A Wonder and a Mystery: Jenny Nimmo on Writing The Snow Spider

Posted on 22nd November 2016 by Sally Campbell
Our Children's Book of the Month for November is the spellbinding children’s classic, The Snow Spider by Jenny Nimmo. Set in twentieth century Wales, the tale is as much a love letter to the Welsh countryside as it is to Welsh mythology. It tells the story of a young boy, Gwyn, who receives five mysterious birthday gifts that reveal to him his latent magical powers; on realising he can enter another, mystical realm he goes in search of his missing sister, Bethan. A touching and heart-warming tale, it is the perfect wintry children’s read. 

In the thirty years since the book’s publication, The Snow Spider has been a perennial children’s favourite. Jenny Nimmo reflects on the continuing popularity of the book, written some thirty years ago whilest living with her family in remotest Wales.

How The Snow Spider has managed to survive and to be loved for thirty years is still a wonder and a mystery to me. To explain its success I can only revisit the elements that inspired the book. The very first hint of an idea crept into my head when I worked with the Welsh actor, Ray Smith. I was to adapt a Welsh myth, ‘Culwch and Olwen’ for a children’s TV programme. Ray would be the presenter/narrator. He was passionate about his culture and would ring me, sometimes late at night, to remind me of a small detail that I must on no account omit.

At Ray’s insistence I read almost all of the Mabinogion (a famous collection of Welsh myths) and it was in, ‘Math, son of Mathonwy’ that I found Gwydion, a magician who conjured a ship out of seaweed. Gwydion lay at the back of my mind for a long time, and then, at a Publisher’s party in Fleet Street, an artist sang to me in Welsh. We were eventually married and left London for Wales and the converted watermill my husband had inherited.

We had three children and lived ‘on the edge’. One winter the snow was so deep we couldn’t get out for days. I began to understand and admire the lives of hill farmers. At school our children studied in Welsh and were soon speaking the language fluently. Their friends were nearly all farmers’ children.

Gwydion was still on my mind and I realized that I now lived in his land in a countryside that probably hadn’t changed for centuries. A friend sent me On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin. I thought his short, beautiful sentences somehow echoed the Welsh language, and I now knew how I wanted to write about Gwydion. Chatwin’s voice was in my head when I began to work. 

I decided that the book would be about a farmer’s son who, on his ninth birthday, discovers he is descended from Gwydion, the magician, and has inherited his power. The story would be for my children. My son wanted a space-ship to feature, so I put Gwydion’s galleon in the sky. I used some of the objects in the myth, others I invented. The work began to take shape, but something was missing. One frosty day, when I was taking my children to the school bus-stop, we began to walk through strings of shining gossamer, and there, nestling in the hedgerows were tiny cobwebs sparkling like holograms. ‘Magical!’ said my children. I had found my snow spider.

When my wonderful agent, Gina Pollinger, rang to tell me that The Snow Spider had been short-listed for the Smarties Prize, I could hardly believe it. On prize-giving day, my husband and I set off to catch an early train to London. We found the fare was far more expensive than we expected, and we didn’t have the money. I used a credit card and sat on the train wondering how I was going to pay it off. At the ceremony, when I heard that I had won the thousand pounds for winning my category I was almost as relieved as I was thrilled. But people in the audience kept prodding me and whispering, ‘Go on!’ I just wanted to be left alone to let my win sink in. And then someone said, ‘Jenny, get on that stage, The Snow Spider has won the Grand Prix.’



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