Right now, I am snowed in. Philadelphia, and much of the United States, is under a “bomb cyclone,” some kind of wild term for a snowstorm. I admit, it’s pretty fun. My father was a high school English teacher, so whenever he would have off, my brother and I would have off, too. If we were dismissed from school early, we’d somehow manage to find each other (this was before cell phones could help us easily connect) and go to a local dive bar, The Boat House, where the other teachers would congregate. Then we’d head home through the snowy streets of suburban Philadelphia. I would probably already be deep into whatever book I was reading. I liked to read with the lights off knowing that the snow would give a boost of white light. Like any reader, I love snow because it is perfect reading weather. I’ve got snuggly reading socks, a comfy reading sweatshirt, warm leggings, and a house where my office looks out into the snow-covered forest behind our house. Now that I work from home (perk of being a freelancer!), I’m snowed in by default, but it’s fun when everyone is the house is home for the day, the cats watching outside.
Crucially, I also think these blizzard days are perfect for reading because snow is so important to literature. If you’re like me, you remember some of these snowy scenes from literature as your own memories. Snow is so epic, so extreme, so beautiful, and it’s no wonder that it continually inspires literature as old as time stretching at least as far back as the Norse myths. So today I found myself reflecting on how writers use snow in creative ways to enhance their stories, how snow and literature intersect, and so, this article includes books that are perfect to read while snowed in because they so effectively use winter, blizzards, storms, and frozen landscapes. You’ll see that the blank white expanse of snow can be interpreted and used many different ways as these authors demonstrate how versatile this weather can be. So get your coziest reading gear on and a mug of tea or hot cocoa so hot you can’t even hold it in your hands: these are the best books to read while snowed in. (Related: if you’re looking for more of the best books to read in snowstorms, check out my Broke By Books list of Blizzard Books: Best Books to Read in a Snowstorm.)
J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series
Snow comes up again and again in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. It’s impossible to remember the book or film series without picturing some snowy landscapes. I immediately think of the brilliant third book, Prisoner of Azkaban, and the amazing film adaptation byAlfonso Cuarón. I think of the Shrieking Shack coated in snow during the confrontation between Harry and Sirius. Set in Scotland, Hogwarts is up against the elements. Snow frequently descends upon the magical school of witchcraft and wizardry, forcing Harry, Ron, Hermione and their fellow students inside.
“Christmas was coming. One morning in mid-December, Hogwarts woke to find itself covered in several feet of snow. The lake froze solid and the Weasley twins were punished for bewitching several snowballs so that they followed Quirrell around, bouncing off the back of his turban.”
― J.K. Rowling,
The snowy white landscapes of snow also act as an ongoing metaphor for Harry’s innocence. Virginal, untouched, white snow is a reminder of what’s at stake when Harry, Ron, and Hermione leave the safety of their childhood behind and step into adult roles with the arrival of the new war. However much fun they have playing in the snow, getting into snowball fights, running around, and laughing, rosy-cheeked, through the ground of Hogwarts, or huddled over Butterbeer at the Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade… this momentary levity, like childhood, will soon melt away.
Even Harry and Hermione’s visit to snowy Godric Hollow on Christmas Eve is a brief encounter with beauty soon to be short lived, as the attack at Bathilda Bagshot would be a sobering reminder that happiness and peace were momentary.
By the end of the series and the defeat of Lord Voldemort, you’re rooting for Harry, Ron, and Hermione to finally get a lazy snow day in with no responsibilities, just some time to savor the beauty of a purifying snow.
Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day
When I was a kid, we had a major, record-breaking snowfall in the Philadelphia area, The Blizzard of 1996. It lasted for days, and the snow was packed up so high that my friends and brother and I were able to build tunnels and forts in the mountains of snow that blanketed the sidewalks. We would trek up through town and march through snow packed taller than us to reach the top of the hill on Swarthmore College’s campus. There, we would coast down what felt like a mountain, screaming with delight, staying out for hours until we collapsed at home in front of scalding hot chocolate, grilled cheese, and tomato soup, our Davis family traditional meal. Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day is a Caldecott award-winning picture book that captures how this experience, the joy, delight, and mystery of snow when you’re a kid, something that transforms your ordinary world into simply magic. Keats’ book follows a child, Peter, who explores his snow-coated Brooklyn neighborhood. The images remind me of Modernist art with beautiful, bold colors popping against the blank white canvas outside. The iconic landscapes were even made into stamps from the United States Postal Service.
The Snowy Day broke down barriers in publishing as the first full-color picture book to feature an African American protagonist. When I remember this book from my childhood from the seemingly millions and millions of times we checked it out of the library to gleefully reread it, I feel like it depicts my experience, too, and that of my friends and brothers, and other kids, and all kids, and everyone who has ever been a child who delights in wonder and beauty, who has ever wanted to both leave the snow be perfectly untouched and also dive in, crunch about, pack it in your hands in a lopsided snowball and toss it about.
George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire Series / HBO’s Game of Thrones
If you only know one thing about A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) / Game of Thrones it’s , “Winter is coming.” The motto of House Stark, the lords of the North in Westeros, this three-word phrase has burned into popular culture. It’s ominous but true. Whether you live in the sweltering heat of Arizona or the frozen tundra of the Arctic Circle, “winter” comes for us all. It’s death, hard times, depression, bad luck, failure… But that’s part of why “Winter is coming” resonates so deeply. The phrase has its roots in how Westeros experiences different seasonal cycles: spring will turn to summer, summer to autumn, autumn to winter, and then—eventually—winter will break. It’s not forever, but it is inevitable.
For the time period covered in the series, winter is descending upon the cast of characters in the ASOIAF books faster than ever. Jon Snow and the Night’s Watch see this when White Walkers, the creepy zombie monsters, are marching to invade the continent. Nothing will escape them, and they very well may defeat humanity once and for all. Jon Snow and his allies see this clearly, and having spent time north of The Wall, he understands the threat. The late Lord of Winterfell Ned Stark tried to teach Arya that the winter will bind their family closer than ever.
“Let me tell you something about wolves, child. When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives. Summer is the time for squabbles. In winter, we must protect one another, keep each other warm, share our strengths. So if you must hate, Arya, hate those who would truly do us harm. Septa Mordane is a good woman, and Sansa… Sansa is your sister. You may be as different as the sun and moon, but the same blood flows through both your hearts. You need her, as she needs you… and I need both of you, gods help me.”
In several snowy chapters and scenes, Jon is up against the suffocating cold that never leaves him and never lets him forget the imminent threat. Snow in Game of Thrones comes in blinding squalls, choking blizzards, and disorienting white outs broken up only by the telltale luminous blue eyes of the Army of the Dead. Winter is coming indeed.
Donna Tartt’s The Secret History
When I was brainstorming books for this list, my friend made a genius suggestion that I had overlooked, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, one of my all-time favorite novels. Set at a liberal arts college in New England, Richard Papen, a transfer student, becomes involved with a very tight-knit group of pretentious and brilliant students who study intensely with one charismatic Classics teacher. Snow comes up most memorably in two ways, and it starts with the opening line of the book. In the prologue, Richard describes the mounting unease and anxiety when a murder Richard and his friends are connected to goes unnoticed as an epic snowfall covers the body, preventing its detection.
“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”
― Donna Tartt,
For The Secret History, snow is ominous and deadly. It preserves their crime, suspending them in paranoia and guilt. Later, over winter break, Richard decides to stay in the area rather than go home to sunny California. He rents a spare, under-heated room from some hippie in town, which nearly kills him from combined with long walks in the brutal cold. Richard falls ill and barely escapes with his life.
Stephen King’s The Shining
Part of what makes Stephen King’s The Shining so damn effective is the way he uses snow. At the start of the novel, we meet Jack Torrance, a loose cannon of a man on his way to losing his mind. Jack takes a job as the winter caretaker for an historic hotel in Colorado. For Jack, this is a chance to start over from some recent friction in his work and also get some uninterrupted time to concentrate on finishing his novel. But as the winter progresses, Jack starts to unravel, especially as the snow layers inch by inch, foot by foot, enclosing him and his wife and young son in with inner and outer demons.
“Flakes of snow swirled and danced across the porch. The Overlook faced it as it had for nearly three-quarters of a century, its darkened windows now bearded with snow, indifferent to the fact it was now cut off from the world… Inside its shell the three of them went about their early evening routine, like microbes trapped in the intestine of a monster.”
― Stephen King,
The Shining brilliantly uses snow to build up the claustrophobia and isolation that causes Jack to lose his grip on reality. I read much of this novel in the spring and summer when it was hot and humid in Philadelphia, but the chill reaches through the page. Of course, the movie is just as good, though you have to see them as two different interpretations of the same story.
James Joyce’s “The Dead”
I read James Joyce’s “The Dead,” the final story in his “Dubliners” collection, in a philosophy elective I took during junior year of high school, and I have never forgotten it. Something about this short story moved me so much. The story a young man, Gabriel, and his wife, Gretta, during a party and back home. It’s snowing, and Gretta is melancholy and sad as it reminds her of a man she fell in love when she was younger and how she believes the snowy weather he trekked in to see her killed him. After Gretta falls asleep, Gabriel sits with this shocking revelation, a secret of his wife’s past he never knew about even though he thought he knew everything about her, and also about grief, memory, intimacy, and the existential duality of life and death.
“He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
― James Joyce,
Since this short story is relatively short, you can—and should—slip into it into your next snowed-in afternoon. I guarantee you it will knock the breath out of you like only the best works of literature can. (You can read this for online for free on many sites, such as The Literature Network)