Cold Hands, Warm Heart: Waiting for Unicorns Review

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Who doesn’t love a unicorn myth? Author Beth Hautala weaves folklore about unicorns, whales, and specifically narwhals (the unicorns of the sea) into a gentle and lovely story about a father and daughter coming through grief in northern Manitoba. This is the kind of book we would have referred to as a “Vikki book” at The Flying Dragon, so it is fitting that I make my much belated return to blogging with this middle grade gem.

Twelve year old Talia is not pleased about accompanying her whale-researcher father to Churchill, Manitoba. Their relationship has been strained since the death of her mother and everything about the isolated northern city is cold and unfamiliar to her. But slowly Talia starts to let people in, like Sura, who is hosting Talia and her father, an ornithologist referred to as The Birdman (not to be confused with the title-character in the Michael Keaton film), and his charming grandson Simon.

Much of the book is about Talia holding onto the memory of her mother, Katherine. She was the kind of person who believed in magic and made life bright and fun. Talia is desperate for stories about her mother, which Sura is happy to provide. This information and a few choice flashbacks sprinkled throughout the narrative make it achingly clear what Talia has lost. But this book is also about forging new relationships. Her father isn’t so much distant as grief-stricken. Talia and her father were never as close as she was with her mother, but they both yearn to connect and when they do it is extremely satisfying for the reader. Sura seems gruff at first but is patient with Talia and wins her over in part with pancakes and some truly delicious-sounding hot chocolate. And then there’s Simon the Guitar Boy, a preternaturally wise and positive influence on Talia. In other words, exactly the kind of friend/crush she needs. In many ways this book is about the power and importance of wishing, a not-so-distant cousin of hope. This keeps the book buoyant, and despite some truly aching moments, the book never becomes unbearably heavy.

There are a lot of lovely details in this book that straddle the line between whimsical and earthy, which is possibly my favourite line in children’s fiction, and one not easy to straddle effectively.  A particularly effective visual metaphor in the book is the jar of wishes that Talia keeps under her bed. I also loved the ‘unicorn of the sea’ imagery and the little tidbits of natural history, wildlife, and conservation which pervade the book and give a excellent sense of place. Canadian readers will especially love how Hautala represents one of our more Northern communities. The conservation angle and the setting are part of what sets Waiting for Unicorns apart from the crowd.

Fans of Counting by 7s, After Iris or The Secret Hum of a Daisy will appreciate this gentle and reassuring story about life after loss, set in a refreshingly unique location.

Waiting for Unicorns is available now in hardcover from Penguin Canada.

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