Often after programs, I’m asked about my favorite picture books. Oh, there are so many that stand out! Every year, I pick my own winners and bestow a personal Caldecott. The titles I grew up with I have loved the longest and have a special place on my book shelves. In general, I am prone to love picture books that involve nature, and of these, books that show nature big and people smaller really win my heart. I also like underdog stories, a plot that involves a triumphant return. And Virginia Lee Burton’s “The Little House” hits this mark for me. Burton both wrote and illustrated “The Little House”, first published in 1942. It won the Caldecott that next year. “The Little House” continues to turn up on Top 100 Best Picture Books Ever list. I still look to it for inspiration.
As part of Children’s Book Week, here’s a few lines on “The Little House” and why I love it.
“The Little House” is about well, a happy little house, built with love on a beautiful spot in the country. She sees the seasons come and go in a happy rhythm of life. Time passes. Children grow up. Owners grow old. The countryside around her changes until the once distant city now engulfs the Little House. There she remains for a long while, unnoticed and unloved by the throngs of people that rush by. At last, she is recognized and rescued by a family member who moves her out to a new spot in the country. A happy ever after ending.
The things I love about this book? Certainly, as a conservationalist, the cautionary message of urban sprawl resonates. Since we moved to Iowa City 22 years ago, our city has grown and changed, and not all for the good. Not that growth is all bad, it’s just that the instigators need to keep mindful of not only what we gain with every new build, but what we loose. And we’ve lost of lot of natural habitat to new development. Native birds and animals are really pinched to find large enough areas to live and prosper. Iowans truly see our wildlife and lands as a special part of our region’s identity. We should consider this before another meadow is plowed under for condos. The Little House reminds us to cherish open space, to learn and grow in. It wouldn’t be a bad idea for every developer and builder in Johnson County (and beyond!) to keep a copy of “The Little House” on their bed-time nightstands.
I love the sense of the cycle of life in “The Little House”. Everything is circular. Beginnings lead to endings that lead to beginnings again. What is old can be new. A gentle sense of the impermanence of things also part of the Little House cycle. It reminds us that we come and go.
Burton does a brilliant job of using the four seasons as structure in her book. The seasons are human kind’s original organizer. Before we had iPhones and Blackberries to help us out, we looked to nature to say “Hey, it’s time to harvest our food, or gather wood, or plant the beans, or move” So simple and connected!
Lastly, Burton’s illustration style has always talked to me, as a visual artist and writer. I admire the strong sense graphic design in her work. The round, sturdy compositions include the words as part of the whole visual image. I also like how she personifies the Little House in a subtle, not an overly sweet and cartoony way. The Little House’s contented look comes from her upturned window eyes and her front porch smile. Her sadness comes from her broken out window eyes and her sagging porch. There is an easy lesson in empathy here. The Little House's gaze still warms me after all these years.