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Top 100 Picture Books #32: The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton

#32 The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton (1942)
53 points

I love this story and sometimes can’t get through it without crying. – Laurie Zaepfel

I just loved this story when I was younger. I still do. You learn about the seasons, pollution, the difference between rural and urban. And the artwork – love it! – Alexandra Eichel

because it’s an economically designed tale of change, entropy, and survival. – Philip Nel

Phil may be on to something with that. I feel that the status of Virginia Lee Burton’s two best known picture books, this and Mike Mulligan’s Steam Shovel, have experienced a change in status over the years. Mike Mulligan could be considered far more of a household name. After all he plays a big role in one of the Ramona books (or, at the very least, his personal needs do). The last time we conducted this poll, though, he ended up at #40 with The Little House at #25. Now . . . well, I’ll give it to you straight. Only three people voted for Mike this time around and none of them called him #1.  I mean, if you had sat me down, placed The Little House and Mike Mulligan in front of me side-by-side, and asked me to pick which one of the two would make it into the Top 25, the answer would have been Mike all that way.  I love me my Little House but certainly when I was growing up Mr. Mulligan had the most sway.  After all, 100 Best Books for Children says that of all her books, Ms. Burton’s, “greatest contribution to the American landscape remains the saga of Mary Anne and Mike Mulligan.”  Not anymore, it seems.  Certainly when one takes into account the current housing crises and the various dilapidated and forgotten homes around the country, the tale of The Little House has a lot more to say to us than that of a guy building a basement.  Plus it has the extra added advantage of featuring a house that’s just as depressed about its situation as its occupants would be.

The plot from my review: “Long ago a little house was built in the country. The man who built her decided that this house, special as it was, could never be bought and sold. Instead, he planned on leaving it to his children, his children’s children, and his children’s children’s children. Etc. The house was pleased with the arrangement. It watched the seasons go by. It watched the children that played in it grow up and move away. It even watched the changing fashions and modes of transportation. Horse and buggies one day, automobiles the next. This is all well and good until a new asphalt road appears. Suddenly it’s a heckuva lot easier for people to reach the area in which the little house lives. Things get faster and suddenly the little house is surrounded by tenement houses. Then there are trolley cars (oh the trolley cars). Next comes elevated trains, and subways, and (worst of all) gigantic skyscrapers on either side of the now seriously dilapidated little house. One day, a descendent of the original owner sees the house and inquires after it. Since it turns out she owns it (I guess… the book’s a little shaky on the legal aspects of ownership at this point) the house is summarily picked up by movers and taken to the country she loves so much. Happy house. Happy family. The end.”

Just prior to writing The Little House, Burton actually attempted to write a book that can only be described as far and away ahead of her time.  In the late 30s, early 40s she noticed that her nine-year-old son loved his comic books.  The answer?  Calico the Wonder Horse; or, The Saga of Stewy Slinker was an honest-to-goodness picture book in a comic-book format.  As Minders of Make-Believe puts it, the book was a “gallant though futile gesture.”  The Little House was made soon thereafter and got itself a Caldecott Medal in 1943, so there you go.

And then, of course, there was the Disney animated short of the same.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.