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May 31, 2012

New Books: House Held Up by Trees

I do try, in children's books as in life, not to judge books by their covers. But it is a fact that with picture books, you often can pick out the ones that at least could be great before you ever crack the spine—since the illustrations are so vital, and you can usually get a sense of exceptional art from the cover.

Still, the cliché holds: Just looking great from the outside doesn't mean what's inside is going to live up to that promise. Sometimes the writing or even the overall concept is dull or lackluster, and even the most brilliant illustrations can't overcome that. And then there are what I've come to think of as "picture books for parents"—children's books that we find irresistible but that don't speak to our children in the slightest. (I know there are a few of these gathering dust as de facto bookends on our shelves.)

The worst of these kinds of books is that once you've encountered a couple, they make you doubt your own judgment: If it's this appealing to me, you think, does that mean it's going to bore my three-year-old silly? It was with such worries that I started reading a book I had gotten very excited about—House Held Up by Trees, by Ted Kooser and illustrated by Jon Klassen—to my younger son.

On the one hand, Kooser is a Pulitzer Prize–winning former U.S. poet laureate, and Klassen is responsible for one of the very, very best picture books of the last few years, the delightful best seller I Want My Hat BackAnd this book certainly passed the cover test with flying colors, thanks to Klassen's evocative, leafy rendition of the titular structure on it. On the other, well, Kooser is a Pulitzer Prize–winning former U.S. poet laureate, and this is a children's picture book, and those sorts of factors do sometimes combine to create bookends.

Kooser's text was a little alarming at first, for being set in passages that are unusually long for a picture book of this type. But the simple, somewhat wistful tale of a house that, over many years, goes from being a beloved family home to an abandoned, delapidated one before being "rescued" by a ring of wild trees that sprout up around it—well, it mesmerized Griffin from the start. Kooser's placid style, matched wonderfully by Klassen's gorgeous illustrations, put Griff in a similarly peaceful place, a reflective one he reaches when we read bittersweet stories like The Giving Tree and The Birthday Treebooks House Held Up by Trees is quite reminiscent of. (Say, what is it about trees, anyway?)

So for the moment, I can trust my cover judgment again. House Held Up by Trees looks, at first glance, like a special book, maybe an instant classic. And, in fact, I think that's just what it is.

[Cover image courtesy of Candlewick Press]

1 comment:

  1. Agreed! This book is stunning to look at and to read. I love love love kid's books that have a mood to them, some underlining sadness that can be manipulated by a talented author into grace and joy. This one is brilliant.

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