The Ice Dragon by George R.R. Martin
The Ice Dragon visits young Adara every winter near her birthday. The beast offers a chilly magnificence like no other creature. Adara does not fear the creature though, for she has felt the cold many times before.
A lonely child, Adara lost her mother in the rigors of her birth. Her father loves his daughter but struggles to connect with her, finding her too somber and a cruel memory of his wife's passing. It is this loneliness that forces Adara to embrace the winter. After meeting the ice dragon, they begin to ride in secret.
George R.R. Martin's only children's book owes much to the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and other early children's writers who tackled dark thematic material in their fantasy worlds, even down to its more antiquated writing style. The Ice Dragon almost reads like a fable that has been passed down through generations.
The very fact that Martin has written for children may be surprising to those who have read his highly popular Song of Ice and Fire series or watched its masterful HBO adaptation Game of Thrones. Both works are chock full of adult content, and yet it appears that Martin wrote this children's story in 1980, over a decade before he began working on his magnum opus. Here we see that he already was playing with the idea of a land where increasingly long winters have taken hold and made harsh lives even harsher.
The book pulls few punches as an encroaching war takes its toll on Adara's family and village, forcing the girl and her friend to take action. Martin's tale is not for every reader, much less every child, but it is a fascinating document in seeing how parts of his more famous work emerged.
There are a couple children's books similar to The Ice Dragon in terms of theme and writing style. First there is The Iron Giant, about a boy who meets an alien robot. The book succeeds in its similar approach at telling a fairy tale to modern readers. The book is slightly surreal and different than the animated movie adaptation, but both are fantastic.
Another recommendation is Odd and the Frost Giants, by Neil Gaiman. A Norwegian boy teams up with the Norse gods Loki, Thor, and Odin—each trapped in animal form. The group journeys through a harsh wintry landscape to stop the Frost Giants who have driven the gods from their home. The book offers more humor and might be even more accessible to the average reader than Martin's story.
The Ice Dragon is a bit of a curiousity for fans of fairy tales and fantasy. I would love to see Martin write more children's stories just to see how he has developed as a writer. Whether this will happen depends on him finishing his quite fantastic series for adults. Sit tight, children!