October 12, 2017
(++++) SMALL HOMES WITH BIG HEARTS
The Little House: Her Story—75th Anniversary Edition. By Virginia Lee Burton. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.
A Little House Picture Book Treasury: Six Stories of Life on the Prairie. Adapted from the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Illustrated by Renée Graef, Jody Wheeler, and Doris Ettlinger. Harper. $24.99.
Little House Chapter Book #5: Christmas Stories. Adapted by Heather Henson from the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Illustrated by Ji-Hyuk Kim. Harper. $4.99.
It is really an exceptional book, one that retells the urbanization of America from the 19th century into the 20th in terms so simple that children can easily understand what is going on while reading a sweet story of a thinking, feeling house. It is Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House: Her Story, originally published in 1942 and now available in a handsome new hardcover edition that includes a page of window cling stickers and a free audio download of a reading of the story. Burton (1909-1968) had a lovely feeling for what would appeal to young kids both in tale-telling and in illustrations, and The Little House is one of her sweetest books – and, thanks to its historical perspective, one of the ones most likely to appeal to 21st-century kids living in a frenetic and technologically frantic world. The house of the book’s title is built far out in the country by a man determined to see his “great-great-grandchildren’s great-great-grandchildren living in her.” And for a while, the house exists quietly through the seasons and the years, appreciating the simple pleasures of the countryside and – thanks to Burton’s lovely drawings – appearing to wear a perpetual smile (windows as eyes, door as nose, curved front steps as smiling mouth). The house sometimes wonders about the distant city, but does not think too much about it – until, over time, the city encroaches on its setting. First there is a road, and then horseless carriages start to supplant horse-pulled ones, and then there are more and more cars, and multi-story buildings are built all around the little house, which remains on a tiny patch of greenery. The city grows and grows: trolley cars appear, an elevated train, a subway, and taller and taller buildings – a perfect encapsulation of history for younger readers, and one giving parents plenty of chances to explain just how realistic Burton’s time frame is. Eventually the house is surrounded by huge buildings and streetlights and all sorts of city features; and as she falls into disrepair, she thinks unhappily of her former life (now her “face” looks distinctly sad, thanks to the magic of Burton’s drawing style). But all this builds toward a happy ending, when a descendant of the little house’s builder spots the house, decides to renovate it, and arranges for it to be moved out of the city to an all-new country place – and never mind the real-world difficulty of all that! By the book’s end, the house is once more smiling on a hill in the country, and “once again she was lived in and taken care of.” Aris Demetrios, Burton’s son, contributes an Afterword to the book, giving readers a sense of what it was like growing up with Burton, hearing her words and seeing her art as they first came into being. “Indeed, each year, my mother would draw our home as the cover of our Christmas cards for friends and family,” Demetrios writes, and yes, the family lived in a home “very much like the one pictured” in The Little House. Sharing these memories with Demetrios will make today’s children – and their parents – feel even more of the warmth that pervades The Little House and will make the suitable happy ending all the happier.
A famous house of an earlier era, in a different kind of locale, is the centerpiece of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories of life on a Midwestern pioneer farm in the late 19th century. Wilder (1867-1957) wrote eight books about the Little House on the Prairie from 1932 to 1943 – although that famous title actually goes with the third book (the first was published as Little House in the Big Woods). Six stories taken from Wilder’s writings make up A Little House Picture Book Treasury, which will appeal to readers as young as four and, indeed, to pre-readers, thanks to the engaging art and simplified text. Slightly older readers, ages 6-10, will enjoy chapter-book excerpts from the Little House tales, such as Christmas Stories – in fact, both these books contain the chapter “Christmas in the Big Woods,” taken from the first Little House book, although in differing adaptations and with illustrations that are homespun and pleasant in very different ways. The stories in A Little House Picture Book Treasury all start by introducing Laura and her family, so they are very easy to read as separate tales, starting with the construction of the log cabin where Laura and her family were to live and eventually leading to “Christmas in the Big Woods.” The nine short chapters in Christmas Stories are drawn from multiple books, and the sentiments throughout are straightforward, family-focused and amply packed with gratitude: “The cups and the candy and the cake were almost too much. They were too happy to speak.” And “Laura looked around at all the happy, smiling faces. ‘Every Christmas is better than the Christmas before,’ she thought. ‘It must be because I’m growing up.’” Be that as it may, the pervasive nostalgia of the Little House books is amply communicated through the simplified excerpts in these collections, and the naïveté and family pleasantries that have long made the books favorites with families living less-than-ideal modern lives come through quite clearly. It is easy to dismiss Wilder’s Little House books as relics of an earlier time, and indeed few modern readers know the reason they began to be written: Wilder and her husband lost everything in the stock-market crash of 1929 and the Depression that followed, and desperately needed income. Like Burton’s Little House, the one that Wilder made famous existed in reality, but not precisely in the state of pleasant delight in which it appears again and again throughout Wilder’s stories. Burton’s book and the selections from those by Wilder can well serve today both as memoirs of the past and as introductions for today’s children to the way life was lived in long-ago times, before the now-taken-for-granted conveniences of modern life. And perhaps the books can help parents show children that it is not always what one has that matters, but where one has it – in a house that is very much a home.