House Held Up By Trees by Ted Kooser, illustrated by Jon Klassen
Candlewick Press, $27.95
Before I even opened this book, the cover tossed up a memory – of long country drives, catching glimpses of big houses hidden by high hedges and gates. Sometimes I’d see a peaked roof, or a tall chimney, an overgrown garden, or a long driveway lined with pines. Then there was the small houses, cabins or huts left to decay, or the lonely stone cottage in the middle of nowhere. These images were only flickers – swift flashes out a car window but as a kid, they always lit up my imagination.
This book tells the story of a house built on the edge of a forest and home to two children and their father. While the kids love playing in the cool of the forest, the father prefers to mow his immaculate lawn, removing any stray leaf or twig that blows his way. Years pass, the children become adults, while their now elderly father still fusses over his patch of green, until one day he decides to sell and move closer to the city. The house goes up for sale but no one wants to buy it, instead seeds eventually grow into tress and by the end of the book, the house has returned to the forest and is majestically held aloft by maple, elm, ash and cottonwood.
Written by Pulitzer Prize winning poet Ted Kooser, the melancholy story beautifully captures our need to control our environment and slow down the relentless passing of time. Kooser’s honed text conveys other themes too, giving readers subtle hints about how the children relate to their father – like the house itself, as his children grow up, he gets left behind too.
Jon Klassen’s (I Want My Hat Back) illustrations are no less insightful. Clean and precise, every page reveals a different perspective on the house (we never see inside, only the exterior), from above, from the edges of the forest, each brush stroke captures nature slowly reclaiming what’s theirs.
So who is this book for? It’s difficult to say. Very young readers (three plus) might respond more to the visuals, while old readers (six plus) will have a better chance at picking up the nuances. There’s no right answer. This is a book for anyone who enjoys original story telling and perceptive, haunting illustration.
What makes a classic? A book that manages to connect with thousands, perhaps millions of readers? A book that lodges itself into our psyche, that has the power to shape us or to jolt us into a new way of thinking? Penguin Books have released the first four titles in a new series called Australian Children’s Classics ($12.99) and each of them have a place in my early reading life: I Can Jump Puddles by Alan Marshall, Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park, Picnic At Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay and Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner.
It’s an intriguing mix; the covers are as sweet as lollies, but inside are the stories of a group of school girls who go missing at Hanging Rock, and of Abigail Kirk, the accidental time traveller who finds herself in Sydney in 1873, and of Ethel Turner’s international hit about a raucous family.
I remember finding a paperback copy of Alan Marshall’s I Can Jump Puddles (first published in 1955) on a cold, rainy day when I was at secondary school. It’s been a couple of decades since but turning the pages of this gorgeous rebound Australian Children’s Classic, it took only a handful of lines by this natural storyteller to send me back to that winter’s day.
Born in Noorat (near Camperdown in Victoria) in 1904, Marshall contracted polio when he was six years-old. His struggle with adversity, his indomitable spirit and his gift for evoking a certain period of Australian life makes I Can Jump Puddles a true classic; it’s moving, sincere and funny, and it’s great to see it back on book shelves.
Collectively, each of these beautifully bound books cover a huge range of experiences, and while they don’t have a lot in common, they represent a different take on Australian life from the perspective of young protagonists. No doubt reading them consecutively would offer up some interesting comparisons.
More importantly, these new editions will attract new readers who will open the covers and find themselves wondering if Miranda will ever be found, or if Judy will be sent back to boarding school, if Abigail will find her way home and if Alan really can jump puddles.
The Christmas Quiet Book, by Deborah Underwood, illus Renata Liwska, Houghton Mifflin, $19.95
Find a moment if you can – stop the wrapping, turn down the oven (the turkey is almost done), and pour yourself a little something. Yes, The Christmas Quiet Book is for children two, three years and up, but any frazzled spirit will find this book soothing. Deborah Underwood’s story is beautifully simple (there’s lots of humour to be found , too) with only one or two lines on each page; “Knocking with mittens quiet”, “Snow angel quiet.”
In the days leading up to Christmas, bunnies, bears and a very cute iguana decorate the tree, ice skate, drop in on other furry friends, and patiently wait for December 25. The illustrations are quite simply adorable and each of Renata Liwskas’ characters convey a genuine feeling of warmth, and with Christmas Day only hours away, it doesn’t get much better than that.
You can read Renata’s lovely blog here and if you happen to live in Yarraville and still need one more gift.. the Younger Sun Book Shop has a few copies left.
IF YOU LIKE THIS BOOK YOU MIGHT LIKE:
The Quiet Book by Deborah Underwood, illus Renata Liwska
The Loud Book by Deborah Underwood, ills Renata Liwska
The Where, The Why and The How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wonderous Mysteries of Science, Jenny Volvovski, Hardie Grant, $34.95
What is dark energy? What is the origin of the moon? Why do we sleep? Why do cats purr? Designed to look like a retro class set of science books, this handsome hardback brings together contemporary visual artists and pairs them with specialists in the field to answer some of life’s biggest scientific questions. There’s nothing here you couldn’t find in a few clicks, but the combination of beautiful, original illustrations and erudite, concise explanations make it a pleasure and a revelation to read.
Playful, detailed, illustrations by artists including Lisa Congdon, Jon Klasson, Camilla Engman and Micah Lidberg interpret (sometimes) complex ideas and theories, but in their own particular style. This is one of those books you can either read cover to cover, or dip into now and again but it’s always going to feel relevant.
Readers seven and up.
Outside Your Window: A First Book of Nature, Nicola Davies, illus Mark Hearld, Candlewick Press, $24,95
One look at this book and I was imagining a sunny, autumn day, a big picnic blanket and a sketchbook.
From the arresting cover to the final page, this picture book celebrates nature. Divided into four ‘chapters’ (spring, summer, autumn, winter) Nicola Davies’ poem takes the readers imagination and pushes it outside where “icicles melt and water whispers”, “where dandelions bloom like little suns”, and the “breeze shivers through the barley.” There’s always books about nature crowding the shelves, but Nicola and Mark’s collaboration feels fresh and energetic.
It’s a wonderful book for very young readers, or inquisitive kids who have reached that age when suddenly every blade of grass is a revelation,
From star-gazing, to exploring rockpools, to bees gathering at the hive, illustrator Mark Hearld’s bold, evocative collages and paintings capture the wonders of the everyday. You can watch a short film about him here
Nature lovers of any age.
IF YOU LIKE THIS YOU MIGHT LIKE:
Big Blue Whale: Read and Wonder by Nicola Davies and Nick Maland.
The Great Snortle Hunt, Claire Freedman, ills Kate Hindley, Simon&Schuster, $19.95
DURING a picnic in the park, Mouse and his adventurous friends Dog, Cat and later Rabbit decide to go in search of the legendary Snortle, a huge, hairy beast who lives in a suitably spooky house on a “bumpy-steely” hill.
They all meet in the park on a moonlit night (the Snortle loves moonlight) but before they set off, the group double check their somewhat eclectic ‘Snortle Hunting’ equipment – torch, rope, fishing rod, odd socks and of course, cake. All momentous expeditions should include cake.
Together they make their way past the pond, up the hill, into the house (the door slams shut behind them), and up the stairs until they find themselves right outside the Snortle’s bedroom. What happens next surprises everyone.
Claire Freedman’s lively, rhyming story builds beautifully, but for maximum effect, it’s really best read out loud. Kate Hindley’s illustrations are detailed – don’t miss the portraits hanging on the wall as the gang make their way up the stairs. Most of the illustrations take up a double-page, and in a simple but effective touch, when the story calls for the characters to climb out a window and down a drainpipe, the image switches to vertical.
Playful and quirky, there’s lots to enjoy about this picture book about four furry friends and the ‘monster’ that changes all their lives.
Readers three and up.
IF YOU LIKE THIS YOU MIGHT LIKE:
How to Wash a Woolly Mammoth, Michelle Robinson, illus Kate Hindley
Herman and Rosie, Gus Gordon, Penguin/Viking, $24.95
I CAN’T claim to know NYC very well. I’ve only been twice, but it remains one of those cities that has a charged mythology. I remember ice skating at Rockerfeller Centre, eating a hot dog in Central Park, the elevator ride to the top of the Empire State Building, wistfully walking past Tiffany’s, buying a MAC lipstick from Henri Bendel, hyperventilating at the sheer size of Barnes and Nobel and watching the ball drop in Time Square with what felt like the entire world.
All of these memories resurfaced when I read Gus Gordon’s delightful picture book Herman and Rosie, which is about two strangers whose lives intersect in surprising ways. Herman Schubert likes pot plants, playing the oboe and “watching films about the ocean”. In an apartment nearby, Rosie Bloom loves singing, listening to old jazz records and “watching films about the ocean.”
On good days, the city makes them feel like they can do anything, but when Herman loses his day job and Rosie can no longer sing at her local jazz club, the world starts to feels less friendly. As they each take a solitary walk around New York, pondering life’s ups and down, they unknowingly make their way into each other’s lives.
Gus Gordon’s mixed media illustrations (the cover looks like a record album) not only evoke the mood of the city, they also reflect the emotional life of these two memorable characters. The book has a real sweetness and sense of humour, but it’s not heavy-handed, just the opposite in fact. It’s the sort of book that shares a little more each time you read it.
Readers three and up.
IF YOU LIKE THIS YOU MIGHT LIKE:
Wendy, Puffin, $14.95