve read the book, can you spot Blustav, or Da as a beer bottle?).

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This is our family dressed as if we suffered from the same predicament as Lettie’s Ma, and needed to wrap ourselves up in hats, scarves and clothes at all time to literally keep ourselves together.

As I read at bedtime, M asked every night if Lettie and her friend Noah could be her best friends too, but don’t let this leave you thinking this is book only girls would enjoy – I believe The Snow Merchant would make a perfect class read-aloud; at the core of the story is Lettie’s friendship with a young boy called Noah, and the pace of adventure, the absurdity, the sheer delight and magic cast by the story will have everyone waiting impatiently for the next instalment.

We’ve been not just playing but living all sorts of aspects of The Snow Merchant since we last finished the book (it is the sort of book you’ll end up returning to), but one of our favourite activities born of the book was turning our kitchen into an alchemist’s laboratory.

With the help of my jam making equipment, some toy test-tubes, plenty of food colouring, some food flavourings such as peppermint and vanilla, a tube of effervescent vitamin tablets and a few silver cake sprinkles we were soon making genuinely drinkable bubbling potions with various smells, colours and magical properties.

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M and J delighted in creating their own “alchemicals” – potions with various powers to transform whoever imbibed them.

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Whilst being alchemists we listened to:

  • They Might Be Giants: “Meet the Elements”

  • Tom Lehrer’s “The Elements”

  • Iron Maiden’s The Alchemist (I have two young headbangers in the making)

  • The Decemberist’s The Mariner’s Revenge

  • As if the book hadn’t really worked it’s way into our lives and hearts we are also planning to:

  • Re-watch the Royal Institution lectures from last Christmas. This series, The Modern Alchemist, was an amazing very child friendly introduction to chemistry, and kept our entire family spellbound when we watched it for the first time.
  • Make the hot pepper soup as per the recipe in Sam Gayton’s book.
  • Visit the fish market to look for clams in their shells – without giving too much away, I can tell you that one character gets turned into a clam.
  • Set the song of the Albatross to music and learning to play it on my new accordion!

  • Ok, I’ve got it off my chest now! I fell in love with this book, and really hope you do too!

    Disclosure: I won my copy of The Snow Merchant in a giveaway by Andersen Press. I wasn’t required to review the book and I received no payment for my review, though the publishers did send me an advance copy of Sam’s latest book, Lilliput, which I can also recommend. I follow Sam on Twitter @sam_gayton.

    13 Responses

    1. Carmen Haselup

      Wow, Zoe. That’s a wonderful review. I don’t know why you were worrying about trying to remain level-headed, the best reviews show a passion for their subject matter. This one has made me decide to order the book. Yes, Mollie is only three, but I’ll look after it for her ’til she’s old enough!
      Great stuff.

    2. Stacey

      Wow! I think I must order this one right away, right?! And do your children know how darn lucky they are? I think they are allowed (even encouraged!) to make more of a mess in one day than my children have been in their lifetimes… something for me to take away from that, I think!
      Stacey recently posted..Favorite New Magazines

    3. Zoe

      Ha, Stacey! What was nice about this was that it was all “edible” – and the fizzy vitamin pills were a brilliant inclusion – smelt nice as well as bubbling!

      Yes, Polly – funny you should say that, as for M this book is a little like The Little White Horse

      Hurrah, Carmen! (but you could read it straight away 😉 )
      Zoe recently posted..Simply put: A book you must read

    4. Polly

      So- book bought by 9.35am as I had business in The Children’s Bookshop anyway- and just finished reading. Howzzat?!
      It IS great- look forward to reading it to the boys. Struck me (amongst other things) as a particularly lovely read for ivf/surrogate/adopted children- the concept of parental alchemy is magical. Although I *believe* I was created in the ‘usual’ fashion; now starting to wonder if actually I am made of base cake and am slowly returning to type?
      Polly recently posted..Happy World Book Day 2013

    5. Ainslie

      ok – you just raised the standards in exploring books with kids…wow! I love that chemistry demo!! Will definitely order the book today – I really enjoyed the passion you have shown in this review – we all need a little (or a lot) in our lives!

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