Thursday, April 19, 2012

Counting Down to Earth Day: Day 4

House Held Up By Trees
By Ted Kooser
Illustrated by Jon Klassen
Candlewick, 2012
$16.99, ages 4-10, 32 pages

When a little house is boarded up and forgotten, trees sprout up around it and lift it into the sky, in this stirring picture book about the power of nature to lift us up.

As he did in his moving debut Bag in the Wind, author Ted Kooser addresses a conflict between man and nature, but in such a gentle way that it never feels as if any judgment is being made.

In Bag in the Wind, he follows the journey of a discarded bag that's gotten loose in the wind, while here, he observes a man determined to keep trees from sprouting in his lot so that he can have a perfect lawn.

Kooser, in an author's note, explains that the man is struggling against time; as he fights to keep nature from taking over his yard, what he's really fighting is change. His children are growing up and moving away, and there's nothing he can do to stop it.

But like paintings, books can be interpreted in many ways, and to me, House Held Up By Trees is also a triumphant story of nature reclaiming what was taken from it, then of nature forgiving those who've trespassed on it.

Atmospheric paintings give the story a tender, dreamy feel, while showcasing the wild beauty of nature. Illustrator Jon Klassen (This is Not My Hat) depicts woods as graceful, serene places of streaming light and shadows that beckon readers in.

The effect of all of this, the gentle, poetic words and sepia-like pictures, is almost meditative. Readers feel for the man's struggle and see the disconnect between order and chaos play out, then work through the conflicts in their own minds.

What a lovely book to inspire discussions about accepting what cannot be controlled, like the passage of time, and recognizing what can, such as the way humans exist with nature.

When the story opens, all that readers see is the house sitting on a bare square of earth and blurry white paint strokes at the horizon line, where woods have been pushed out of view.

Before the house was built, the lot was cleared of trees that had been part of those woods. Even the stumps were piled up and burned, as nature was banished to the far edges of the property.

The house, having never known those woods, never knew what it was like to have them near: what is was like to be shaded by leaves or feel the rattle of branches on its windows. And the man never seemed to miss them.

Only his son and daughter ever went near the edge of the property, or even seemed to look that way. Lured by the smell of the trees' tiny, green flowers, they'd run off to the woods to play in the underbrush.

"Beneath the trees were bushes so thickly woven together that you had to crawl on your hands and knees to get to the cool and shadowy secret places inside," Kooser writes.

Sometimes they'd just lay in the trees' shadows and watch their father work on his lawn, diligently pushing his mower back and forth until the lawn was as tidy as carpet.

Every summer after their flowers faded, the trees would send their seeds like little propellers floating down onto the lot and they would root in the grass.

But the man was always ready to lop them where they grew. And so summer after summer, the woods were kept away.

As years passed, the man's children grew up and moved away, and the man grew old and become too frail to keep up the battle or perhaps too sad to be alone.

He boarded up his house, put a For Sale sign in the grass and left (perhaps to go off and live near his children as older parents sometimes do).

Only, that left the house and yard with no one to care for them. Long grass grew up the legs of the For Sale sign and little trees began to sprout in the yard.

Days came and went, and no one bought the house. Soon it began to fall into disrepair. Paint flaked, shingles blew off and saplings sprouted in its gutters.

Then one day someone threw a rock at the house and broke a window, and sparrows began nesting inside.

Trees began to sprout around the house's foundation and the house grew so rickety that it began to fall in. But it didn't.

Because the trees reached out to support it.

"The winds pushed at the house, but the young trees kept it from falling apart, and as they grew bigger and bigger, they held it together as if it was a bird's nest in the fingers of their branches."

Then one day, the trees lifted the house up in the air -- as if they had conspired to cheer it up.

Kooser may have intended the house to be a metaphor for the man, and the trees to represent his children supporting him in old age, but I like to think the trees were showing us all what is possible: a nature co-existing with humans.

Could it be that the trees were reaching out to the house in a way that the man could not reach out to nature? That in the end, they had forgiven the house (and man) that had displaced them and welcomed the house into their branches?

This is book that will make you think and make you wonder, and fill you with respect for the power of nature: its power to persist and illuminate us and ultimately raise our spirits.

Kooser is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, while Klassen is an award-winning picture book author and illustrator (Cat's Night Out).

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