I first encountered 1943 Caldecott Medal winner The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton via the Disney cartoon short adaptation that I loved when I was a child. This was in the days before VCRs, even, so I had to be grateful whenever I managed to catch the short on TV, and it was never often enough. The story’s essential distrust of human nature spoke to 5-year-old me, and I think this interest is what grew and flourished into a lifelong love of dystopias, post-apocalyptic scenarios, science fiction, fantasy, and horror.
But I digress.
I had no idea that my beloved cartoon was based on a book until I finally stumbled across a copy when I was a preteen, and I keenly felt the years I’d been robbed of not knowing of the book’s existence. I’ve been making up for lost time rereading and recommending it to people ever since. The endpapers tell the whole story with its rows of images of the house slowly fading and growing unhappier as time goes by and horses, trees, and fields are replaced by trucks, skyscrapers, and telephone wire. I saw a great exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum some years ago that delved into Burton’s experience as a print maker and fabric artist and how her work with patterns in those areas impacted her illustration, and I see that in these endpapers as well as in the book itself. Repeated images are part of every page, and Burton employs sweeping curved lines and shapes throughout. This provides a sense of constancy and reassurance as the book moves into its hard edge. One of my favorite illustrations is the first full spread, which shows the pink house on a hill covered in rows of daisies with a series of suns arcing overhead from left to right in a wash of gold, showing time passing. I love how cheeky that sun is, too, winking and flirting with the audience. Everything speaks to contentment and happiness here, even the house itself with her (it’s identified in the text as female) window eyes happy and porch steps gently smiling. The next several spreads talk about night and show the seasons passing; we see the house in the exact same spot while the world changes around her.
Then the city starts moving in with its houses and cars and pollution. As the houses become buildings and then skyscrapers, Burton’s predominantly blue and green images grow more and more black and the little house fades, her window eyes and porch steps becoming sadder and sadder.
The way Burton anthropomorphizes this house is genius. It is the subtlest of strokes that give this house life and emotion, and this is a hard thing to pull off without becoming silly. Much as I still love that Disney adaptation (you can view it here), its images of the house are less subtle and affecting. The cartoon house doesn’t really look like a house, and its hard to take its emotions seriously. In the book, this house always looks like a house, and what that poor house goes through is heartbreaking for a few pages. Thank goodness it comes out okay in the end, and Burton gives us a lovely spread that echoes the beginning. The little house once again in her place–the seasons, sun, flowers, greens, and blues all doing cameos.
I went to the Carle way back when to see that Virginia Lee Burton exhibit specifically so I could see original pieces from this book, and wow. Just wow. I stared and stared and wanted to steal them, though they are in bad shape and probably best left in the hands of preservationists.
I will always love this book.