CM . . .
. Volume XIX Number 1. . . .September 7, 2012
House Held Up By Trees.
Ted Kooser. Illustrated by Jon Klassen.
Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press (Distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada), 2012.
32pp., hardcover, $19.00.
Grades 2-4 / Ages 7-9.
Review by Sabrina Wong.
Not far from here, I have seen a house held up by the hands of trees. This is its story. (From the title page.)
House Held Up By Trees is a lovely and wistful offering from Ted Kooser and Jon Klassen. Kooser is a Pulitzer Prize winner for Delights & Shadows and former United States Poet Laureate (2004-2006). Klassen is Governor-General's award-winning illustrator and author-illustrator of the recent hit I Want My Hat Back. With the author and illustrator credentials like these, readers will have high expectations for the result of their partnership, and this marvelous book will not disappoint them.
The story begins when the house is young and stands on a freshly cleared plot of land. However, as the story continues, the surrounding woods slowly but surely reclaim the land. Kooser's skill as a wordsmith allows him to tell the story of the house without resorting to childish and artificial devices. The trees do not talk, and the house does not express its feelings, but rather readers experience the story of the house as observers. The acts of watching and waiting are key to the story; the children watch their father, the father watches and waits for the house to be sold, and nature waits for the people to leave so that the land can be retaken. As readers, we watch everything happening through Klassen's lens. He uses a muted, earthy palette, gentle washes of colour and the layering of picture elements to match the tone and depth of Kooser's words. Klassen understands the need for balance between busy, eye-catching elements and wide expanses of sky and lawn. His technique of layering background elements creates a varied landscape. He also plays with scale and perspective. In one spread, the reader peeks through the branches of trees at the house, small in the distance, while nearby, a giant squirrel pauses at the corner of our frame (p. 5-6). This playful and light approach to layout provides visual interest, as does his choice to constantly shift perspectives. At times, the reader flies high over the house like the seed pods; at other times, the reader sinks down low to spot the first crack of light between the house and its foundation.
As children, the boy and girl who lived in the house often played in the woods, but, as they grew into adults, they could only stand "at their edge and remembered how much fun they'd had playing there when they were small" (p. 9). Klassen shows his understanding of book design in this illustration: on one page, the woods appear impenetrable and thick with undergrowth; separated from the woods by the page gutter, two lonesome figures stand on the facing page, their outfits and accessories recalling an earlier picture (on p. 5). The young man wears jeans that recall the blue shorts he wore as a boy and clutches his worn baseball cap. The young woman wears a dress in the same pink and white that she favored as a child and holds one stray leaf. One lone sapling leans out towards the pair, as if reaching out to them in farewell. Klassen has chosen to crop the image such that only the bottom halves of the figures can be seen; but even though their facial expressions are not shown, the feelings of sadness and goodbyes cannot be missed. Klassen is so subtle with his illustrations. In Klassen's choosing a perspective point close to the ground and outside the woods, the reader is given a sense of how the children have grown and their relationship with the woods has changed. This contrasts neatly with the previous image of the children (p. 5) where the reader looks from between the trees over the children's heads.
Kooser uses the motif of the sweetly-scented little green flowers throughout the book to remind the reader that nature is always present whether its presence is acknowledged or ignored: the young children who live in the house smell them, but their father is always "too busy to notice" (p. 11). He is hunched over his lawnmower, doggedly cutting down the unpredictable in his need for consistency and channeling his emotions into a losing battle against the onslaught of seeds and perfumed flowers: "It seemed that the older the children got, and the closer they were to leaving home for good, the harder their father worked on his lawn" (p.11). One day, after his children have moved out, he gives up and moves into the city. Up to that point, the stories of the family and the house were intertwined, but once the father severed that tie, the story comes to focus solely on the house. As stated in the beginning, this is the story of a house, and not the story of the family who happened to live in the house, so Kooser never quite tells the reader what the human characters are feeling but gives clues in the form of observation and hearsay. Part of the story's appeal lies in its demand for readers to engage with the story and think beyond what the words say and the pictures show. The reader, like the house, simply stands witness to all of these changes.
House Held Up By Trees is, on one level, the tale of a house that is slowly raised off its foundations by the growth of trees; however, this minimalist plot serves as the frame for other interpretations and readings. Although the subject of the story could verge on the whimsical, Kooser instead decided to take a meditative approach. Some readers might jump to categorize this story as a picture book for adults since it hints at far deeper meaning than the literal, but to do so would be to deny the insight and reflection capable by child readers. House Held Up By Trees is not some shallow children's book to be read and forgotten; it appeals to young and creative minds to interpret and create meaning from the lyrical words. Rather than making the mistake of underestimating the child reader, Kooser and Klassen acknowledge the ability of children to be wise beyond their years. This is the type of book that is meant to be read and re-read as a child grows older. The reader will discover and respond to different layers of the story as he or she gains experience in life. An adult reading the book might experience pangs of nostalgia, remembering the ways of times past, while a child might see the story as triumphant and inspiring, how small seeds grow into trees that can lift an entire house. The strength of this story is its ability to evoke such a range of emotions from readers with diverse experiences. Sweet and nostalgic, House Held Up By Trees is a story to be shared and enjoyed by readers young and old.
The trees lifted it and lifted it, and maybe you will drive past it today or tomorrow, as it floats there above the ground like a tree house, a house in the trees, a house held together by the strength of trees, and the wind blowing, perfumed by little green flowers. (p. 29)
Sabrina Wong is a MLIS candidate at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC.
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