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Sophie Anderson on The Snow Girl and Slavic folk stories

Cover Of The Snow Girl By Sophie Anderson
Cover of The Snow Girl by Sophie Anderson
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Published by: Usborne, 2023. Available from Amazon.

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Sophie Anderson, author of The House with Chicken Legs, talks about her new book, The Snow Girl, and her love of Slavic folk stories.

Sophie is a prize-winning and highly popular author, whose latest book The Snow Girl is described by The Sunday Times as ‘exceptional’.

The story of ‘The Snow Girl’

After a terrifying accident in which she nearly loses her life, Tasha has lost her confidence. She finds it hard to mix with children of her own age, yet she’s lonely without them. She and her parents go to spend the winter with her ailing grandfather to help him with his farm. One day, Tasha and Grandfather make a girl out of snow. She is so perfect that she looks alive. During the night, she disappears. Tasha is rightly convinced that she hasn’t melted, but has come to life. The snow girl, Alyana, becomes Tasha’s friend. They play together, dance in the snow, take sleigh rides in the night. Alyana introduces Tasha to the wild creatures that live in the forests and mountains. But the local people and Tasha’s family are beginning to fear the snow. The winter gets dkper and harsher and longer than it should. The intense cold affects Grandfather. Tasha learns what she has to do to save his life, but it means she must make a huge sacrifice.

The Snow Girl is beautifully illustrated and decorated by the English/Colombian artist Melissa Castrillon.

My thoughts on ‘The Snow Girl’

When I was a child I loved a story by Arthur Ransome called The Little Daughter of the Snow (Old Peter’s Russian Tales), about an old couple who make a child out of snow. She comes to life, and they love her as much as if she was the daughter they’ve always longed for. She warns them that they must never let her get too warm. There is never any doubt that she is a girl of snow, and that her only real happiness is when she allowed to be in her own element.

Knowing that Sophie’s new book was also inspired by the Slavic folk story, I was eager to read her novel. The Snow Girl is not a retelling but a reworking, inspired not just by the old tale but by the landscape that frames it – huge frozen wastes, spiritual mountains, haunting, mysterious forests, and the uncanny beauty of snow. It is a challenge, I know, to base an entire novel on a story or legend. How did she achieve it?

The development of Tasha

In Sophie Anderson’s story, it is Tasha, not the snow girl, who is the central character. The Snow Girl is of course, essentially rooted in the same story as the one that inspired Ransome, with Tasha the girl who longs for friendship replacing the elderly couple, who long for a child. Ransome’s version itself is one of many versions (stories, operas, ballet, paintings) all inspired by the beautiful folk legend and by the transient nature of snow. Sophie Andersen skilfully embraces and enriches the original story with imaginative ideas and characters of her own. Tasha’s relationship with first the snow – its dazzling, mesmerising quality, its treacherous complexity – and then with the extraordinary world that she enters through her friendship with Alyana the snow girl, is beautifully described.

Tasha felt she was standing on the edge of a dream, or the edge of another world – a place where reality and imagination overlapped. A place where stories and wishes and magic were as real as farmhouses and snowfall and moonlight.

As she embarks on a nail-bitingly dangerous mission which could cost her her life, she shows heroic qualities that transform her from being the shy and reclusive child we meet at the beginning of the story. Her back-story is gradually revealed during the narrative as she begins to have more self-confidence and embraces the nourishing sense of the joy and happiness that friendship brings.

This is an enriching and spellbinding story of friendship, love, danger and courage and will become a modern classic version of the old tale.

The tradition of the snow maiden in Slavic literature

I wrote to Sophie about the essay on her website in which she details previous retellings and stories inspired by the Snow Girl, and its origins in folk lore. The Snow Maiden story appears twice in a 19th century collection (by Aleksandr Afanas’ev) of hundreds of Russian folk stories. As in many death/rebirth stories, the Snow Girl has to die in order to let nature be reborn in spring. In her essay Sophie Andersen says ‘Perhaps the message in The Snow Maiden, if there is one, is about embracing nature’s cycles, as they bring renewal. Or perhaps there is a message of embracing all change, or that love brings change.

True to this enduring tradition, Tasha’s world can only be made whole again when the natural order is restored. Tasha helps this process through the emotional and physical trial that she undertakes, and by the end of the book she herself is reborn.

Snow Girl by Viktor Vasnetsov
Snow Girl by Viktor Vasnetsov, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Words from Sophie Anderson

Sophie Anderson

I asked Sophie to give us a few words about the inspiration behind the writing her other books.

Sophie: All my books are inspired by Slavic folk or fairy tales, and characters from Slavic mythology. The House with Chicken Legs was inspired by stories of Baba Yaga; The Girl Who Speaks Bear by lots of stories, but especially Ivanko the Bear’s Son and The Lime Tree’s Curse; The Castle of Tangled Magic was inspired by Pushkin’s Ruslan and Ludmila and spirits from Slavic mythology; The Thief Who Sang Storms by the mythical alkonosts; and The Snow Girl was of course inspired by Snegurochka.

Berlie: What kind of ten year old were you? 

Sophie: I grew up in Swansea and, at ten-years-old, loved exploring the outside world more than anything else. I spent hours in the woods behind my home, and also walking or cycling along an old railway track converted to a trail to the seaside. I was quite shy and uncomfortable around people, and always happiest exploring on my own.

Berlie: Do you gather props round you when you write, or listen to particular music to put you in the mood? 

Sophie: I wrote a fair amount of The Snow Girl in summer, so I did surround my desk with items that spoke of a more wintery mood. I gathered lots of picture books about snow, and even bought a candle that promised the scent of snow! Once I start writing the world tends to melt away though, so I don’t feel a great dependence on these things.

About Sophie Anderson

Sophie Andersen’s first published book, The House With Chicken Legs, won her immediate acclaim and was short-listed for the Carnegie Medal. In 2023 it became a successful musical adapted by Les Enfants Terribles, ending its first tour at the South Bank Centre.

Just a few of her awards and nominations:

  • The Girl Who Speaks Bear was also shortlisted for the Carnegie medal
  • The Castle of Tangled Magic won the Wales Book of the Year Award

The Thief Who Sang Storms was included in my round-up review blog of fantastic summer reads for children.

Sophie Anderson’s website

Sophie Anderson’s background

From her Prussian grandmother Sophie learned and loved Slavic stories. From her own mother (historical author Catrin Collier) she inherited the skills and self-discipline of being a writer, and with her four home-schooled children she will surely have shared many times over the joy of sharing stories. She was born in Swansea, and now lives in the Lake District, was a geologist and science teacher, and came to writing quite recently.

Death as a theme

Sophie wrote her first published novel as a way of coping with grief. The House with Chicken Legs is about moving from life to death. Marinka’s grandmother, Baba Yaga (traditionally the most wicked of all witches), is the guardian of the gateway to death. They live in a house that moves on its chicken legs to gather up the dead and dying. The house is fenced with skulls and bones. The only people Marinka meets are dead.

Is this a suitable subject for a book for children? The answer, of course, is yes! There’s no life without death. No spring without winter. Children are drawn to the horror and terror of death because they know it’s there, lurking. The only way it can be adressed is by personification and story. Many of our most beloved and enduring fairy stories are about death and transformation. Marinka finds her way forward just as Tasha does in The Snow Girl; they both see through Death to the other side, to the comfort of love and friendship.

My own interest in Slavic tales

As well as my love of Arthus Ransome’s collection Old Peter’s Russian Tales, I have often visited Russian and Slavic stories for pleasure or for inspiration. My illustrated book The Three Princes is based on a story which is said to have its roots in both Slavic and Persian culture.

My adults’ novel Rose Doran Dreams is heavily influenced by the Russian tale The Fisherman and his Wife.

Welsh National Opera commissioned me to write a libretto to the music of Liadov’s Kikimora op. 63 for a touring concert opera. I called it The Magician’s Cat. Kikimora is a famous Slavik house sprite, sometimes evil, sometimes helpful. See the music section of my About me page.

Berlie Doherty

Berlie Doherty is the author of the best-selling novel, Street Child, and over 60 more books for children, teenagers and adults, and has written many plays for radio, theatre and television. She has been translated into over twenty languages and has won many awards, including the Carnegie medal for both Granny Was a Buffer Girl and Dear Nobody, and the Writers’ Guild Award for both Daughter of the Sea and the theatre version of Dear Nobody. She has three children and seven grandchildren, and lives in the Derbyshire Peak District with Alan James Brown. Her new picture book The Seamaiden’s Odyssey, illustrated by Tamsin Rosewell, will be published by UCLan on 5 September 2024. See the About me page for more information.

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