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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Halpern, Julie Toby and the Snowflakes; illus. by Matthew Cordell.
Houghton, 2004 32p
ISBN 0-618-42004-5 $15.00
4-7 yrs

Even for adults, who quickly tire of shoveling pounds of snowy wonder from the sidewalk, snow can bring a certain enchantment to the world, and for children, its powers are magical. One of the reasons for that magic is its ability to suddenly transform familiar landscapes (as explored in Perkins' Snow Music, BCCB 12/03); another is its evanescence, its tendency to disappear sometimes even more quickly than it came.

For Toby, snow isn't the only thing that can disappear quickly: yesterday his best friend moved away, leaving only "his baseball glove that smells like Parmesan cheese" and a very lonely Toby, who's desperate enough, only a day later, to peer into the mailbox in the hope of a letter from his distant pal. Suddenly, companionship unexpectedly arrives out of the blue (or, more likely, out of the gray): when Toby greets a falling snowflake, it returns his salutation, inviting him to come and play, and as others fall, they join him in snow angels and general good fellowship ("Some tell jokes. Others talk about movies they have seen. One snowflake wishes for a warm piece of pecan pie"). After forming his new friends into one very fine snowman, a tired and happy Toby returns inside, but the next day's sun sends the snow where all good snowflakes must go. The snowflakes explain the rightness of their departure ("We snow, we disappear, we come back again. It is the nature of the snowflake"), and the arrival on the scene of a friendly new boy (whose baseball glove "smells like cheddar cheese") suggests that friendship too has its times of coming and going.

This tender exploration of the classic lost-friend story not only breathes new life into a well-worn message but also manages to make its metaphor into a lively literal experience. Halpern's text is quietly plainspoken, with its short sentences and present-tense narration, but it's also evocative at a kid's-eye level ("Piles of snow fluff around Toby's boots"), in touch with important youthful matters such as baseball and boyish camaraderie. Wisely eschewing sentimentality about Toby's flaky friends, it instead gains its charm from a quiet accumulation of homely realism dusted with a flurry of fantasy; Toby's sweetly matter-of-fact and unsurprised response to his meteorologically motivated mates is logical as a response to new friends, whether they're snowflakes or not.

Cordell's line-and-watercolor illustrations have a similar groundedness: Toby's staunch little figure (his pointy red hat subtly recalling Peter's headgear in Keats' The Snowy Day, a small homage to a wintry book with sensibilities similar to this one) appears amid an obviously chilly winter wonderland, wherein winter's lean light subdues the palette into whites touched with pale greens and grays, and even Toby's red coat is muted into shadow. Slightly wavery yet determined lines echo the protagonist's mood and drive the visual drama (the double-page spread of Toby's forlorn face peering into the empty mailbox is both comic and touching), while the snowflakes' characterization is prudently left to the text, with only shadowy letters floating across Toby's view to convey their message (or his imagining thereof). Generous white space surrounds the vignettes and larger vistas, lending the visual narrative that same crystalline stillness of a neighborhood newly blanketed, underscoring the snowy motif and subtly highlighting Toby's own isolation.

The book's quiet wonderment and portrayal of a solitary (well, humanly solitary) exploration of winter's joys will certainly make this a cold-weather favorite. Don't just relegate it to the seasonal shelf, however, since young listeners will also respond year-round to its sensitive message about friendship's cycles and will relish an out-of-season evocation of the snow's wonders.

Deborah Stevenson, Editor

Big Picture Image

Cover illustration by Matthew Cordell from Toby and the Snowflakes ©2004. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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This page was last updated on December 1, 2004.