House Held Up By Trees is the second picture book by former National Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Ted Kooser. Kooser's first picture book, Bag in the Wind, is a wonderful story in and of itself, but carries with is a subtle message about the value and importance of reusing our resources. Bag in the Wind is illustrated by Barry Root in mostly quiet, somber colors that reflect the tone of the story as well as the rural setting. Kooser lives in Garland, Nebraska and, as he says on the title page of House Held Up By Trees, "Not far from here, I have seen a house held up by the hands of trees. This is its story." For House Held Up By Trees, the fantastic Jon Klassen draws from his familiar earth toned palette to illustrate this book in a similarly quiet but powerful way. After you read House Held Up By Trees, go back and read it again, this time just looking at the illustrations, and notice how Klassen tells the story of the house visually, presenting it from different angles, even aerial. In this way, the illustrations of the house convey emotion and tell the story of the man who lived in the house that then becomes the story of the house without the man as this inanimate object is imbued with meaning.
Kooser tells the story of House Held Up By Trees in a way that reminded me immediately of the invaluable Virginia Lee Burton's Caldecott winner from 1943, The Little House, with an echo of Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree. However, as he did with Bag in the Wind, Kooser takes a story that has potential for emotional friction and tells it as it is in his straightforwardly poetic fashion.
House Held Up By Trees begins, "When it was new, the house stood alone on a bare square of earth. There was a newly planted lawn around it, but not a single tree to give shade in the summer or rattle its bare twigs in the winter cold. There had been trees there once, but all of them had been cut down to make room for the house. Even the stumps had been pulled up and burned." There are children living in the house, trees on either side of it and a father who works hard to keep his lawn perfect, pulling shoots and weeds and mowing, even after a day of hard work away from home. But, trees "are not so easily discouraged, however, and every summer they would send more seeds flying his way." As the children grow up and closer to leaving home, it seemed the "harder their father worked on his lawn." Then, one day they are long gone and he decides it is time to leave as well. He would, "find an apartment in the city, maybe somewhere near his son and daughter. And maybe they'd invite him over for dinner once in a while." He puts a "For Sale" sign up in front of his house.
But the house sits empty and little trees begin sprouting here and there on the lawn. It seems that "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." Nature takes over and Kooser's writing becomes even more lovely. "Some of the seeds had sprouted along the foundation, where the water ran off the roof and into a deep crack, and these little trees were soon saplings, pressed against the side of the house. When the wind blew, they waved back and forth, making dark arcs on the fading paint." As the weather wears the house down and it begins to collapse in on itself, the "young trees kept it from falling apart, and as they grew bigger and stronger, they held it together as if it was a bird's nest in the fingers of their branches. And very gradually, the growing trees began to lift the house off its foundation." Kooser ends his story saying, "The trees lifted and lifted it, and maybe you will drive past it today or tomorrow, as it floats there above the ground like a tree house, a house in the trees, a house held together by the strength of trees, and the wind blowing, perfumed by the little green flowers."
Beautiful. Almost magical, but just a bit too practical for that kind of word. Ted Kooser is a masterful story teller in miniature which, if you think about it, is what a poet does with a poem. Kooser's skills seem perfectly suited for the picture book format and I can't think of a better written, more significant picture book that has been written in the last few years. This is a book to give as a gift, a book that will imprint upon the memory of a child and stay with that child for years to come. A book the grown child will seek out decades later to read to new children. A classic.
Enjoy these images from Jon Klassen's website, Burst of Beaden.