Lights in the Dark: balancing honesty and optimism in The Ice House by Monica Sherwood

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I never set out to write a children’s book when I began drafting The Ice House.

In fact, when I was a kid, I hated anything marketed specifically toward children.  The whole concept seemed to suggest that because I was young, I couldn’t handle serious things, and I took myself incredibly (far too) seriously.

This aversion started with an abridged children’s edition of Little Women.

Looking back, it’s easy to see why I identified so strongly with Jo March.  She, too, took herself very seriously. In the March sisters’ attic, Jo brought great importance to the theatrics and games of make-believe she created with her sisters. The futures she imagined for them through the words she wrote were safe from the uncertainty of the world around her shaped by the American Civil War.

My edition of the book ended as Beth recovers from scarlet fever just in time for Father’s dramatic return home for Christmas from the front lines of the war; a heart-warming conclusion, as if Jo had written it herself.

Eventually, I discovered a heavy, leather-bound copy of the real book at my library. As I read beyond the Christmas that saw the March family joyfully reunited, I felt tricked. There was no happy ending for Beth.

My outrage at the idea that I was too young to be told the truth — like I couldn’t understand sadness — stuck with me. 

Years later, as a teacher with my own classroom, I recognized the same desire to be taken seriously in my students. Children witness and experience grief; many don’t have the option of avoiding it, so shielding them from reality always felt wrong.

In The Ice House, twelve-year-old Louisa’s life has been upended bythe Freeze, a dangerous global climate event that caused her grandmother’s death.  She’s been snowed-in to her apartment for months with her grieving mother, her annoying little brother, and her firefighter father, who is increasingly stressed by the Freeze’s treacherous conditions.  Her downstairs neighbor (and former friend) Luke is the only kid her age in the building, and when his dad is seriously injured, she’s forced to keep him company.

A mutual desperation to escape their scary new realities brings Louisa and Luke outside, where they build a massive snow fort in their yard.  In the ice house they share with each other what they want most: for Louisa’s mom to recover from her grief, and for Luke’s dad’s memory to return.  When they begin to see visions of their families happy and healed, they embark on a mission to stop the Freeze and bring about this better future they’ve envisioned.

I began writing the book four years ago, during a bleak, never-ending winter.  I knew that I wasn’t fulfilled at work, but I was afraid of taking a risk and changing paths. Writing was the only thing that gave me a sense of forward motion when I felt completely stuck.  Even if I was my only reader, the time I spent writing each night gave me a taste of the future I wanted.

In hindsight, I see the parallels between my own state of mind at the time and the importance of the ice house Louisa and Luke build — it’s a space where they can be honest with themselves about what they really want.  Like the March’s attic in Little Women, there’s safety in this place for them to dream.

When I was writing The Ice House, I strove to be as brave as Louisa, to believe in and work toward the future I envisioned despite the obstacles in my way. I wrote the hero I needed at the time; she just happened to be twelve. 

I ended up editing The Ice House at the height of the pandemic, when striking the right balance between honesty and optimism for young readers felt more important than ever. I wanted to be truthful to a generation of school-aged children witnessing collective global grief.

There is a certain weight to having The Ice House in any way associated with the pandemic when it was written before we could have ever imagined what was going to happen in 2020.  I do hope that the parallels in the story help to shine a light on what kids have endured since the pandemic began; those that clearly struggled, as well as those that seemed to thrive.  If someone recognizes their pandemic quarantine in Louisa and Luke’s experience, I hope it helps them realize they weren’t alone.

Every night at the height of the pandemic, I climbed up onto the roof of my apartment building and listened to my neighbors clanging pots and pans outside their windows to cheer on our front-line workers. I felt a sense of camaraderie; for those few minutes, we all wanted the same thing.  We were facing the unknown together.

So as I edited, I began to see more value in the determination Louisa and Luke share to restore their world to its natural order. As they grow to genuinely care for each other, they don’t just wish for a better future—they work toward accomplishing their mission together as partners.

And when they face the ultimate roadblock — the understanding there are some situations that can’t be fixed — it’s their friendship that keeps them inspired to work toward accomplishing the goals they can control. They can find hope in the midst of that bleakness.

The Ice House is a children’s book, but it doesn’t aim to shield its readers.  Louisa and Luke are not perfect kids, but like kids today, they’re living in a very chaotic world.  Their dedication to keep trying even though they aren’t sure of what comes ahead demonstrates a quality that’s more important now than ever.  Because sometimes we all need a reminder that trying, caring, and hoping is brave, and that friendship is a power that should never be underestimated.

Monica Sherwood taught public school in New York and now helps design tech products for children and teachers. This is her first novel. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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