From Small Things

Grace and the Ice Prince

By Anne Chudobiak

Published on July 1, 2007

Grace And The Ice Prince
J. L. Scharf

Thistledown Press
$16.95
paper
224pp
1-897235-09-7

Joyce Scharf used to make up bedtime stories for her now teenaged daughter, Grace. “Coming up with a new story every night was pretty taxing,” she says. Scharf didn’t know that those fairytales would one day form the basis of her first novel, Grace and the Ice Prince. If she had, she would have taken some notes. “Some of them were doozies,” she says from the garden of her Montreal West home. “There had to be some kind of animal involved, there had to be a monster or a bad person threatening the world, and Grace had to come up with the solution to save the day. Or, at least I had to.”

When Scharf finally did put pen to paper, it was in the spirit of fun. “I just wanted a creative exercise,” says the first-time author, who runs a home-based advertising agency with her husband.

Compared to the restrictions of writing ad copy, writing fiction seemed “totally indulgent. I remember sitting at my keyboard thinking, ‘Okay, what am I going to write?’ and not knowing.” Then Scharf remembered the fantasy world that she’d already created for her eldest daughter. For those stories, she’d drawn inspiration from two main sources: the fairytales that she’d enjoyed as a child (Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm); and the beauty and destruction of Quebec’s 1998 ice storm. “I just kind of put the two together,” she says.

The result was an improvised series of adventures revolving around a fictional Grace, an otherwise normal girl who is summoned away from her nice home on a busy boulevard to save the distant Ice World from impending peril.

“There are pieces of my Grace in this Grace,” says Scharf, “but she is an individual character.”

Scharf based the house and garden in the story on her former home on West Broadway Street in Montreal West. The difficult part was creating the new world. “There’s a lot of responsibility that goes along with that. It’s almost anthropological.” In the Ice World, there are no colours. “Black, white, clear, silver, that’s it.” Food is prepared without heat. Magic is rampant.

Scharf was surprised to realize what a wealth of material the bedtime stories presented in written form. “After about a hundred pages, I realized, ‘This is not a creative exercise any more.'” She invited friends and family to weigh in on her work in progress, which reprised the characters from the imaginary world she’d created for her daughter: Ice Prince Owyn, Princess Farren and Percival the Dragon. “The response was overwhelmingly, ‘Where’s the rest?’ And that’s when I realized I was writing a book. And so then I just plunged into it.”

After some mild interest and encouraging words from a New York publisher, the book received 25 rejections before being picked up by Saskatchewan’s Thistledown Press. Editor R. P. MacIntyre worked with Scharf to “grow [the book up]” to appeal to nine- to 12-year-olds. “Because I’d written it for an eight-year-old market,” Scharf states. “That’s a very different kind of book. I just had to really rack my brain and take the story that I’d originally conceived and just make it more rounded, add more culture to it, give it more meaning.”

She also made some changes to the book’s structure. “The double narrative where you have [Ice Princess] Farren telling the story of the diamond heart as Grace is travelling [its] trail, that was brought out of working with the editor.” The whole process taught Scharf that when writing for children, “there have got be highs and lows, and they have to happen fairly quickly. You want the right mix of tension and relief.”

Scharf can rest assured that she got the mix right. The book, which came out last October, sold out its first printing by March. It’s now in its second run and was recently released in the United States as well. “It really has been a dream come true,” says Scharf, who enjoys meeting with her readers at schools, libraries, and book clubs. They know the book better than I do.”

And their parents like it, too. They appreciate the book’s theme of self-esteem and the message that good deeds will be rewarded. When the character Grace is called upon to help the Ice World, she is initially reluctant. She doesn’t realize that in helping others, she herself will grow. When she finally agrees to travel to the Ice World, she isn’t motivated by concern for its residents, but for her parents, who have fallen into a deep, impenetrable sleep after magical interference from unknown forces.

Although Scharf infuses her stories with moral lessons, she is careful not to talk down to her readers. “There’s some pretty sophisticated language in there,” she notes. More advanced readers who are already well-versed in ‘castle speak’ should enjoy vivid and precise descriptions like this: “Whistling gears announced the rising portcullis and the lowering drawbridge as Grace and her escort rode through the gatehouse and over the moat.”

Not surprisingly, the book also reads well as a bedtime story, which is a particularly good option for younger – or less confident – readers, who aren’t yet comfortable reading chapter books on their own. Scharf and her husband read the book aloud to their 10-year-old daughter Lily, who missed the stories the first time around.

Scharf hopes that boy readers will not be deterred by the fact that the main character is a girl. “There’s enough boy stuff in it,” she affirms, citing some of the book’s funnier characters, including an out-of-shape dragon, and an obsolete order of knights who are desperate for a damsel in distress to save.

A lot of the book’s humour – and there is a lot of humour – arises from playing with fairy-tale conventions. For most of the book, the down-to-earth heroine, who is charged with delivering an entire kingdom from danger, is wearing a puffy yellow jacket with black snow pants that are too babyish for her 12 years. She looks slightly ridiculous, even in her own world. Scharf says that when she gives readings she’s pleased to see just how much the kids relate to the funnier parts.

“One of the questions that I always get is, ‘And when is the movie coming out?'” she comments of her young readers. “Well, it’s going to have to sell a whole lot of copies.”

In the meantime she is at work on book two of what will eventually become a trilogy. “There’s a lot of back story that I’ve created that’s not here, that will come to fruition in the second book and then be resolved by the third.”

She warns, though, that the next book will be quite a bit darker. “You see a very pristine side of the Ice World in this book. [The next one] will continue with Grace and she’ll be six months older. And instead of it being winter when she is summoned, it’ll be summer. So there’s a whole dynamic there.”

As with the ice storm, where beauty went hand in hand with destruction, so Scharf “will bring in that other side, the dark side,” into the sequel. “Now I’ve really said too much,” she notes with a grin. mRb

Anne Chudobiak is a Montreal writer, translator and editor.

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