I've been having a lot of fun revisiting some of my favorite children's books this summer. When I think of books that made me, often it’s the illustrations that are burned into my memory. Sure, I remember a clever tale like Harold and the Purple Crayon and a funny story like Alexander, but illustrations tend to stick with me the most. Spend enough time around children’s books and you’ll agree that the best art in the world is found within the pages of books meant for kids. And I’m so glad it is. The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton is one of the those books. It won the Caldecott Award in 1943 for its gorgeous illustrations. Even if you don’t remember this title (or you get it confused with the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder) one look at the illustrations may jog your memory and give you that nostalgic feeling books from childhood often do.
On the surface, this is a book about urban sprawl. Burton didn’t intend for it to be political in any way. In fact, she was speaking from her experience. However, it’s about how the landscape of rural settings change over time based on what we value. The main character is the house. When I first met my husband, I told him, “Something weird about me is I personify.” He recently reminded me I said this. I hadn’t remembered saying that, but I’m also not surprised. I do give things human qualities. So this little red house who has a smile and is called “she” and “her” wiggles her way into my heart every time I read the book.
If you flip through the book, the house doesn’t move. Things are added around her, but she stays put. Even the words in the book are art. There are no text blocks but rather beautiful text shapes. This book is a feast for the eyes.
This book for kids has some significant take-aways for adults:
1. Take note of beauty
The little house notices things. She loves the change of seasons. She watches the moon grow each night. She pays attention to the children playing in the brook in the spring, swimming in summer, going to school in the fall, and skating in the winter.
Last night I couldn’t sleep. I stumbled downstairs to sleep on the couch and caught myself before lying down on a pile of lazar tag guns. My first instinct was to get mad. Why didn’t my son take these back downstairs when he was finished? But then I found myself smiling. How fun that he had enough friends over for a game of lazar tag that had to expand into the upstairs because the basement wasn’t big enough to hold it.
Like the little house, I love the change of seasons. There’s nothing like the first buds of spring or the first cool breeze of autumn. I also love to look at the moon. But sometimes I need a little reminder to stop rushing around and look up or look out at the beauty around me whether it’s a sunset or a pile of lazar tag guns on the couch.
2. Watch what we call progress
All of the things that happen around the little house would probably be considered progress: a paved road, gas stations, trolley cars, schools, garages, an elevated train, subway rails, and sky scrapers. But these things made life for the little house miserable. She missed the apple trees and the daisies. She couldn’t see the moon anymore. She didn’t notice the change of seasons because of all the of hurrying people and pollution around her. Soon her color faded and she looked sad and dilapidated. Our beautiful little smiling house began to look like the junk around her -the junk we thought of as "progress".
I'm not saying get rid of all technology. I mean, that would actually be terrible for my blog. Just kidding (kind of). I often need to ask myself which things are actually progress and which ones are a distraction from the beauty all around me. Social media or even some the podcasts and books I listen to give me a sense of urgency but add very little value to my life. I should go sit under an apple tree or watch the kids play instead of wasting my time with them. Progress should actually make things better.
3. Long for redemption
This is just a sad story if we never get to the end where the great-great-granddaughter recognizes the house and moves her to another hill so she can live in the unspoiled country once more. This priceless house (the builder said she “shall never be sold for gold or silver”) finds herself surrounded by an ugly city. She starts to blend into her surroundings, but someone sees her for what she is -precious. The house is as good as ever on the inside, so they put her on wheels and move her. It’s this aspect of the story that always sticks with me. It reminds me of my Saviour. I don’t know why He chooses to see me as precious or why he set me apart and gave me new life. But I’m so glad he did. Even when I blend into my surroundings, he sees me as special, something priceless. I know some people who have no idea how priceless they are and I long for their redemption the same way I long for someone to take that little house out of the city and give it a new foundation under the stars.
Of the seven children’s books Virginia Lee Burton published, not one has ever gone out of print. Since she wrote them 70-80 years ago, that’s unbelievable to me. I know a lot of people forgo a card when they attend a baby shower and buy a book instead. That’s such a cool idea and The Little House would be a good choice if you ever have that opportunity. Buy it, but before you wrap it, take some time to read it. Flip through the pages and see the landscape change. Fall in love with the Little House all over again. You won’t be sorry.