The Twistrose Key: A Magical Gift for Christmas (or any time!)

I love giving book recommendations. When people tell me they want book suggestions for friends or family members, I generally ask a few questions and see if I can’t point them in the right direction. For the past several months, the one book I have recommended to almost everyone is an enchanted snowglobe of a tale that is perfect as we head into December. The Twistrose Key is an enchanting, lyric novel, by Norwegian author Tone Almhjell, who weaves a spell of snow, song, and sensory magic to create a story unlike any other, yet still achingly, hauntingly familiar. In addition to creating an absolutely amazing novel, Almhjell is a generous, delightful person who graciously agreed to an email interview despite a looming deadline for her next book. Slip on your mittens, pull your wooly cap down tight, and hang on to the reins; after the jump, we’re off on a magical sleigh ride to get to know this warm-hearted author and her snow-dusted story.

When Lin Rosenquist enters the frozen, night-time world of Sylver, she takes readers with her on an evocative journey that is both a gripping adventure and a bittersweet gift for anyone who has ever loved a pet, watched frost form on glass, or wondered what was at the back of a song. C.S. Lewis argued that any children’s story that could only be read and enjoyed by children is a bad children’s story, but The Twistrose Key is a very good children’s story, for anyone who is a child currently or ever was one. With the rich imagery of a fairy tale, compelling and fascinating characters, and surprising twists that make Sylver a remarkable place anyone will want to explore, The Twistrose Key is one of those novels that will weave itself into a reader’s dreams and tempt one to curl up with a big cup of cocoa, a warm fire, and the story of Lin, her friend Rufus, and a world of snow sparkling in starlight.

The first time I read the novel, I knew it was something remarkable, a story that takes us to a world that, like Narnia or Hogwarts, is a place we long to visit. I could not imagine that the author is equally as welcoming as her beautiful creation. Yet, when I sent a note to Tone Almhjell, telling her how much I enjoyed the book and how happy I was to recommend it to others, she was kind enough to reply and to agree to answer my many questions; so it is my great honor to introduce many of our HogPro readers to both this enchanting book and its remarkable author. If you have already read The Twistrose Key, I know you’ll enjoy learning more about the ingredients that are in its recipe. If you have not yet made your first trip to Sylver, I hope that getting to know its creator will be an invitation as irresistible as snow-angel snow or a big plate of warm waffles.

I had planned to work Almhjell’s interview answers into the post with my own analysis, but her words were so perfect that I couldn’t really tinker with them (though I would love to insert a host of parenthetical cheers as she tells us so much about the book that we might have guessed!), so I’ve just edited lightly.

Now, without further ado, our Hogwarts Professor interview with Tone Almhjell, whose words are in bold!

1. In The Twistrose Key, you beautifully weave together elements from actual folk songs and tales and from ones you have crafted. What are your favorite folk songs and stories? Have those favorites changed from when you were a child, through the processes of growing up, having your own family, and creating Lin’s story?

I grew up with a lovely mix of Norwegian fairy tales, H.C. Andersen, and Grimm. Trolls, flying ships, sea wraiths, and glass coffins in the woods – they all had a place in my imaginary landscape. So much so that I wrote my first fairy tale at the age of five: a tragedy about dying children and a man who turned into a bear. Thank goodness it was the seventies, so no one worried too much about where this all came from, ha ha. The truth was I had a happy childhood with plenty of room for my vivid imagination and plenty of books to feed it. As for folk songs, our house was always filled with music. Our favorites were the mournful Scandinavian tunes in minor key; a love I think is reflected in my brother’s music to The Margrave’s Song.

2. Although writing the novel spanned seven years, were there images or impressions that had been with you long before then? Reading The Twistrose Key, I often find myself reminded of C.S. Lewis’s images of a queen on a sledge and a faun carrying packages, images that had been with him since childhood and which found their way into The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. You’ve shared that some of the episodes, like the harrowing sleigh ride, were inspired by your own childhood, but are there other images that haunted you until they made it into the story?

Oh yes, so many! The Twistrose Key began as an advent calendar that I wrote for my sister, twenty-four chapters glued into a scrapbook. And it was filled with a thousand references to our lives, our childhood, our beloved pets, our world. From there, the story grew into a proper dark and complicated fantasy, but you can still find many of those seeds: All the animals (even though the bear is inspired by a teddy bear, not a real one), all the landscapes. The beautiful Clariselyn looks like my sister’s favorite doll. The wind coming out of the darkness on the Cracklemoor feels like the wind that shook our small town all winter long. Most of these seeds are from Norway, but not all. I had the idea to the Observatory inside Sacré-Coeur in Paris.

3. The novel is delightfully illustrated, so are the images used in the novel’s artwork reflective of those in your mind?

I would say so. Ian Schoenherr did a marvelous job creating a Scandinavian, magical feel. I can’t draw, but since so much of the story is inspired by real places, I could send him photos, which he then used to create something entirely new, but still perfect. I love the wood cutting beauty of the chapter headers, and I just adore the covers.
4. The novel is so lyric, and the language so hypnotic, that it is a fantastic choice for a read-aloud. I am currently reading it with my seven-year-old, who is as enchanted as I expected her to be. I was curious if Almhjell had read the novel aloud to her family and asked if they ever made suggestions to the novel in the draft process or asked questions that led to changes.

I could not have written this novel without my brother and sister. I’m sure they read every word on every page. But the reading aloud I did very late in the process, and only to myself, to listen for parts where the rhythm faltered. I can’t wait to read the story to my children, though. They’re just two and five yet, so it will be a few years still.
5. Food is a powerful theme running through the novel. Are there plans for a Sylver cookbook? Do you find eating certain foods to be inspirational?

Oh, that would be a lovely idea! I am so happy my love for eating shines through. All the food in The Twistrose Key is taken from my family’s traditions. The waffles my grandmother used to serve on the last day of our summer vacation, my mother’s bacalao, a staple from our hometown on the western coast, the rice pudding, and definitely the sweet buns – the highlight of any cold Norwegian day. And I agree that I’ve made it a theme of my story. In addition to lending texture to a dreamed-up world, food is a powerful bearer of culture and community, a breaker of ice, and an offering of love and friendship. Also, in the spirit of writing what you love: I just adore waffles!

6. The language and the names in the novel are very evocative. What language(s) do you use when you compose? Are there words or phrases that you prefer in one language or another, or that “lost something in translation”?

The Twistrose Key began its life in Norwegian. But I switched to English in the middle of the process, and huge chunks of it were written originally in English, as is my entire new novel. It will be quite a job to translate it into Norwegian later! But I’m so lucky to able to use the best of both languages when I write. For me, writing begins with words, with voice. A paragraph or a word springs to life, and the story sprouts from there.

7. This is a story that has such an incredible sensory and emotional appeal that, if it is adapted as a film or otherwise embraced with media, it will undoubtedly be hugely popular, but we all know that those adaptations sometimes mangle beautiful stories, losing their symbolic weight or their artistry and structure. What are your thoughts about films, picture books, etc? (I am first in line for the Lin doll with stuffed Rufus, I confess!)?

Thank you for those kind words! When I write I envision each scene playing out like a movie, so of course an adaptation would be very exciting. I have always loved all kinds of story-telling: films, graphic novels, picture books, TV-series, computer games, and of course my favorite: novels. To me they are all gates to fantastical new worlds, and I would never not step through such a gate when it has adventure to offer.

I agree that when a story is transposed from one medium to another, layers and complexity can be found lacking or lost. But I think the creators have to re-imagine the story to tell it in such a way that makes use of their medium’s strengths. I do of course suppose, then, that those creators are able to identify the story’s themes and nerve and heart. They need to feel what makes a first meeting magical, or a dream scary. What makes a winter world inviting, yet dangerous. Sparkly and colorful, yet dark.

And yes, I would love a little pocket Rufus, too!

Since Almhjell is just wrapping up her next project, I also asked what she could tell us about it and about her family’s input, as they are so integral to The Twistrose Key.

You’re right, I’m not allowed to share just yet. I wish I could! Just this month I turned in the first draft to my editor Lauri Hornik, so my mind and heart are full of this story. But what I can tell you is that you will meet someone you have almost met before, and you will visit a place you nearly know. It won’t be Lin and Rufus, and it won’t be Sylver, and it won’t be winter, and you won’t have to have read The Twistrose Key in order to enjoy it. But there will be magic. Magic and nightmares and more than one rune…

As always, my siblings are involved in the process. I’m not putting them through all versions of each chapter this time, but I certainly rely on their eyes and ability to make sense of my chaos.

Whether Almhjell’s siblings want to read every draft or not, I know I, and many other readers, are as eager for the new book as we are for some of those waffles!

Stay tuned for more Twistrose analysis here, including some thoughts on time, ring composition, and alchemy. In the meantime, make sure you read this lovely book, and make sure it’s in at least one stocking hanging by your fireplace!


  1. This sounds lovely! Can you give me a sense of how young of a child it would be appropriate for? Thank you for the recommendation!

  2. The reading level is middle school, but the story is perfectly appropriate for a much younger reader. I am reading aloud to my seven-year-old daughter who loves it! Enjoy!

  3. Thanks again for this recommendation. I bought it for my 10 year old for Christmas and she loved it. She was insistent that I read it, so I ended up reading it aloud to her and 4 of her siblings (age 3-12). We all really enjoyed it. What a great story!

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