When a former United States Poet Laureate (2004-2006) and Pulitzer Prize for poetry winner (2005) sets their pen to writing for children, it’s hard not to be curious of the outcome. The House Held Up by Trees, published by Candlewick Press in 2012, is the second picture book by the acclaimed poet Ted Kooser. Jon Klassen adds digitally edited watercolor visuals and brings illustrator-of-the-moment status to the project. Klassen is also the author and illustrator of the brilliantly deadpan I Want My Hat Back as well as the companion title This is Not My Hat.
The main character in The House Held Up By Trees seemed familiar to me and then I realized that I have lived next door to this man more than once. Once where the neighbors cut their grass three times for each one of my lazy mowings and currently where the man adjacent is so fastidious with the upkeep of his yard that I have witnessed him using a leaf blower during a rainstorm. Much like them, the owner of the small country house at the center of this picture book world meticulously and deeply cares for the appearance of his lawn. He ritually manicures it as his young children watch from the outskirts of the neat green clearing.
Helicopter like seeds of maple rivet down to earth and take root but at the first sign of growth the father appears to pull them individually from his immaculate rectangle. Many seasons of careful maintenance pass and the daughter and son who have watched their father’s devotion to order are now of an age for moving from their childhood home. Retirement comes for the man which only increases his drive to tame nature. More time passes and eventually he is unable to keep up and he begins to long for living close to his children once more. And so he does and the house is put up for sale.
“As it happened, nobody wanted to buy the house. Nobody could explain why, but it just didn’t seem like a house where anybody wanted to live. That happens sometimes.”
Without the property’s caretaker, seedlings that were once carefully plucked from the ground are now allowed to grow. Years go by and the seeds become trees and the once new and well cared for house has become dilapidated. Glass from the windows has been broken and shingles fallen away from the roof and then we can see that oddly enough trees have begun to grow from the interior.
Considering the general picture book audience, disintegration and the passing of time may not pop out as go-to themes. But why not devote some time to pondering such matters? Children will come to see that things that were once new eventually break and that nature will have its way with us be it in the end or points in between. These concepts are simple enough to grasp and yet there’s no fear here of exposing an elementary aged reader to morbidity; instead here lies an opportunity to introduce the concept of acceptance. There's also a quietness and sense of awe aimed at the natural world both of which could always bare cultivation. This picture book does nothing to overstimulate the reader and is compelling enough for those who have come to rely on such.
“And very gradually, the growing trees began to lift the house off its foundation. First there was a crack of light beneath it, and then in a few more years, you could see all the way across the top of the foundation.”
Because who wouldn't be intrigued by the idea of a clump of trees that raise a house from up off the ground? I know I am.
Watch an interview with Kooser and see the actual house that inspired the story.
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