The House in the Night
By Susan Marie Swanson
Illustrated by Beth Krommes
Houghton Mifflin Company
On shelves now
Sometimes, just sometimes, you want to read a beautiful picture book. Not a pretty picture book or a mildly lovely one or a picture book that will please you the first ten times you read it to a child and then hardly anymore after that. No, I’m talking about a jaw-dropping, kick-you-in-the-pants, douse your cigar hussy of a beautiful picture book. The kind that works against your book-loving instincts, tempting you to rip out the pages and frame them on your wall. That kind of book. The first time I saw an ad for The House in the Night by Susan Marie Swanson and Beth Krommes I wanted it. Generally scratchboard art doesn’t appeal to me, but there’s something different about this title. Gentle bedtime reading, consider this a book that is designed to illuminate a child’s dreams.
Inspired by a cumulative poem found in The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book, Swanson’s words are short simple. "Here is the key to the house / In the house burns a light / In that light rests a bed." As we read, a small child places the key on a hook as a dog, a cat, and some kittens mill about. She walks into the room and spots a book on the bed. "In that book flies a bird." As the text grows expansive, discussing the bird’s song, the girl imagines taking a trip on its back above the land, "Through the dark", past the moon, and the sun, and the sky. In the end she goes to bed, not far from the key in, "the house in the night, a home full of light." The shape of the story allows it to go from a small intimate story to an exciting flight around the world, and then back to bed where the little girl curls up cozily and falls asleep. It’s a tribute to bedtime stories themselves, without ever being blunt about its potential applications.
Last year I fell in love with a different cumulative poem called The Apple Pie That Papa Baked by Lauren Thompson with illustrations by Jonathan Bean. Like this book, Apple Pie used the cumulative format to draw back farther and farther, to the point where the story becomes positively cosmic. Here, Swanson’s text has a comforting feel to it, helped in no small part by its universal images. She’s as good a picture book author as she is partly because her words give an illustrator room to get a little creative.
The first name to pop to mind, even before you open the book, is "Wanda Gag". The illustrator of such storytime classics as Millions of Cats appears to have had a direct influence on Krommes’ style. I first discovered Ms. Krommes when she lent her considerable talents to Joyce Sidman’s, Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow. She is recognizably the same person who has worked on The House in the Night but this particular book feels like someone took a photograph of her earlier work and made it into a negative image. Krommes uses a scratchboard style with watercolor. In fact he only color in this book is the singular yellow of the sun, the moon, the stars, and other key points in the pictures. Individual creatures bear the mark of Gag, particularly Krommes’ cats which appear to be a direct ode. But for all her charms, Gag never illustrated a book with as much depth and scope as found in this story. This is a bedtime tale that takes into account the vastness of space and the curve of the landscapes below. And her use of yellow at meticulous moments lends loveliness to images that might have appeared too harsh.
Oddly enough, while Wanda Gag was certainly the first illustrator to come to mind when I read this, the feel of the book reminded me particularly of that wonderful Ann Jonas book Round Trip. There’s something about seeing a nightscape in black and white, particularly from a distance, which conjures up similar sensations. Round Trip is one of those books that stick with you the rest of your life. The House in the Night will go the same route.
The real question: Will the kids dig it? As I’ve mentioned before, this is a bedtime book. The kind of story you pick up and read when the child wants something to put them to sleep. That isn’t to say that they won’t also find the pictures engrossing. What The House in the Night has in its favor is the ability to stick with a person. Fifty years from now libraries and websites will be filled with queries from people asking, "There’s this book I’ve been trying to find from years. It took place at night and there was yellow . . . it was really gorgeous. Does anyone remember it?" And I have faith that children’s librarians will be able to answer these questions readily, keeping the beloved book close at hand. A title that doesn’t leave your heart or mind any too soon.
Print Reviews: Publishers Weekly
- There’s also this MinnPost feature on her (she photographs so well, doesn’t she?).