Matt Tavares used the snow outside his Ogunquit home as inspiration for of his new children’s book “Dasher.” Photo courtesy of Candlewick Press, Inc

Every time there’s a snowstorm, Matt Tavares walks out his back door in Ogunquit and takes pictures to share with the world.

Not that he posts them on Facebook or Twitter or anything like that. He uses those images to bring an icy beauty and frozen authenticity to his children’s picture books. His latest, “Dasher,” came out in September and has made the New York Times children’s best-sellers list. The book tells the story of how Santa’s reindeer came to be. Besides using the look of Maine’s snowdrifts and icicles to shape his “Dasher” drawings, Tavares says Maine winters also inspire him to do some of his best work.

“I do a lot of my writing during the winter. I find winter in Maine is a good time to clear your mind and really focus on your story,” said Tavares. “I take walks in winter to picture the story in mind. I find it inspiring.”

Maine author Bill Roorbach says the Maine winter is essentially a character in “The Remedy for Love.” Photo by Sarah Sloane

Maine’s long, beautiful and isolating winters play a major role in the works of many Maine authors, both as setting and inspiration. Some are children’s books, like “Dasher,” where the state’s landscape is the model for a universal winter wonderland, or a setting for Christmas and holiday stories. But there are also novels where the power of Maine’s winter intensifies the story, whether it’s a mystery, romance or other human drama.

“The challenge of creating a Maine winter in fiction is finding all the elements that make it especially challenging, especially wonderful, especially deadly,” said Maine author Bill Roorbach, whose 2014 novel “The Remedy for Love” is set in a blizzard. “I do think beauty is at the top of that list. How could anything so gorgeous be deadly?”

PICTURE THIS

Children’s authors often find fertile ground in Maine’s winters. There’s the stark beauty of snow and ice mixed with the picturesque natural scenery and quaint small-town scenes found all over the state. There are some classic Christmas books featuring Maine ideas and images, like “Christmas in Maine” by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Robert P. Tristram Coffin, first published in 1941. It’s a nostalgic and charming look at a Maine farmhouse crammed with family, food and fun, and includes a wintry sleigh ride. A picture book for all ages, it was republished by Islandport Press in 2015 with original woodblock prints by Maine artist Blue Butterfield.

“My Wonderful Christmas Tree” by noted Maine artist Dahlov Ipcar is another long-loved children’s book inspired by a Maine winter. First published in 1986, it features images of nature that Ipcar could see from the window of her home in Georgetown.

Maine author Lynn Plourde wrote about local winter woodland animals in her new children’s book “If I Could Give You Christmas.” Image courtesy of Disney-Hyperion

Winthrop author Lynn Plourde has set seven of her 35 children’s books in winter, including “If I Could Give You Christmas,” which came out in September and was illustrated by Jennifer L. Meyer. The book is about the small meaningful moments of the holiday season, like spending time together, embodied by Maine’s winter woodland creatures, including moose, deer, otters, lynx, fox and squirrels.

Plourde, who has been writing children’s books for more than 20 years, says using a Maine winter as a setting has broad appeal. When people idealize winter they think of the kind of winters we have in Maine, trees frosted with a thick coating of snow, kids making snowmen, long icicles hanging from the roof. They don’t think of, say, a mid-Atlantic winter, where people use umbrellas in snowstorms and two inches of accumulation can cause miles of traffic tie-ups.

Plus, there’s something comforting about the idea of the kind of long winter days Mainers endure.

“People say the evenings are so long, but I say, ‘Oh, it’s a nice long evening for reading or writing,’ ” said Plourde, a Maine native. “And it’s beautiful here in the winter, a different kind of beauty.”

Tavares grew up near Boston and came to Ogunquit during summers. So he didn’t really experience a Maine winter until he went to Bates College in Lewiston, where he studied art. Since graduating more than 20 years ago, he’s illustrated 20 children’s books, half of which he wrote. His 2017 bestseller, “Red and Lulu,” also had wintry elements, like snow and towering evergreens. It is the story of two birds who become separated when their evergreen is cut down and taken to a big city to be used as part of the holiday decorations.

Ogunquit author Matt Tavares used his own backyard views of winter for his new picture book “Dasher.” Photo courtesy of Matt Tavares

Tavares began “Dasher” because his editor thought a holiday-themed book with wintry images would catch people’s eye. He researched the written history of Santa Claus and decided to make Dasher and the other reindeer a family, who are part of a traveling circus before they meet Santa. Then he started sketching, using his backyard snow pictures and scenes around Ogunquit as models. He even used a picture of the Ogunquit shoreline taken from a drone. In the book, there’s a scene where Santa and his sleigh are flying over a town. Below, the reader can see hotels and church steeples and the general shape of the Ogunquit’s shoreline, covered in snow.

“I love painting and drawing new-fallen snow,” said Tavares.

A NOVEL APPROACH TO WINTER

Novelists say a Maine winter helps shape their stories in unique and surprising ways.

“I like the way setting a story in a storm limits the size of the stage for the characters, it limits movements and presents challenges,” said author Lewis Robinson of Portland, whose 2009 novel “Water Dogs” is set in a Maine snowstorm. “The quiet serenity of a snowstorm can sharpen focus on the interior action.”

Robinson says he does his best work in winter, finding he “can’t write that well in summer” with all the distractions. “Water Dogs” is about two Maine brothers in their 20s who’ve lost their father, dealt with a variety of personal issues and economic challenges, and love paintball. During a paintball game in a snowstorm, a rival goes missing. A mystery ensues.

Photo courtesy of Random House

Anthony Doerr, who has since won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2014 novel “All the Light We Cannot See,” reviewed Robinson’s book for the New York Times and was extremely enamored of the descriptions of snow. “Open practically any page of this book and crystals will shake out,” wrote Doerr, who knows something about Maine winters, having graduated from Bowdoin College in Brunswick in 1995.

Robinson said he set the book in a March snowstorm because that’s something unique to Maine and evocative to Mainers.

“Just when the rest of the country is warming up, we get hit with another storm,” said Robinson. “No matter how many times we’ve been through this (in Maine), we still think spring is going to come early some year.”

Midcoast author Paul Doiron set his 2016 mystery “Widow-Maker” at a fictional western Maine ski resort. He had written about “hardcore, bone-chilling Maine winters” before, with sled dogs and snowmobiles and such. But “Widow-Maker” delves into the culture of winter in Maine, especially areas that rely on winter tourists for economic stability, and other places that are practically empty after summer tourists leave.  The story involves game warden Mike Bowditch investigating a woman’s disappearance, which leads to him exploring his own past and inner demons. With the foreboding winter landscape and mountains all around.

“Trying to describe what Maine is like in winter, after millions of visitors have left, struck me as an interesting challenge,” said Doiron.

Roorbach, who splits his time between Farmington and Scarborough, said he set “The Remedy for Love” during a Maine winter because “there’s no winter like a Maine winter. Cold, for sure, and isolated, but so charged with the energy of blue skies that we forget there are miles to go. ”

Photo courtesy of Algonquin Books

The book’s story is about a man and a woman who meet at the grocery store, just before a “storm of the century” type blizzard is about to pound western Maine. The man helps the woman get food and firewood for the rustic cabin she’s living in, but after his car disappears, he becomes stranded with her as the storm rages. Roorbach said his idea was to put two dissimilar individuals together in an emergency and see if they fall in love.

The storm provides beauty, drama and, of course, the excuse for the pair spending so much time together.

“And then the sun sets. Oh, how pretty, and then the power goes off. Oh, how romantic. And then the emergency continues, day one, day two, day three, a week, 10 days,” said Roorbach. “The joy, of course, is allowing Maine itself to become a character, and winter a mood.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.