When I ask adults what their favorite picture books were when they were children, their answers tend to fall into two categories. Either they’ll name a famous classic (a Where the Wild Things Are or a Goodnight Moon) or they’ll pull out the name of a title that has long since fallen into complete and utter obscurity. When questioned about the latter they’ll inevitably cite some aspect of it that stuck when them over the years. Sometimes a particular image or event. Sometimes nothing more than a feeling. It’s obscure books that bring about tangible feelings that interest me the most. For me, my favorite book as a kid was A Time to Keep by Tasha Tudor. For a friend of mine it was The Maggie B by Irene Haas. Now I have read A House in the Woods by Inga Moore and I can already tell you that twenty or thirty or forty years from now a man or woman will be asked what their favorite picture book was as a child and they will describe the images here. Maybe they won’t remember the exact title. Maybe they’ll blank on the author’s name. But what they won’t forget is the feeling of perfect contentment and peace brought about through Moore’s combination of image and text. This is the picture book equivalent of a warm, soothing bubble bath.
Two little pigs (no relation) build small homes next to one another then go out for a walk. When they return they find a bear has moved into one home and destroyed it and a moose has moved into the other and . . . well, same thing. Fortunately the pigs are fond of Bear and Moose but now no one has a home. That’s when Moose comes up with the notion of hiring some beavers to build them a house. When a payment agreement is reached (the beavers prefer to be paid in peanut butter sandwiches) everyone works together to put up the walls and windows and roof. When it’s done the four friends buy everything they’ll need for the interior, purchase the sandwich fixings, pay the beavers, and then return to their brand new home for dinner, stories and bed. A beautiful end to a wondrous day.
Who knew Inga Moore had a sense of humor? I’m sorry . . . that sounds awful when I put it that way. I have no reason to think that Ms. Moore isn’t a wholly hilarious human being. The fact of the matter is that my primary associations with her have come through the classic works of British children’s literature she has illustrated over the years. The Secret Garden and The Wind in the Willows and all that. Good books, but with the lofty “classic” status drifting about them that prevents an artist of Ms. Moore’s sort from going to go too crazy with the source material. I forget that she’s also the person behind books like Six-Dinner Sid, a funny house cat book (and a bit of required reading for a large swath of the schoolchildren of New York City). Still, even “Sid” couldn’t have prepared me for A House in the Woods. Because, really, the only word that I can come up with to describe it is “droll”. This is a deeply droll book. And it all comes down to the tone.
Right from the start the story gives you a pretty clear sense of what may happen in this world. When the two little pigs find that their “homes” have been taken over by other animals they don’t get angry because the truth of the matter is that they rather like the big animals that have moved in. So rather than find yourself in the midst of a confrontational book, children hearing this story are in a safe space where the conflict comes from the situation, not the interplay between the characters. And what characters! If there were a Best Supporting Actor award for a character in a picture book I would have to hand that honor to Moore’s Moose. You have not seen a mammal with more fabulous hand gestures, akimbo elbows, delicately crossed ankles, or pointed hoofs than this Moose. He’s a wonder. The other animals are delightful in their own ways, the beavers in particular. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that while you may THINK that you’ve seen cute beavers in your life, you are wrong. These are the cutest I’ve ever seen. Sort of what you’d get if you gave a beaver the roly-poly sweetness of an otter, but with a little potbelly (undoubtedly tied to their love of peanut butter sandwiches).
The art was created with a kind of pencil, pastel, and wash, says the book. From that medium you get a story set in the autumn, just before the winter winds set in. Though the book never says so, it’s clear from the season that there’s a reason our heroes need homes as soon as they do (particularly those of the hibernating stripe). Let’s talk attention to detail now. A first glance might not reveal it, but after several reads you can see that Ms. Moore has stuffed all kinds of goodies into these images. First, there are the subtle Britishisms. The fact that all the steering wheels are on the vehicles’ right-hand sides. The humbug candies sitting on the general store’s counter. The copy of something called “Nitin” by a “Roger” which looks suspiciously like Tintin by Herge. Then you begin to notice other, subtler inclusions. The fact that the beavers’ home has a single telephone line attached to it (which makes sense when you remember that earlier in the book the Moose gave them a call). Most impressive, at the beginning of the book the two little pigs go out walking and find a feather and an interesting stick. So I turned to the last image of the four friends in the book, when they are tucked into their beds and sleeping, and there, propped behind each pigs’ bed, was the feather and the stick. Wow.
The wordplay makes this an ideal one-on-one readaloud too. It’s all in the restraint. “This was a pickle. It really was,” says the book when our four heroes find themselves homeless. Later when the beavers request peanut butter sandwiches in exchange for a home, “No one had any objection.” The narrator tells the story in a straightforward fashion, only breaking out once to directly address the readership by exclaiming, “They had worked hard. Had it been worth it? What do you think? Just look! What a beautiful new house they have!”
Strange as this may sound, the book would actually make a rather delightful companion to the German picture book import Waiting for Winter by Sebastian Meschenmoser. In both cases you have autumnal creatures banding together for a common cause. Of course, the natural difference between the two is that at its heart A House in the Woods is about four animals that look for a home and, in the process of creating one, also find a family. This is a book for the child that finds comfort in the idea that friends can be a family to one another. It isn’t a flashy book. No glitter or glam, bright lights or poppin’ celebrity authors in sight. Instead, this is the book some poor librarian decades down the road is going to be asked to find when a patron looks at them imploringly and asks for “that one with the moose and the beavers and the peanut butter sandwiches”. And if they’re lucky that patron will find it again and read it to their children so that it will never, ever be forgotten.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
- Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast (on the Kirkus site)
- Waking Brain Cells
- Annie and Aunt
- A Patchwork of Books
- The Children’s Book Compass