Archive | October 2016

Homeplace, by Anne Shelby and Wendy Anderson Halperin

Homeplace, by Anne Shelby and Wendy Anderson Halperin

Homeplace is a fascinating book that brings to life an important subject: history. It’s back cover promises that it tells the story of one family from 1810 to the present – and the house that they all lived in. There’s a patchwork of memories on the front and back cover – a woman quilting, a horse-drawn carriage, a model T, a Howdy Doody puppet. But they’re drawn in an old-fashioned style by Wendy Anderson Halperin – which makes the book feel like a thing of history, too.

The title page shows seven pictures of a girl planting flowers – but they’re arranged like panes of glass in a stained-glass window. Even the title itself is set in a fancy seraph font. “Your great-great-great-great-grandpa built this house,” the girl’s grandmother explains in their nursery. But this picture – and every drawing in the book – is fringed with a colorful filigree, like the ornaments on the frame of a painting.

Anne Selby’s simple text is just a starting point for illustrator Halperin. (Halperin shows a second picture on the same page of a bearded man in the forest – and a third one which shows him chopping a tree that he’d use to build the house.) While Selby writes that the man cleared the land, built a chimney and planted corn, it’s up to Halperin to bring it to life. She contributes 15 separate drawings to the page of the man hard at work – moving rocks, chiseling boards, stacking logs, and reaping his harvest. They suggest an entire life that’s been preserved in fragmented memories.

“Your great-great-great-great-grandma baked corn bread on the fireplace stones,” Selby continues. And soon the illustrations are showing glimpses of the homesteading wife and the rest of the family. There’s stew-cooking with an enormous pot, and feeding the children with ears of corn. One of the children grows up to be “your great-great-great-grandfather,” explains the narrating grandmother. “He grew like corn in the field…”

“Then he cleared more land.”

I’ve always been fascinated by history, and the idea that we could somehow, for a moment, make contact with lives from the past. So this book is almost magical, granting that wish of seeing our history. There’s rows and rows in a long-ago field, filled with thin stalks of wheat and grains. And there’s more pictures showing the plants, plus the family’s cows, and their sheep. On the fence rail around the field, there’s even a grey and white cat!

The sheeps’ wool is spun into warm shirts and britches by that man’s wife. She strings dry beans and apples to dry for dinner in winter. She stitches quilts into baby blankets, which will warm “your great-great-grandpa.” And he grows just as tall, in a house which is now larger. As the next generation begins…

William’s House, by Ginger Howard

William's House, by Ginger Howard

Ginger Howard studied architectural photography, and she’s even restored two historic homes. (She dedicated the book to “Jim and Jimmy Remond, always ready with hammer and nails.”) So for her first children’s book, she told the story behind a house built in 1637. “William knew just the kind of house he wanted,” her story opens. And soon she’s revealed that William is settling in America, though he was born in England.

“William cleared an area 20 feet square,” Howard writes, dedicating a whole page to the saplings and trees used for posts and fences. Since they don’t have any glass, William uses a translucent animal horn to create a window for his wife. Then he builds a fireplace in the corner, and stuffs corn husks into a bag to make a bed.

In fact, if this book has a fault, it’s that there’s too many details. Howard lists out the tasty dishes eaten by William and Elizabeth, and the problems with their stored food that tells them it’s time to build a cool cellar. In August the winds blow, and William realizes that “It is windier here than at home in England.” So to save the home from being crushed by a falling tree, William next cuts down all his trees.

The illustrations are colrful, drawn by an advertising storyboard artist named Larry Day. Day has two children, and used them as models for the children in “William’s House.” I like how he used an old-fashioned font on the title page, with a parchment scroll over a rustic landscape with birds in the sky. But like Howard, this is Day’s first book, and I wondered if that gave him an extra enthusiasm – or a novice’s uncertainty?

In the story, William puts shingles on his roof in autumn. Then in winter he replaces it with an even steeper roof to keep the snow from piling up. In January he builds a bigger fireplace. And when he realizes that it’s nothing like his home in England, he also realizes something else. “This is our new home. Welcome!”

Unfortunately, that’s the end of the book. Its whole story is about a construction project! But luckily, there’s a secret second story that’s scattered throughout the book. As Day’s watercolors illustrate the father’s worries about his house, Day tucks black and white sketches of William’s boys playing in the nearby woods. It’s a crucial component to the story, because it gives it an extra playfulness, and even some childish warmth.

Howard’s text may offer a peek into 1637 – but thanks to Day’s cheerful drawings, readers also get two more!