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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Heavy Medal Finalist: A HOUSE THAT ONCE WAS by Julie Fogliano

House That Once Was In a year packed full of outstanding picture books, Julie Fogliano’s A HOUSE THAT ONCE WAS still feels individually distinct. The lyrical narration conjures up feelings of curiosity, wonder, and just a bit of nostalgia. Even though the first few pages of text are quite haunting, the illustrations are more whimsical than wary.  But in some ways, this book feels like a ghost story, a story about someone no longer here (like a picture book version of Dame Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca).

But as the characters make their way into the abandoned house, the book begins to feel more inquisitive and charming, like sifting through my grandparents’ attic packed full of trinkets and treasures. Each find is made more special by the stories they tell and the memories they invoke. To the kids, this is just an empty house:

Deep in the woods

is a house

just a house

that once was

but now isn’t

a home.

But as they ask questions, and ascribe stories to the house, it becomes clear that it isn’t something that makes a house a home, but rather someone:

Who was this someone

who ate beans for dinner

who sat by this fire

who looked in this mirror?

Who was this someone

whose books have been waiting

whose bed is still made

whose pictures are fading?

And for me, it’s Fogliano’s presentation of theme that really sets her work apart from other picture books this year. She invokes this theme of ‘what makes a house a home’ through curiosity and questions, allowing her characters to discover and imagine the person who was here before, to feel the presence of someone despite their absence.

Fogliano’s verse is packed full of meaning and layers:

At the front of the house

the house that is waiting

there’s a door that is not really open

but barely.

A door that is closed

but not quite.

A door that is stuck between coming and going

A door that was once painted white.

Who is the house waiting for? Is it inviting visitors? Waiting for its lost tenant? Waiting for someone new? The imagery here indicates the house is in some sort of limbo between living and dying. All it needs is a little love and someone to call it home for new life to take over.

For the purposes of our discussion, we should focus solely on the text, as it needs to be distinguished on its own without relying on illustrations for context and meaning. But there are some details in the illustrations that make this picture book extra special. For example, we see the clues the children find that lead them to particular ideas about who lived here before. We see the ships on the walls, the paintbrushes and paint, the records on the floor, the airplane on the shelf. We also see a family of bluebirds who seem to slowly but surely claiming the house as their own. In my opinion, the text doesn’t rely on these illustrations, but they do add an element of charm and possibly context.

The verse tells us that nature is intruding in on the house, but it doesn’t tell us anything about the bluebirds who are making this house their home. And I think that element of the picture book adds a really special meaning that doesn’t exist without the illustrations. However, the verse is distinguished on its own and doesn’t rely on that extra bit of meaning to be a phenomenal book for children.

I am thoroughly impressed with this picture book, and I was a huge supporter of last year’s WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES: POEMS FOR ALL SEASONS. I’m excited to hear what you think about A HOUSE THAT ONCE WAS.

Introduction by Erin

Heavy Medal Committee members and all other readers are now invited to discuss the strong points of this book. Later in the day we will open up the conversation to include less positive comments as well.


Steven Engelfried About Steven Engelfried

Steven Engelfried is the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at


  1. I really enjoyed this book and I think it’s such a wonderful example of how a seemingly short picture book can hold so much weight. “Haunting” is just the term I would use, Erin. It’s spooky, but enticing.

  2. Deborah Ford says:

    When I saw this book on the list, I felt the same emotions as when Last Stop on Market Street won the Newbery. “Wait. What?” Though HOUSE is on my best list, I never considered it as a Newbery contender. So that day, when I saw our list, I read it aloud to my audience without showing them the illustrations. What we decided that Erin is correct. HOUSE is lyrical. HOUSE does tell a story on its own. “Who was this someone who left without packing/ someone who’s gone but is still everywhere?” Then it goes on to make wonderful guesses about who the “someone” is.

    And then there is the maybe section: “maybe it loves to just sit and remember…” And the back section: “Back to house…” It reminds me of “Where the Wild Things Are.” The trees fade away and our dinner is still warm.

    And I love the rhyming and rhythm of the text. It makes for a good read aloud with repetition unlike other picture books. “Off to the side there’s a window that’s watching. A window that once opened wide. A window that now has no window at all. A window that says climb inside.”

    Excellent personification or anthropomorphic details. (And lovely for the Caldecott to consider as well.)

    • Courtney Hague says:

      I agree. The personification and anthropomorphic details really make the text stand out (and on its own really). Generally, I agree with what Erin and Deborah have said before. The text is haunting and definitely stands on its own as a poem. The illustrations are lovely but the text can be understood even without them.

    • Such a perfect description, Deborah! I adore this title, but also didn’t fully think of it as “Newbery.” The language is just so beautiful though and the personification is amazing. I read it thinking I’d want to frame quotes for my walls!

    • I knew from the moment I first read this book, that forever and always I would use it to talk to my students about setting. So atmospheric.

      I believed, and have believed for years, that Fogliano’s books can walk the world without illustrations, but once the illustrations have been added there is an element of understanding that is taken from the reader and made concrete. Not a negative, but a change.

      • sarahbtlibrarian says:

        Agreed! This is a fantastic example of setting and creating a memorable and atmospheric setting in just a few words. It’s stunning and gave me chills. Haunting is such a great way to describe it.

    • I actually wasn’t a fan of the illustrations in this one… so it wasn’t hard to put those aside in my mind and focus on the text. Fogliano is one of THE very best.

      I do though, think that its rather difficult to analyze one single poem as a distinguished contribution to children’s literature and that’s essentially what we have here. I mean, I argued for WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES partly because the quantity of different poems within that collection provided so much depth and cohesiveness within the seasonal theme of the “story” being told. A HOUSE THAT ONCE WAS does tell a story, but it’s a short one.

  3. I think this is a great example of a picture book text that is worthy of consideration. The text is short but evocative and draws the reader in to the abandoned house.

  4. The difficulty with analyzing a picture book is that it’s essentially analyzing a single poem. Every single word stands out. If something seems a little off to me in a longer work, it’s one sentence among thousands. If something is a little off in a picture book, it’s a significant proportion of the work. That places an almost unfair pressure on the picture book text.

    I say that as context for my mixed feelings. On the one hand I found parts of the book evocative and haunting – the passages quoted by Erin in her review, for example. But that makes the bits I didn’t love stand out more. I’m happy to accept that the fantasy stories spun around who might have lived here are intended to be wild and silly, but this was also the part of the book where I suddenly felt that the rhymes were being forced. What had felt effortless and poignant was suddenly making me trip up as I said “queen and king” instead of the more usual “king and queen” just to make it rhyme. But is it really fair to pick at what is five or six lines? I wouldn’t place nearly the same weight if it were five or six lines in a longer work.

    • Mary Zdrojewski says:

      I felt the same way. The parts of exploring the house and wondering gave me chills. The “who might have lived here” stories lacked the flow. I found the difference so strong it felt like one book inside another.

  5. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    Alys’ comment about forced rhymes is a good example of the challenge of writing Newbery-worthy picture book text. For this part of the discussion, though, let’s hold off on concerns or potential flaws. Sticking to looking at the strengths of each book in the beginning sets up a good consistent flow for the discussions and also follows the practice that the actual Newbery Committee is likely to use. Sometimes the positive comments may be sparse, and that can be an indicator that a lot of critical comments are about to rain down. We’ll open the discussion to all viewpoints a bit later this afternoon….

    • The first day’s discussion the concerns were opened at 3:00, so I didn’t think I was jumping the gun too much at 2:30 when I knew I wouldn’t get near a computer again until 9:00. Is there an official time that concerns can begin to be raised? I noticed that the official opening of crticiticism runs from 3:05 (Spurge) to 8:41 (today) or never (I didn’t see it for Hey, Kiddo) and that’s quite a range.

      • Steven Engelfried says:

        Alys, you’re right, we haven’t been consistent with the “open up for all opinions” notifications. Our plan was to see how the comments go with each book. If there’s not many comments on one, maybe give a little more time for positives. The other variable is the same one most of us face: our days at our jobs or wherever vary a lot so that Roxanne and I aren’t always right on top of when to chime in with the the shift. We thought we could be more consistent than it turns out we’re able to be. Seeing how it’s gone so far, I agree that just having a standard time to open up the discussion makes practical sense. So starting now, we’ll welcome any comments, negative or positive, beginning at 12:00 noon Eastern, 3:00 pm Pacific. Roxanne or I may open up the discussion earlier, but if you don’t see a comment from us by then, feel free. Hope that makes sense to everyone. Thanks, Alys!

  6. I liked the juxtaposition of opposites ‘A door that is not really open but barely. A door that is closed but not quite” “inside the house it is silent but creaking” . This back and forth helps to convey the uncertainty one feels when considering and then entering an abandoned house. Very effective!

  7. samuel leopold says:

    So…..when our “finalists” list first came out, I admit I “pouted” inside for a while because I did not believe this title to be as strong a Newbery contender as The Day You Begin or Dreamers. But I decided to be open-minded about the possibilities…..and I did another evaluation—-and I have done a complete 180 degree turn here. Steven, your introduction was lovely and your explanation of “presentation of theme” was spot on.
    The descriptions above of how personification and juxtaposition of opposites helps set this apart from other picture book texts crushed it in terms of accurate analysis.

    “A door that is closed
    but not quite.”

    This line in the book for me is one of the most powerful lines I have read in any text this year. Such a simple, but complex way of creating a picture of not just the uncertainty of entering an unknown house but the reality the children will someday face about entering the uncertainty of adulthood. The last pages of the children going back to their home makes the reader think the abandoned house was once like their home and someday their home could become an abandoned place being explored by young children someday. Maybe I am over-analyzing this, but the metaphor of childhood and the passing of time felt strong to me as I re-evaluated the writing. Now maybe I am being a bit reminiscent here since my daughter just recently told me I am going to be a Grandpa for the first time—-but , even aside from that, I have changed my mind on this title—-and that change of mind has only been confirmed by the excellent comments above by all of the Committee members—-and I now see this as the best text written this year within a picture book format.

  8. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    We’ll now open up the discussion to include any negative comments or concerns about this book.

  9. Cherylynn5691 says:

    I enjoy this book as well as the rest of you, but I have a concern about putting this into the hands of children. I was a child with an abandoned lot across the street where we hung out. As I grew older I realized the dangers. This book to me is an invitation for children to enter an abandoned house. You see kids climbing past broken glass in the pictures. I believe this is a beautiful book both in words and pictures, but I cannot say that I would want this book handed to a child who thinks it is cool to go into an abandoned house with possible rotting floorboards and broken glass.

    • This is interesting! When I was a kid in the 80s there was an old structure in the woods behind my house that I explored, and I told my students about that when I read this book to them. (I also said they should never do such a thing and that I see it differently now because I am a mom.)

      However, I don’t agree that just because something is in a book means it is an invitation to misbehave or act in a dangerous way. I mean, Busytown books are full of dangerous activities. There are even disturbing ideas in Busytown like the pig who runs the deli – yikes! 🙂 I also didn’t believe that kids were drawn to witchcraft because of Harry Potter. I believe books are the safest way to learn and I’d much rather have a student read about exploring an abandoned building than actually do such a thing unsupervised.

      • I agree that this book isn’t an invitation to misbehave. Kids who are going to misbehave will do so with or without a book’s message. I tromped through many an abandoned house (and construction site – thanks, urban sprawl of metropolitan DC!) as a kid (and teenager). I would’ve done it with or without the goading of a book.

  10. HOUSE THAT ONCE WAS is a lovely poem. Susan and Sam have both pointed to passages that I positively loved. Fogliano’s manipulation of language and words and sounds is nothing short of marvelous.

    But. It’s a poem. If we pulled out all the stanzas, it might cover a page and a half.

    The rest of these books are novels. In my brain, I can’t reconcile the two. I seriously don’t know how to stack this up to the others – even the ones on our reading list that I *don’t* like. I want to learn how to be able to do it, though because I feel like I’m missing out on a larger discussion and therefore can’t contribute effectively. And I want to be able to.

    I do wonder how a committee is able to balance the text of a picture book with that of a novel. Destinee might be able to chime in here since she was on the 2016 committee. Or maybe she can’t. I don’t know how secret the secrets are.

    But I do love a good secret.

    • Yes, I agree with you here. Do we simply go off of how the books made us feel? Comparing different styles is quite tricky and even comparing this poetry book with Poet X is difficult because of the difference in length and audience. I’m glad for everyone who is able to put their thoughts into words so succinctly and am learning quite a bit about how to judge a book regardless of style or genre.

    • I agree with you. When we talk about the other titles, the complexity of the plot and the strengths of the characters come up, and there’s nothing like that here. It is lovely and lyrical but it is hard for me to understand how a picture book text is substantial enough to be considered for the Newbery. I am on record as not being a fan of BRANGWAIN but there was so much more to the book.

      After 2016, my husband (a 4th grade teacher) said, “Isn’t this insulting to the writers of chapter books?” I wouldn’t necessarily be that extreme but in this case, I can see the strengths of this lovely writing and yet I am unsure how one poem can be more distinguished than what Curtis does in THE JOURNEY OF LITTLE CHARLIE?

    • I’d be happy to chime in a bit on this question of how to compare picture books to novels. First, the age range for the Newbery is 0-14. Why do we tend to focus on the upper end? Can we stop and consider what is the most distinguished work of American literature for the younger end of that range? It will not do to say, “Oh young children have the Caldecott and Geisel.” Being on the Newbery committee means you have a duty to consider children 0-7. Not just 8-14. So is a well-written picture book just a single poem? Or is it a work of a literature for a young child who as a shorter attention span and is developmentally distinct from older children? How does the language (and plot, characters, themes, etc.) of a picture book work for a younger child’s sensibilities? Can a five-year-old child get as much out of HOUSE as a 14-year-old child can get out of HEY KIDDO? When you consider that a young child may ask that a picture book be read and re-read to them multiple times, and have conversations with their grown-ups about it, may even memorize the entire thing… I mean, can that be anything other than great literature for children? An excellent picture book can be hugely meaningful to a young child. Just as meaningful as a great novel can be for an older child.

      My co-committee member Mary wrote this lovely article about her response to this question. You can find it here:

      • “Can a five-year-old child get as much out of HOUSE as a 14-year-old child can get out of HEY KIDDO?”

        I think that is *exactly* where I’ve gone wrong, Destinee: failing to make that connection. Thank you so much for the link to the article, which is also especially helpful, and taking the time to respond with grace.

      • And you know what else?

        CROWN won an honor last year, and I was totally stoked about it and crowed about how much it was richly deserved. Why on earth was I having trouble with the discussion *now*? Thanks for knocking me back into place.

      • Thank you for this! It really helps in framing my thinking when comparing different format of books.

      • Thank you for the link, Destinee, this is great. An important read for all of us!

  11. The writing is just so lovely. And it’s nice that it is a stand alone poem, so, like Crown from last year, it seems easy to evaluate separately from the pictures. Those who are having trouble figuring out how to compare this with novels, how are you feeling about Crown? It is definitely tough that the Newbery covers such a wide range of types of writing, but I think we have to just evaluate each thing based on how well it does what it is trying to do. (That’s an old Roger Ebert philosophy about why a really good horror movie and a really good high-brow movie both deserve 5 stars.)

    • I think Katrina hit the nail on the head — how well does the book do what it sets out to do?

      This is a total tangent, but let’s look at the 1958 Newbery winners:

      1958 Medal Winner: Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith
      Honor Books:
      The Horsecatcher by Mari Sandoz
      Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright
      The Great Wheel by Robert Lawson
      Tom Paine, Freedom’s Apostle by Leo Gurko

      Do you know what else came out that year? THE CAT IN THE HAT. So which of these books was the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children?

      Obviously the real committee can’t possibly pretend to know which books will stand the test of time. And, to be honest, I haven’t actually read RIFLES FOR WATIE. But I wonder if the 1958 committee seriously considered the achievement of THE CAT IN THE HAT or dismissed it as too simple, just a poem.

      • Good. Point.

        I’ve not read RIFLES yet. It’s in the remaining pile of ten Newbery winners I’ve yet to read.

        And I’m not excited about reading it. But CAT IN THE HAT? Yeah. I’ll read that one again. 🙂

      • It would be fun to evaluate some of the old winners like WATIE. My class read it in (I believe) 7th grade and I loved it and I read it many times after that, though of course I have not read it in years. I thought it was so exciting and romantic. I wonder how I’d feel about it now.

    • Courtney Hague says:

      Great point, Katrina! I definitely need to remember to frame this as “does this work do well what it set out to do?” I think it’s really easy to think in the ages 8-14 middle grade novel frame and forget that the Newbery should encompass all ages up to 14 which means both picture books and beginning readers.

    • Good question, Katrina. I think that CROWN felt like a worthy honor to me but it was an honor, not a winner. It also felt specific to a particular audience in a way that A HOUSE THAT ONCE WAS does not (and, tbh, I feel the same way about LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET).

      I can get behind this argument about whether the text of a picture book is excellent for a particular age but I think CROWN is a better example of that than MARKET STREET. I would put HOUSE in between the two.

      I know we are getting pretty far away from how this discussion is supposed to be constructed since we aren’t supposed to be comparing HOUSE with MARKET STREET so I will stop here. 🙂

  12. Jessica Lee says:

    Sorry to be a day behind in the praise-heaping. In looking at the language, I was particularly impressed with the rhythm and rhyme because they were so carefully used. Children’s books often suffer from a heaping of rhyme and rhythm which each line sing-songing into the next. A HOUSE THAT ONCE WAS doesn’t fall into that trap. The rhythms shift and don’t always fall on the same beat. Some lines are longer than others. Some lines end with a word that doesn’t rhyme with any nearby words. This inconsistency keeps the reader slightly off-balance. This seems particularly well-suited for the mood of this book which shifts from curious to melancholic. There is a certain optimism in kids wandering off to see what they can discover. But the emptiness of their discoveries, the loss that the house has experienced, pulls us emotionally in another direction. I think that the shifting from simple rhymes to longer lines to repetition to words that don’t connect sonically anywhere is masterful and perfect for this particular work.
    Now to that big question of Newbery-worthy — Fogliano’s depiction of setting and theme is spot-on. As I already expressed, her language is impeccable and supporting of the theme. But in the two criteria of characterization and plot, this slim volume falls short. Can a book with barely developed characters and such a thin plot still be considered? If a book excels in three criteria but falls short in two others, is it still worthy of discussion?

    • Jessica, I think you’ve hit upon something super important here. There *is* something unexpected in the meter of the poetry in HOUSE. Fogliano could have recycled poetic tropes that we’ve seen time and time again in poetry for children. We could have seen an ABAB pattern or a predictable, Dr. Seussian meter. But that’s not what we have.

      After reading Destinee’s and yours comments, I went back to the HOUSE and read it out loud. Immediately, the second page contains a really fabulous bit of that “inconsistency” you mention, and it works perfectly:

      at the top of a hill/sits the house/that is leaning
      a house that once wasn’t/but now it is peeling
      a house that was once/painted blue

      I love how “it is” hasn’t been contracted in the second line. Because of that choice, the tongue almost skips along the t’s in the entire line, convincing the brain (well, my brain – thank heavens y’all don’t have the same one) another -ing will follow for the third line, but it’s not there. At all. Instead, we have a soft, somber landing.

      A landing that’s immediately ballooned on the next page, where the line breaks change and the winding of the path mirrors the winding of the weeds.

      Yeah. I can totally compare this to the novels now. I’m on board.

    • Jessica, I think that since the book must only be distinguished in the criteria that apply to it, and the argument can be made that plot or character don’t particularly apply here, it’s okay to discuss the other aspects of the book with serious consideration.

      I also think that if you consider the house to be a “character”, we do get at least some character development.

      • I agree.

      • Yes exactly,Alys. I have my students complete a rubric for each of the Newbery titles they read based on the criteria elements. Often for non-fiction or poetry, I instruct them to cancel out the elements that are not present in the text.

  13. samuel leopold says:

    DaNae….excellent idea……I plan on “borrowing” that……Thank you.

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