This is the perfect season for curling up with a book, and also the perfect season to share your reading wish list with family and friends (just in case they need some gift ideas!) I’ve compiled a list of my favourite winter reads, for big people and small ones, and my eldest daughter (just turned 12) has supplied her tweenage recommendations. I hope you find some inspiration here and, by all means, share your own winter favourites with me!
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Winter Reads for Adults
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
This book, set in medieval Rus, is a bit slow to start, but once you get into the action of this Russian-folklore-fuelled fantasy, you won’t be able to put it down. And then you will order The Girl in the Tower and The Winter of the Witch because you will need to find out what happens to Vasya and Solovey, and you will be longing to meet Morozko, the Winter King, again. A story of what happens when you let your wild nature guide you, and what happens if you suppress it.
The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner
This is another one for fans of historical fantasy. Rena Rossner draws on so many influences – Russian folklore, the history of the town her own family left to escape the pogroms, and the poem Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti – to weave this magical tale of two shape-shifting sisters, Liba and Laya. Rossner’s writing surrounds you – you can feel the characters’ every emotion, and taste the sweet, forbidden fruit the Strangers sell at the market.
Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov
This is the satirical and touching tale of Viktor, a loner who adopts a penguin from Kiev Zoo when it closes down. Misha the Penguin brings a little girl, Sonya, and her nanny, Nina, into Viktor’s life. He also brings the Mafia. I loved the characters in this book, the dark humour, and the bleakness of Kurkov’s Kiev in winter.
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novak
I really enjoyed Uprooted by Naomi Novak, and I actually held off reading this one for ages because I was worried it wouldn’t be as good! But of course I loved this Rumpelstiltskin-inspired story set half in the harsh winter landscape of eastern Europe and half in the even colder, magical kingdom of the Staryk. Like Uprooted, the main characters in Spinning Silver are young women who find out, unexpectedly, that they are much stronger, smarter and braver than they, or anyone else, realises.
Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield
Another historical fantasy (it’s my favourite genre – can you guess?), this time set in England on the banks of the River Thames. I grew up on the Thames (100 years after this story takes place) and I have swum in its waters. I can say that Diane Setterfield perfectly captures the dark, dirty, powerful and dangerous energy of those murky shallows and depths. Add to that a supernatural mystery in the dead of winter, and you have a tale that will make your spine tingle.
The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
I guess this is a ‘coming of age’ novel, although if it had been described to me as such, I probably wouldn’t have read it! The beauty and danger of the wild, frozen north is ever-present in the family and town dramas of teenager Leni’s life. This book definitely reminded me to appreciate all the comforts of my easy life. The contrast of me listening to the audiobook version, chopping up a big pumpkin for soup, pasta and pie, while Leni’s mum fried their last two pieces of spam on the stove was not lost on me. A word of warning, though – it is a pretty harrowing read, covering alcoholism, domestic abuse, cancer, a horrific accident and homicide. It made me LOL once (“You know what they say about finding a man in Alaska? The odds are good, but the goods are odd.”) and burst into tears twice.
If Women Rose Rooted by Sharon Blackie
This is not strictly a winter book, but Sharon Blackie’s descriptions of wild, weather-beaten crags and coastlines will make you feel snug and warm in your house! You can probably tell from this list that I’m not a big non-fiction reader, but Sharon Blackie had me at hello. This is a wonderful book that spins the threads of autobiography, mythology and psychology into a beautiful tapestry that shows us what it really means to belong. I cannot wait to read her new book Hagitude when it’s released in 2022!
Russka by Edward Rutherford
I’ve read quite a few of Edward Rutherford’s historical fiction books, and they are epic in every sense of the word. This one is 960 pages long, and covers Russian history from 950 to 1991. If you think you’re in for a boring history lesson, however, you couldn’t be more wrong. By using real events and characters, you get an idea of the history of this vast country, while following the stories of fictional families through the years. A good winter read – and it might possibly last you all winter too!
Hogfather by Terry Pratchett
I know Terry Pratchett is a bit like Marmite – your either love him, or you just don’t get it. I couldn’t resist adding this one in here, though, because I am a die-hard fan. Any time something crappy happens in life, I still reach for the Discworld. This is just what you’d expect from a Christmas-themed Pratchett novel: someone has put out a hit on the Hogfather (the jolly fellow with a red suit and a white beard who delivers presents to good girls and boys), and Death has taken over his duties for Hogswatchnight. Expect wizards, assassins, the Oh God of Hangovers and Pratchett ripping into commercialised Christmas every chance he gets.
Winter Reads for Kids
As a mum of three who loves books, there are few things I enjoy more than curling up with the kids under a duvet and reading our way through a stack of books. These are some of our winter favourites.
Snowflakes by Cerrie Burnell
I love this book so much that I actually gave it as a gift to all the children who attended my youngest daughter’s baptism. She shares a name with the main character, and she did indeed arrive in this world with the first snowflakes of winter, but more than that I wanted all the kids to hear Cerrie Burnell’s message: ‘Every snowflake is different, every snowflake is perfect.’ The illustrations are lovely too.
The Tailor of Gloucester by Beatrix Potter
This classic makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. I still read from the same copy I had as a child – one of those tiny hardback £2.95 versions. There’s no need to tell you how beautiful the pictures are, or describe the well-loved story of a poor, sick old man who comes out on top because of a group of renegade mice. Suffice to say it’s a joy to read every time, and your kids will learn some great advanced vocabulary words from any Beatrix Potter!
You Can Do It, Sam by Amy Hest and Anita Jeram
I don’t know what it is about this simple story of a small bear (Sam) who bakes cakes with his mum and then delivers them “all by himself” to his neighbours. There’s no powerful message or crazy plot-twist, but this book always leaves me feeling like I’ve just received a big, warm hug. A firm favourite with all my girls when they were 2-5 years old.
The Jolly Christmas Postman by Janet and Alan Ahlberg
I could read Ahlberg books forever. The pictures are so detailed – even after years you still occasionally notice things you hadn’t before – and I love reading rhyming books aloud. Of course, all the fun contents of the letters have gone missing over the decade we’ve had our version (and don’t think we only read this near Christmas – oh, no – this is regular reading material all year round!)
The Gruffalo’s Child by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
You were waiting for a Julia Donaldson, weren’t you? Well, I have two for you! Julia D is the QUEEN of kids’ books as far as I’m concerned. Because we all know that the main point of a kids’ book, really, is that adults should enjoy reading it out loud … again … and again … and again. This rhyming sequel to The Gruffalo is just as fun as the first, and Axl Scheffler’s drawings are fantastic.
Stick Man by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
The story (again in rhyme) of Stick Man’s epic journey to get back to his family takes us through all the seasons, but ends in winter with the appearance of Santa himself.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr Suess
Of course. How could I not? This famous twice-made-into-a-movie story needs no introduction. As always, Dr Suess has a message for us all: ‘Maybe Christmas,’ he thought, ‘doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.’ Food for thought that even very little ones can appreciate.
The Story of the Nativity by Anna Milbourne and Alessandra Roberti
If you’re looking for a nativity story, I highly recommend this version. It is simply worded and beautifully illustrated. As a hardcover book, it’s perfect for a gift.
Winter Reads for Tweens
This list was curated and written by my book-mad, just-turned-twelve-year-old daughter.
Northern Lights by Philip Pullman
It’s an amazing book that I wanted to keep reading forever! It has lively characters and when you read it, it makes you feel as if you’re really seeing everything that’s going on. It’s about a parallel world to ours where some things are the same and others are different. Lyra is the main character and children my age can relate to her because she says stuff out loud that we feel inside.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
A thrilling tale of wonder! Four kids go though a wardrobe in to a magical world of talking beasts and fawns ruled by an evil witch that has put an eternal spell on the land making it always winter, never Christmas. But when Aslan, the rightful ruler of Narnia, comes, things start to turn their way again. A journey of courage and truth for our young heroes that might never end.
Goodnight, Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian
It’s a touching story that brings tears to your eyes. Little William is sent away during the war to a little village to stay with widower Mr. Tom and his dog Sammy. William lived with his uncaring mother so he never knew love and Mr. Tom never wanted it. Together they care for each other and have many adventures.
Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome
Some twins go on their winter holidays to stay with some relatives on a island on the north cost of Wales. They make friends with the Swallows and Amazons, an amazing boat crew. They also learn the true meaning of friendship. Sink deep in to this classic tale and emerge all smiles for your own holidays with friends and family.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
This is a tale for more grownup children for here our main character is always an inch from death. Liesel always sees life and death fight a vigourous battle. She collects eleven books in total, some stolen, some given, each and every one of them has its story and each small story is part of her experience through pain and love. Our narrator is Death who has taken an interest in the young girl and encounters her three times. Hope you like it as much as I do!