Home in the Woods

Cover of Home in the WoodsHome in the Woods is a story of loss and love, hope, hard work, and healing. It is a book of green and gentleness, softness and loyalty, perseverance and hardship, love and courage. In fact, I find myself so smitten by the art and artistry that I thought for a long time that there would be nothing I could say that would adequately describe the beauty of the illustrations. Eliza Wheeler has created an exquisite book that deserves serious Caldecott consideration.


Initially, it was the color green — or I should say the colors of green — that stayed with me. And the range and subtleties of these greens are gorgeous: black-green, blue-green, gray-green, yellow-green. This is not to say that Home in the Woods is limited to a green palette, as the reader quickly discovers. As the book follows narrator Marvel and her family through the seasons of one year, the greens of summer soon give way to the browns, reds, and oranges of fall, and then on to the sparkling silvers, grays, and whites of winter. The year comes back around to spring; the greens return in spring with flowering trees, shrubs, and meadows of flowers of all shades, leading the family back around to summer.

Marvel, her seven brothers and sisters, and their mother head into the woods during the Great Depression, looking for a place to live. The first page of the book is a portrait of the family, featuring everyone’s names and ages. Wheeler’s portraits of the sad, pale, wide-eyed faces introduce a family that we will quickly grow to love and root for. Marvel's father has died, and the family has lost their home. Carrying as many necessities as they can manage, they find a small, dilapidated shack, nestled deep in the woods. 

This shack initially looks and feels cold and barren — not like a home, Marvel reports. Wheeler offers an intriguing bird’s-eye view of the inside of the shack, as the family first explores it. We see bent box springs, a vine growing through a window, a rusty cook stove. But their mother, who possesses much hope and wisdom, predicts that they will find treasures. And they do — a basement with shelves of canning jars, fabric for quilts, and a water pump to ensure that they can live with a little bit of ease.

Over the year that we spend with Marvel and her family, we experience their delight in the discoveries of more treasures. Bounty from the woods, such as berry patches and a pond with fish. They plant a garden in the rich soil next to their new home. In the fall, they harvest and preserve their garden’s yield and the wild berries. That first summer they transform the shack into a cozy place to live through the winter. The northern Wisconsin winter is long, hard, and cold — but they get through. And spring holds the new promise of happier hearts and a better year to come. Through Wheeler’s lush illustrations and gentle story, we are deeply affected by the year we have spent with Marvel and her family.

[Read the Horn Book Magazine review of Home in the Woods.]

The dust jacket, with the book’s title printed in glossy raised letters (one of many lovely details), shows the little shack in the woods after months of work have transformed it into a home. Not only is this a prettier view of the tiny dwelling, but it also reassures young readers that, despite the sad beginning of the story, things will improve. Under the paper jacket, the cover of the book is the little house in winter, with deep snow all around. Two of Marvel’s brothers are headed out to hunt for supper.

The endpapers, front and back, are a map of the woods with the creek, the trees, the swamp, the pond, the berry patches, the deer paths (a spread in the book shows Marvel and several siblings exploring the woods and finding these deer paths), the road, and the railroad tracks. I love this sort of map, especially on the endpapers. From the start, it helps orient the reader; it also serves as a good reference point while reading the book. And once done with the story, readers can take in the whole scene once again on the final endpapers.  

One of my favorite illustrations is a double-page spread on a wet summer night when the "crystal rains,” as Marvel puts it, fall, and the family can be seen looking out the window. The rain drops are diamonds sparkling on the bushes and trees’ leaves. This magical sparkly portrayal of night recurs in the winter on a spread where the snow and stars glimmer in the moonlight. Inside their snug abode, the children are all sleeping; Mum, holding baby Eva, “stays awake into the night ... whispering to the stars.”

Each illustration seems more superb than the one before. The text is spare and rich and poetic. The story is one of survival and of strength and endurance through grief. Gradually, as the family heals, their sorrow turns to peace and even happiness. I am sure that this extraordinary story is appealing to adults. But more importantly, it is accessible and appealing to young readers. My second- and fourth-graders were all leaning forward, wide-eyed, as I shared the book with them. In each class, there was a collective sigh of contentment at the end of the story. They wanted to talk about how beautiful the illustrations were and how much they communicate about Marvel's family’s experiences. We agreed that this book meets so many of the Caldecott criteria, such as distinguished art and “excellence of pictorial interpretation of story, theme, or concept." The classes voted overwhelmingly in favor of Home in the Woods being a fine candidate for Caldecott medal consideration. I will be surprised if it is not on our final ballot in our mock vote in mid-January. 

I know it remains in the five books at the top of my personal ballot and has all my hopes.


Allison Grover Khoury
Allison Grover Khoury

Allison Grover Khoury is a librarian at Wish Charter School in Los Angeles. 

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Kathy Buskett

What a wonderful review. I must now go out and get it to read to my one room schoolhouse of homeschoolers :)

Posted : Dec 27, 2020 11:30

Patti Tomarelli

What a tempting introduction to step into “home in the woods” thank you Allison

Posted : Jan 11, 2020 01:25



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