Another book by Jon Klassen. This time, it is Pulitzer Prize winning poet Ted Kooser providing the words, but visually, House Held Up by Trees is classic Klassen. The 60’s flavoured, flat-toned illustrative style is reminiscent of the much-lauded I Want My Hat Back (minus the bear), while the story is firmly planted in the urban, or suburban, experience. Conveniently, the subject matter is apropos to my previous post on the apparent abandonment of nature and natural imagery in picture books. In a House Held Up By Trees, people do indeed abandon nature (although the illustrations remain gloriously tree-infused), but the great thing about this book, and about nature in general~it finds a way. Trees find a way. Life, in all its exuberance, finds a way, and Kooser & Klassen find a way to make this heroic story of nature exerting itself a stirring, beautiful thing.
As the story begins, a solitary house sits on a foliage-barren landscape. There used to be trees, but the land was cleared for construction, and in the place of the trees, a perfect, green lawn. The man who lives in the house is very proud of his lawn, and he goes to great lengths to ensure that it stays free of sprouts and any of the seeds blowing in from the maple, elm, ash, hackberry woodlands on either side of his property. “Trees are not so easily discouraged, however, and every summer they would send more seeds (with tiny wings and sails) flying his way.’ As the man attends to his lawn year after year, his children play among the trees and thickly woven bushes, smelling the ‘tiny, sweet green flowers’, listening to the ‘footfalls of the animals.’ Sometimes they watch their father mow the lawn.
There is a sad, wistful undertone to the first part of a House Held Up by Trees. As the children mature and move ever closer to leaving home for good, the harder the man works on his lawn, as if a perfect square of green can stave off loneliness. What happened to his wife? It is never stated. Even the children feel a bittersweet sense of loss as they stand in front of the woods next to their father’s house, but too big now to venture into the cool, secret places of their youth. Their ennui is beautifully expressed in the single leaf dangling from the hand of the grown up girl, standing in her flats next to her brother. Unfortunately, my scanner failed to capture the subtle stripes of the girl’s dress (or her flats, or many of the other gorgeous details of Klassen’s gouache and digital illustrations), so you’ll have to imagine this scene, or better yet go and pick up the book.
Time passes, the children move way, and the man leaves his home and his perfect lawn for an apartment in the city. The abandoned house quickly falls into disrepair, as it ‘just didn’t seem like a house where anybody wanted to live.’ And so, without the man to tame the creeping wildness of the land, the wind-swept seeds enter the cracked wood and broken windows of the house. From within and without, the saplings take root and grow, eventually lifting the old man’s home off its foundations.
“The young trees kept it from falling apart, and as they grew bigger and stronger, they held it together as if it was a bird’s nest in the fingers of their branches.”
I am reminded of the television series, Life Without People. In the series, some unknown catastrophe afflicts humankind, knocking everyone off the planet Earth. Within hours, as efforts to control nature come to a halt, the plants move in, or rather, move back. In spite of our efforts to dominate the environment, there is something consoling in the doggedness of nature. When I lived on the third floor of an apartment building, I was surrounded by trees. In the summer, it was easy to imagine myself living in a treehouse, and this sense of being suspended in green was very pleasing to my soul. I felt uplifted, like a house in the trees.
Ted Kooser is one of the United States most highly regarded poets, serving as the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004 – 2006. During his second term he won the Pulitzer Prize for his book of poems, Delights & Shadows (Copper Canyon Press, 2004). He is the author of many volumes of poetry, several books of non-fiction, and one other picture book, Bag in the Wind. Mr Kooser lives in Garland, Nebraska.
Jon Klassen is one of the greatest things to happen to children’s picture book illustration since the creation of this blog (ha, just kidding.) Originally from Niagara Falls, Ontario, but currently residing in Los Angeles, the multi-talented artist received Canada’s highest honour, the Governor General’s Award for Cats’ Night Out in 2009, and Klassen’s most recent book, the brilliant I Want My Hat Back, was a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book of 2011. His next book, This is Not My Hat (Candlewick, October 2012), is apparently not a sequel to I Want My Hat Back. Whatever you say, Mr Klassen. You’ve got my attention, if not my hat.
House Held Up By Trees by Ted Kooser, illustrations by Jon Klassen. Candlewick Press, 2012. ISBN: 978-0763651077
I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen (Candlewick Press, 2011)
For another book about sort of tree house (this time with a bear), check out The Tree House by Marije Tolman and Ronald Tolman (Lemnisscaat, 2010)