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I’ve been reading Peter Leithart on the subject of time, first (as I reported in my previous column) in his just-published book Creator: A Theological Interpretation of Genesis 1 and now in a book issued earlier this year, I Respond, Though I Shall Be Changed: Essays on the Thought of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy. A passage in the latter (for no obvious reason except for the governing subject) suddenly brought to mind a memory I can’t date with precision: the first occasion when, during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, I felt a sense of awe at the thought that one “year” was about to end and a new one was about to begin. I would guess that I was about five years old at the time, but that’s not important. Over the decades since then (I turned 75 in June), I’ve often felt that emotion during the last week of this or that year.

Thanks to Peter Leithart’s inspiration, I am devoting this last column of 2023 to something old—William Steig’s When Everybody Wore a Hat, published twenty years ago—and something new—Taras & Marjana Prokhasko’s Who Will Make the Snow?

Some churlish readers may object that a book published in 2003 hardly counts as “old.” You’ll have to imagine my response—“unprintable,” as they used to say in days of yore. William Steig (1907–2003) was best-known as a cartoonist (during the decades when Wendy and I went through The New Yorker together each week, he was among our favorites) and for his children’s books (we have many of them, well-thumbed from multiple readings, on our shelves). Among the best-known are Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, Doctor De Soto, and Shrek! But he also wrote many others. He was a complicated character.

When Everybody Wore a Hat is one of our favorites among his books, a tiny “memoir” in the form of a children’s book. Before the text proper begins, there is a direct address from the author to the reader:

In 1916, when I was eight years old, there were almost no electric lights, cars or telephones—and definitely no TV. Even fire engines were pulled by horses. Kids went to LIBRARIES for books. There were lots of immigrants. 
This is me, climbing a tree in the Bronx [here Steig is referring to the photo on the facing page], where I spent most of my childhood.

Funny (sometimes grotesquely so), bittersweet, with memories unvarnished yet serenely recalled and brought to life, it is a marvel: I’ve lost track of how many times we’ve read it over the years. Above all—returning to the theme of “time”—it gives us a salutary sense of the “pastness” of the past for its own sake, not to buttress any argument.

Who Will Make the Snow? is entirely different. I hadn’t previously read anything by the Ukrainian writer Taras Prokhasko, who in addition to writing fiction and other projects has collaborated with his wife, Marjana, on several children’s books, including this one, first published in Ukrainian in 2013. I ordered it because it was translated by Boris Dralyuk and Jennifer Croft, two writers (who are also a married couple) whose work I admire. I ordered it as soon as I learned about it, and received it when it was published in mid-December. Wendy and I both love it; it immediately claimed a place on our shelf of favorites.

This is an unusual book, and not only in the quality of its imagination. It runs to 79 good-sized pages, and while it’s loaded with gorgeous and witty illustrations, the text is ample too. It is a family saga—in this case, the winsome tale of a large family of moles—and it proceeds with a zany confidence that the reader will enjoy the ride, not straining over details of “world-building.”

Of course it matters that this book is reaching us just now, ten years after it was first published in Lviv—now, when Ukrainians are engaged in a brutal war against Russian invaders, with no end in sight. In a way, for Ukrainians, the world of 2013, not at all untroubled but nothing like the present, is at least as remote as Steig’s re-created world of an immigrant family in the Bronx is from us today. And yet that is all the more reason to treasure Who Will Make the Snow? Many thanks to the publisher, Elsewhere Editions, and the translators, and above all to Taras and Marjana Prokhasko.

And so we are about to begin (together, willy-nilly) a new year, 2024. May God bless us all.

John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books

Image by George Chernilevsky licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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