If you drive the country roads, especially those less traveled and paved with dirt and gravel, you will see remnants of previous buildings. There are large square or rectangular areas with broken stone foundations. Some portions are entirely missing. Other rocks are cemented in place and a foot high. Standing fence posts designate the existence of former barnyards. Nearby there are similar but smaller foundations for the houses.
A clearer sign of human occupation are the carefully placed lilac bushes and bunches of iris still highly visible. You can't help but wonder who called these places home. What were their lives like? For A House That Once Was (Roaring Brook Press, May 1, 2018) author Julie Fogliano (When's My Birthday? A Neal Porter Book, Roaring Brook Press, September 5, 2017) and author illustrator Lane Smith (A Perfect Day Roaring Brook Press, February 14, 2017) combine their marvelous talents to ask and propose possibilities about such a place.
Deep in the woods
is a house
that once was
but now isn't
This house is situated at the top of the hill. There are signs it was previously blue on the outside. The current visitors move slowly and silently on a path hardly visible toward the house on the hill.
As they look at the front, a door shows signs of being painted white. It's not completely open or closed. They decide to climb carefully through a window with the glass now missing. Inside there is silence but also sighs given by an vacant house.
An empty bean can, a fireplace, a mirror, a bed, books, pictures on the wall, a chair and the kitchen have the explorers imagining who walked through these rooms. Did a woman or a man or both who wished wild, wonderful wishes spend their days here? Were there children who dreamed big dreams?
As they ponder these potential scenarios, they wonder why the people left and where they are now. They start to think of the house as another being, longing for the comfort of companionship or relishing the solitude. As the adventure draws to a close, two wanderers leave the woods taking memories with them.
With the first sentence a sense of mystery is supplied to readers. The air is filled with questions waiting to be answered. Julie Fogliano with atmospheric descriptions of place and the outside and inside of the home beckons to readers inviting participation. We find ourselves drawn into speculation with the visitors through her poetry. She uses repetition masterfully writing a melody with her words. Here is a passage.
up the path
up the path that is hiding.
A path that once welcomed.
A path that is winding.
A path that's now covered in weeds.
Looking at the opened and matching dust jacket and book case readers are curious as to where the two children have wandered. Upon closer examination you can't help but speculate on how long the home has been vacant. And why is there a whale weather vane on the top of the house?
To the left, on the back, among the flowers and weeds on the overgrown path, a bluebird perches on a sturdy stem. The opening and closing endpapers are awash in black stems covered with rusty-colored leaves. Bits of purple, blue and green fill the space in-between them. With a page turn these leaves continue until a textured, cream canvas provides the background for the blue bird standing beneath the title text. Another group of leaves is in the upper, right-hand corner of the two pages.
Each of the following two page images were rendered
in two different techniques. The "present day" illustrations were made with India ink, drawn on vellum with a crow quill pen, then pressed while wet onto watercolor paper creating a blotted line effect. The colors were painted in oil over gesso then scanned and added digitally under the ink-line. The "imagine" scenes were painted in oil paint on hot press board and scanned along with paper collage elements that were combined digitally.
By introducing the blue bird on the jacket, case and title page we realize this creature is going to have another story to tell. We watch for its tale to unfold. Lane Smith uses this extra element to excellent effect.
He alters his point of view in keeping with the lyrical narrative, giving us landscape displays, showing us only the feet and lower legs or the top portion of the faces of the children as they look at the house or he brings us close when a discovery is made. On more than one page real photographs are inserted. We find ourselves looking for all the tiny details Lane Smith includes; dragonflies, butterflies, lady bugs, a little mouse, words on the cans and jars, record labels and the name on the pet dish.
As stated in his explanation of his illustrative process, the "imagined" depictions have an entirely unique appearance. You know if you reach out and touch them they will feel differently. It's a fabulous representation of reality versus what-if.
There are many illustrations in this title which I consider favorites. One of them is when the children, a boy and a girl, are climbing through the window into the house. On the left side of the picture is a splendid array of sunflowers, black-eyed Susans, and lupines. We are close to them. In the center is a worn cement bird bath. The blue bird is watching the children with a worm dangling from its mouth. More distant from us on the right the boy is stepping up on boxes or stumps of wood to reach the window sill. Already inside the girl is reaching to help him. Not just in this image but throughout the book, the manner in which the children relate to one another is endearing.
Imaginative, soothing and reflective are words which come to mind when reading A House That Once Was written by Julie Fogliano with illustrations by Lane Smith. Certain to promote discussions but also to make us more aware of our surroundings, this book is a highly recommended choice for your personal and professional collections. You simply can't read it once. It's remarkable.
To discover more about Julie Fogliano and Lane Smith and their other work, please follow the links attached to their names to access their online presence. Julie has a page on Facebook. Lane has a website. If you stop by the publisher's website you can view interior pages. Author, reviewer and blogger Julie Danielson showcase Julie Fogliano and Lane Smith on her blog, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfat. Julie is featured on Today's Little Ditty. Lane Smith and Molly Leach (his wife) chat about this book (and others) at Let's Talk Picture Books. It's a great interview.