Friday, October 14, 2011

Fireside Stories

As the nights grow longer, there’s nothing better than sitting by the fire or gathering by lamplight to read aloud a spellbinding story. You and your children will find it hard to break away from Icefall by Matthew J. Kirby.

As you know, I’m a big believer in reading aloud as a family, well past the time your children can read independently. In the same way that we gravitate to book clubs, to talk about books we’re interested in reading, a book read aloud together as a family allows everyone in the family to participate in a shared experience and discussion, no matter what their reading ability. On top of that, the power of a great story read aloud is hypnotic. You lose all sense of time in the present as you become fully swept up in the world of the story. That is what will happen to you and your listeners when you read Icefall.

Suddenly you find yourselves in an icelocked land where the children of a king must hide out under the protection of berserkers—barely civilized men who wear animal skins and literally go berserk when they begin to fight. The world of young Solveig, who narrates, her older sister, Asa, and her younger brother Harald, heir to the throne, has contracted dramatically. The waterways are freezing over and their food supplies are dwindling. All they have for entertainment are the fireside stories of Alric the skald—the king’s storyteller.

With his stories, Alric lifts their spirits and imparts wisdom—and sometimes warnings. After some of the berserkers are poisoned, and nearly everyone becomes suspect, only the stories give them a semblance of order. Solveig believes that, unlike her siblings, she has nothing to offer. Asa has her beauty, which can help her father to build an alliance with another kingdom by her marriage, and Harald will succeed their father as king. But Alric recognizes in Solveig the key gifts for a great storyteller: memory and sight. He helps her to see that she possesses an intuitive sense of people and a keen perception of situations. He plants a seed in her that she, too, could make a great skald, and is bent on helping her prove it to herself.

The book works on many levels: as an adventure and a window into another time and place, as a mystery, and in a subtler way, as a guide to what makes a good story. And finally, what are the attributes of a great storyteller? We discover these along with Solveig. Not every book makes a superior story to be read aloud; this one does. As Alric and Solveig weave their tales to entertain, teach, and cheer their audience, we see what power story has over others—ourselves included. Matthew Kirby lets us into the secrets of a storyteller’s bag of tricks, even as he uses them himself to enchant us.

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