Friday, December 7, 2012

2013 Contenders: Twelve Kinds of Ice, by Ellen Obed

Ah, the elusive Twelve Kinds of Ice. Betsy Bird stepped out of her time machine and started talking it up way back in spring, and then reviewed it in July.  The rest of us have been hoping for a glimpse ever since, but ARCs were scarce as hen's teeth, so this reviewer had to wait until she could ILL it from a neighboring library last month.

(Yes, last month. I apologize for the radio silence, but every germ north of the equator descended upon my immune system a couple of weeks ago. It's been like a Michael Crichton novel up in here.)

In case you haven't been lucky enough to put your hands on it yet, Twelve Kinds of Ice is a sort of love letter to to an idyllic winter spent on ice skates. As the temperature drops, the narrator and her siblings watch for the first kind of ice - a thin layer on the top of the milking pail. From then on, it's a countdown until they can build their neighborhood skating pond. As spring creeps in, the pond shrinks and shrinks until only "dream ice" is left.

(And that there prosy description does it so little justice that it's basically like saying that Moby Dick is about some grouchy old guy looking for a whale.)

So, what is it? Where does it belong? Roger Sutton and his Horn Book crew had a hard time deciding. The copy I read was cataloged as juvenile fiction, but it's clearly a memoir too, and given the crystalline precision of the language, you could easily call the whole thing a prose poem.

It's not stuffy, though. It's not one of those dreaded books that appeals to librarians more than children. If I may, just this once, drag out the "my kid liked it" argument, um, my kid loved this book. I read it to her one night, all in one sitting, and then I basically had to restrain her from looking up property in Maine. It has such immediacy, such energy, and such joy that, despite its quaintness, it hits you like a gust of frosty air.

Can you tell that I love this book? It's almost perfect, and when I say "almost," the bug I'm thinking of may, as they say, be a feature. My feminist hackles were raised by the fact that the girls all go figure skating, the boys all play hockey, and there is no gender crossover whatsoever. I think that's a function of the autobiographical nature of the book, but it would be nice if that were made more clear in some way. A subtitle, perhaps? A Memoir of My Childhood, When Girls Didn't Play Hockey? 

As for the Newbery? I'd be hard-pressed to name a more deserving book this year. It has been a long time since I've seen prose this beautiful. Stylistically distinguished all the way.

P.S. - Sam lurves it too.


  1. *adds yet another book to her ever-growing post-stonewall reading list, while shaking fist at rachael and sam and their constantly-blogging-books-i-want-to-read ways*

  2. I still don't quite understand why this book is getting the accolades it has been receiving. It's a wholly fine book, don't get me wrong. But why was it published as children's lit? Couldn't it just as well have been a collection of vignettes in the Atlantic or Harper's or even the back of Good Housekeeping? I don't think it's terribly memorable.
    As for its length - to me, the brevity seems to be a bit of a cop-out. A 250-300 page novel is going to have a few lines that are lesser than the rest of the package. A 68 page memoir has a lot better chance to get every line just right. Is that a fair comparison for the committee? I'm not sure.
    I do think kids will like it, but I also think it is very much a book librarians love more than kids do. Reading it aloud may be a great method to get the imagery across; a child picking it up randomly seems a bit less likely to be successful.

    1. I don't think that having chosen the most effective length and format should count against the author, or that writing concisely is easier than the alternative.

      As for its memorability: different folks, etc.