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A House That Once Was

How do you feel when a multi–Caldecott Honor winner creates a Caldecott-worthy book? Personally, I go through a series of different stages. You know. Denial. Morbid curiosity. Conversion. Proselytizing. At least that’s what happened when I took a deep dive into A House That Once Was by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Lane Smith. As you can see, I’ve made it to Stage #4, and the likelihood of my return from this vantage point is slim.

Of course, the pairing of Fogliano and Smith is unfair from the start. She’s the kind of author that gets paired with Caldecott-winning illustrators on a regular basis. Your Erin E. Steads. Your Christian Robinsons. Smith, on the other hand, is perfectly comfortable writing his own books. So much so that one gets the distinct impression he wouldn’t take a job illustrating another author’s work unless he truly believed in the project.

In the case of this particular book, Fogliano’s lyrical language somehow manages the feat of walking a tightrope between rhythmic cadences with only the occasional hat tip to rhyme. In the story, two children chance upon a house in the woods, abandoned but still containing the remnants of its previous owners. As they explore, they try to understand why the residents might have vacated. It is with their questions that Smith switches visual gears. Up until they start launching into flights of fancy, he’s been utilizing a beautiful blotted-line effect, not dissimilar to the thick textured paints he pulled out for (the also gorgeous) A Perfect Day last year. The “present day” images here, as Smith explains on the copyright page, “were made with India ink, drawn on vellum with a crow quill pen, then pressed while wet onto watercolor paper creating a blotted line effect. The colors were painted in oil over gesso then scanned and added digitally under the ink-line. The ‘imagined’ scenes were painted in oil paint on hot press board and scanned along with paper collage elements that were combined digitally.”

What’s so interesting about this choice is that it upsets your expectations. Usually when a child imagines things in a picture book, the depicted world in which they truly reside is crisp and clear, while the fantastical world of their thoughts is dreamlike. Here, it’s as if the opposite were true. The kids’ imaginings have a kind of reality and texture to them, and everything is distinct and separate from the impressionistic splotches of the real world. Meanwhile, the kids themselves, the ones telling this story, look like they’re just a sneeze away from fading into the walls that surround them. Only their dreams feel substantial.

I’ve always harbored a secret belief that Caldecotts go to the artists that are willing to change up their styles. Last year Matthew Cordell won for Wolf in the Snow when he included occasional glimpses of realism, unheard of in his previous books. The year before that, Javaka Steptoe collected pieces of wood and painted on them for the thrilling Basquiat bio Radiant Child. Lane Smith, for his part, has never been content to settle for a single, solitary style. His work in The Stinky Cheese Man is different from The Happy Hockey Family, to say nothing of Grandpa Green. What’s different about A House That Once Was is that the two different styles Smith uses in this book exist side-by-side for a distinct purpose. One has the impression that the choices he has made with his art have been deliberate, in the hopes of best pairing Fogliano’s words with art that both complements and deepens the book’s understanding of memory, loss, regret, and idle speculation. Were he to win a Caldecott for this book, it would bookend a fascinating career that began with his first Caldecott Honor win (The Stinky Cheese Man) for a book that dared to make you question the integrity of unchallenged picture-book tropes and continues with a book that also redefines tropes — but with an entirely different tone and manner. Smith seems incapable of doing a half-assed job when he believes in a project. This book may yet prove that, with increased experience, artists shouldn’t be afraid to try new things, sometimes within the pages of a single title.

[Read the Horn Book Magazine review of A House That Once Was here.]

 

Betsy Bird About Betsy Bird

Betsy Bird is collection development manager of the Evanston (IL) Public Library and former youth materials specialist of the New York Public Library. She reviews for Kirkus and blogs for SLJ at A Fuse #8 Production. She is the author of Giant Dance Party (Greenwillow) and co-authored (with Julie Danielson and Peter D. Sieruta), Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature.

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Comments

  1. And here we have one of the year’s irrefutable masterpieces, one that on several days a week I count as the most extraordinary entry of all. Bereft of the consternation generated by the usual perception of evil spirits who find refuge in forsaken dwellings, A House That Once Was largely disavows the malevolent possibilities inherent in a place no longer tempered by humanity in favor of piecing together evidence based photos and objects that fuel interrogative word pictures. The author’s tone is deeply melancholic if tinged by hope and a celebration of a life once richly lived. Through searingly descriptive verse, minimalist and haunting Fogliano gives her award winning master illustrator Smith the opportunity to apply fantastical and metaphysical heft to what would on first glance to be an ordinary find, quite the flip side of the story of the woodcutter’s children published by the Germans Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in 1812. Few picture books in modern times have as seamlessly woven word and image from collaborating artists to establish such literary and pictorial chemistry, though it is clear enough all the way back to the first double page spread that Fogliano and Smith are simultaneously interpreting each other’s vision. Smith’s alluring and textured colors in the service of Fogliano’s meditative language hearkens back to the former’s Caldecott Honor winning solo work masterpiece, Grandpa Green, a life-cycle pictorial chronicle that projected sadness and loss. Adult readers may opt to immediately explain to their charges the color bursts, first seen in ultimate incarnation on the stunning end papers and frontispiece before the more pastoral if just as sublime refinement on the opening more markedly pastoral tableau, to the incorporeal line drawing of the soon-to-be-explored house being approached.

    Author and illustrator have imbued this project with their A game, proving that the perfect artistic vision isn’t mainly exclusive to a single artist. A House That Once Was immediately takes its place as one of the most quietly resonating and beautifully crafted picture books in the history of children’s literature. Caldecott committee members should have this one on their laps till the final bell, though the Newbery committee should also be looking hard at the author’s wrenching, probing lyricism.

    As is always the case from you, this is a banner presentation in every sense, and I applaud you for especially highlighting Smith’s two art styles, a risky proposition that pays glorious dividends. I just can’t get enough of this melancholic treasure and showcase for illustrative resplendence.

  2. Dean Schneider says:

    What I love about Calling Caldecott is that someone who loves a book and has lived with it awhile guides the rest of us into an appreciation of it. Betsy Bird, here and in her Fuse 8 review of April 13, is a smart guide to this wonderful book and a lyrical writer in her own right.

    This is not an easy book. It demands a lot of the reader, and it offers so much in return. As Bird wrote in Fuse 8, it’s like peeling an onion, so much to uncover and notice in the repeated readings it demands. I don’t know of any picture book that makes me want to keep returning to it–to get Fogliano’s rhythms right, to see more in Smith’s illustrations, to notice more about the two artistic techniques that show the present day and the imagined, to catch humorous touches, such as the mouse’s head poking out of the portrait on the wall . I love the colorful yet muted illustrations and the simple-seeming poetry that is specific yet allusive. It doesn’t so much tackle big themes as enfold them–the themes Bird mentions of “memory, loss, regret, and idle speculation.”

    This reminds us of what a great picture book can be.

  3. This was a book I had to ease into. (This is often true of Caldecott contenders. So many of them are introspective, atmospheric, or impressionistic. I like plot and character and stuff to be happening when I’m reading with my personal hat on instead of my Mock Caldecott hat.) Dean says the book “demands” a re-reading, but it certainly did not demand a re-reading from me. I liked it well enough, but did not feel compelled to read it again on a personal level. This is why running a Mock Caldecott where I have to read a book 12-15 times to various classrooms is such a great experience for me as a professional, because the more I read the book and analysed it with kids, the more I appreciated it. It remains a book I appreciate, rather than one that I’ll be eager to share with students in the years to come, but that’s not a mark against it. Personal preference is not a Caldecott criterion.

    The students I read it with appreciated the art change between the real life and the fantastical. They liked the details, and most classes had at least one student who took special notice of the fact that the children took back the can of beans to use as a flower holder in the last couple of pages. Interestingly, more than half of the classes commented on what they thought was a portrait of a dog, rather than a mouse chewing a hole through a picture. I’m not sure if that’s because I was reading it to a large group and they couldn’t see it very well, but it’s interesting to me that it kept coming up.

    I wish I had a copy on hand, I know there were specific spreads that I wanted to comment on, but my copy is checked out.

  4. Brenda Martin says:

    I read this back-to-back with ADRIAN SIMCOX DOES NOT HAVE A HORSE and together they really packed an emotional wallop. The illustrations are incredible, and the package as a whole memorable. The elegiac tone makes this best for slightly older (K-3) picture book readers, who I believe will be quite satisfied by this tonic to the sugary sweetness they are too often served.

  5. Sam Juliano says:

    I’s like to address Brenda (above) to express fervent agreement with her use of ADRIAN SIMCOX DOES NOT HAVE A HORSE which is another deeply emotional work, and one I’d add to the “very very best picture books of 2018” grouping with the Fogliano-Smith collaboration.. I would also pose to add Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s BLUE to forge an emotional triptych of this past year. All three books require tissues in abundance.

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