A House That Once Was, illustrated by Lane Smith, written by Julie Fogliano, published by Roaring Brook, ISBN: 978-1626723145, ARC reviewed, to be released: May 1, 2018.
Two kids (a boy and a girl) stumble on a deserted house with boarded up and smashed windows. They climb in, carefully avoiding the jagged glass. Once inside they explore the rooms and wonder about the home’s departed occupants. Why did they leave these many objects (books, bottles of olive oil, even a set of house keys, others) behind, the children wonder? Thanks to Julie Fogliano’s vivid poetic language, A House That Was Once Was is a story that begs to be read aloud…but in a whispering voice. The children silently creep through the house, afraid perhaps of the unlikely chance that the homeowners will walk through the door or pop in from another room. Fogliano writes: “We’re whispering mostly/but not really speaking./We whisper though no one would mind if we didn’t./The someone who once was/is someone who isn’t./The someone who once was is gone.” Whoa! Wow! Mind blown. As I have said in previous blog entries, I look at a ginormous amount of picture books. This book feels like none other I have experienced. It has a haunting quality that gives me goosebumps.
Lane Smith’s inventive illustrations add to the mysterious atmosphere. Smith has these amazing ability to create works with cool-looking textures. The spreads with the children walking around the house have an almost washed-out look to them. You feel as if you are breathing in the dust. Always playful, Smith includes images that make you quietly chuckle (a mouse emerging through a ripped up photograph of a man, peeking through a hole where the man’s face would be). When the kids dream up scenarios for the people who used to live in house, the story takes on a more whimsical tone, and Smith changes up the color palette and gives us brighter, more stylized spreads. This whimsy nicely counterbalances the story’s sadder, more melancholy undercurrents. The best shot shows the kids imagining the former residents walking through Lane Smithesque trees searching for a pair of house keys while Fogliano writes “Or what if they’re lost and wandering lonely?”/”Maybe they can’t find their set of house keys?” I cannot think of an image that is both so somberly funny and quietly devastating in a recent picture book. It does remind me of the final scenes in the great Akiko Miyakoshi’s 2017 The Way Home in the Night, in which a child rabbit thinks about another character’s possible nocturnal loneliness.
A House That Once Was had me thinking deep thoughts by its end. I started wondering about the people who used to live in the house in which I now live. I also wondered if in my old childhood home if there is someone wondering about me and the others who lived there over the years. It’s that kind of book. I cannot stop thinking about it.