Heavy Medal Finalist: A HOUSE THAT ONCE WAS by Julie Fogliano
In a year packed full of outstanding picture books, Julie Fogliano’s A HOUSE THAT ONCE WAS still feels individually distinct. The lyrical narration conjures up feelings of curiosity, wonder, and just a bit of nostalgia. Even though the first few pages of text are quite haunting, the illustrations are more whimsical than wary. But in some ways, this book feels like a ghost story, a story about someone no longer here (like a picture book version of Dame Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca).
But as the characters make their way into the abandoned house, the book begins to feel more inquisitive and charming, like sifting through my grandparents’ attic packed full of trinkets and treasures. Each find is made more special by the stories they tell and the memories they invoke. To the kids, this is just an empty house:
Deep in the woods
is a house
just a house
that once was
but now isn’t
But as they ask questions, and ascribe stories to the house, it becomes clear that it isn’t something that makes a house a home, but rather someone:
Who was this someone
who ate beans for dinner
who sat by this fire
who looked in this mirror?
Who was this someone
whose books have been waiting
whose bed is still made
whose pictures are fading?
And for me, it’s Fogliano’s presentation of theme that really sets her work apart from other picture books this year. She invokes this theme of ‘what makes a house a home’ through curiosity and questions, allowing her characters to discover and imagine the person who was here before, to feel the presence of someone despite their absence.
Fogliano’s verse is packed full of meaning and layers:
At the front of the house
the house that is waiting
there’s a door that is not really open
A door that is closed
but not quite.
A door that is stuck between coming and going
A door that was once painted white.
Who is the house waiting for? Is it inviting visitors? Waiting for its lost tenant? Waiting for someone new? The imagery here indicates the house is in some sort of limbo between living and dying. All it needs is a little love and someone to call it home for new life to take over.
For the purposes of our discussion, we should focus solely on the text, as it needs to be distinguished on its own without relying on illustrations for context and meaning. But there are some details in the illustrations that make this picture book extra special. For example, we see the clues the children find that lead them to particular ideas about who lived here before. We see the ships on the walls, the paintbrushes and paint, the records on the floor, the airplane on the shelf. We also see a family of bluebirds who seem to slowly but surely claiming the house as their own. In my opinion, the text doesn’t rely on these illustrations, but they do add an element of charm and possibly context.
The verse tells us that nature is intruding in on the house, but it doesn’t tell us anything about the bluebirds who are making this house their home. And I think that element of the picture book adds a really special meaning that doesn’t exist without the illustrations. However, the verse is distinguished on its own and doesn’t rely on that extra bit of meaning to be a phenomenal book for children.
I am thoroughly impressed with this picture book, and I was a huge supporter of last year’s WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES: POEMS FOR ALL SEASONS. I’m excited to hear what you think about A HOUSE THAT ONCE WAS.
Introduction by Erin
Heavy Medal Committee members and all other readers are now invited to discuss the strong points of this book. Later in the day we will open up the conversation to include less positive comments as well.
Filed under: Book Discussion
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired in 2022 after 35 years as a full-time librarian. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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