the last homely house…a list of five brilliant books about building houses

building our house cover imageBuilding Our House, written and illustrated by Jonathan Bean

Okay.  Swoon alert!

Seriously, I am afraid that I’m about to gush above and beyond respectability over this brand new book from one of my favorite writer/ illustrators, Jonathan Bean.  So, consider yourselves warned.

It’s the story of a family-of-four who has ditched city life and is heading off to the country to build a new house and, really, a new life of discovery and struggle and perseverance and accomplishment.  Together.

We see them bouncing along in their sturdy blue pick-up truck,  armed with tools, blueprints, and a lot of moxie, poised to transform that barren field into a home.  First comes a charming trailer for temporary housing.  Next comes collecting materials — lumber and rocks, sand and stone.  Then, bit by bit, they raise this house –digging a foundation, building forms, mixing cement, crafting an immense beam for this building our house illustration jonathan beantimber frame construction.

Through thirsty, summer days and icy, winter winds, a year and a half goes by before the family sleeps in their snug home for the first time. We live the days and seasons and construction steps right along with them, watching the children pitch in or play, observing the growing bulge in Mom’s tummy and a new baby’s arrival, learning wise maxims from Dad and Mom, celebrating with neighbors and family.  It is a fascinating look at the building process, and a warm story of a family working together towards a dream.

The illustrations are absolutely incredible,  showing us the intricacies of craftsmanship while delighting us with building our house illustration2 jonathan beancreativity, play, cooperation, progress, effort, companionable togetherness, and the satisfaction of a job well done.  Jonathan Bean had to select from an immense number of technical details and relational details to give us what we see here — dozens of portrayals of process and setting and background goings-on.  Wow.  There is so much to look at, and each person, young or old, will find that different aspects stand out to them.  I love that.

As if you needed more, an Author’s Note and some sweet photos tell of Jonathan Bean’s own experience when, as a child, his parents really did buy an old field in rural Pennsylvania and build their own house over the course of five years, giving him the basis for the book.

For a lovely, in-depth description of Jonathan’s process of creating this book, read Jules’ marvelous interview with him at Seven Impossible Things.  Illustrator-types, you will love this.

This picture book stole my heart;  I rave about it to anyone who will listen! It’s also printed in a nice, big size and on gorgeous paper.  My highest recommendation!  Do not miss this!

the three little wolves and the big bad pig cover imageThe Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig, by Eugene Trivizas, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury

Everyone’s familiar with the three little pigs and that scoundrel of a huffing, puffing wolf.  Now the tables are turned.

In this tale, three adorable, sweet-natured little wolves set out into the world,the three little wolves and the big bad pig illustration2 helen oxenbury building their houses,  with their mother’s parting advice ringing in their ears: Beware of the big bad pig.

Happily, these wolves are savvier than the three pigs were.  They team up, and start right off with sturdy brick.  However, this pig is nastier than the wolf by a long shot.  When huffing and puffing does not suffice, he resorts immediately to more drastic measures — for starters, a sledgehammer!

Alarmed, the wolf pups quickly build an even stronger house of concrete.  But the big bad pig is unstoppable.  No matter how fortified their house, this bully is capable of destroying it.  Whatever will they do?!

You will be completely surprised and tickled pink at the unexpected solution to the wolves’ dilemma!  Such a happy ending.

This is a delightful twist on a familiar story that children ages 5 and up will love.  Helen Oxenbury’s endearing wolves and  fierce pig are charming and villainous respectively,  in expression, posture, and activity.  The details she adds and the fabulous scenes she creates strike the perfect note.  There are lots of spins on this nursery tale, but this one will definitely make you smile.

the biggest house in the world cover imageThe Biggest House in the World, written and illustrated by Leo Lionni

This is the story of a little snail, who like all snails carries his house about with him on his back.  One day he tells his father he wants to have the biggest house in the world when he grows up.  His wise father the biggest house in the world illustration leo lionnireplies with a cautionary tale.

It seems another snail had this same dream once upon a time, and despite advice to the contrary, he toiled and twitched until — voila! –he discovered the secret of growing a stupendously large house!  This was one whopper of a house, swirling with candy-colors and sprouting fantastical spikes like upside-down ice-cream cones.  It was enormous!  It was truly, the biggest, fanciest house in the world.

Alas! The house became so entirely cumbersome, the little snail simply couldn’t budge, and when his present cabbage leaf was chewed to bits and his compatriots sludged off to the next one, he was stuck…and he simply faded away.  A tragic fate for one so recently on top of the world.

The moral of the story is: Some things are better small.  Keep your house light and easy to carry.  Happily, our little snail listens to his father and is on his way to a satisfying life.

Leo Lionni, the great crafter of fables for all of us, was so far ahead of his time with this 1968 title.  And honestly, this book’s message has played in my head for all the years since I first read it, reminding me that life’s great adventures are best had when we keep our own material possessions in check.  The siren call of bigger and more in America needs countering with wisdom such as this.

Meanwhile, his illustrations are riveting.  Complex textures, sophisticated colors, and clean, simple design make the pages pop, and usher us into this snail world with astonishing credibility.   This is a favorite that we read many, many times with our children.  Hunt it down if need be.  Sadly, it’s not even in our huge Minneapolis library system any longer.

a house in the woods cover imageA House in the Woods, written and illustrated by Inga Moore

Two little pigs, a lumbering bear, a clumsy moose, and a whole drove of busy beavers make up the enchanting cast of this story.

To begin with, the two genteel pigs build themselves small shelters in the forest, spending their time delighting in the natural beauties around them.

Shortly, however, the dear, bumbling Bear and darling, blundering Moose unintentionally wreck the little pigs’ homes.  Oh, dear.

Moose suggests they all pitch in and build one big place where they can bunk a house in the woods illustration inga mooretogether. This sounds good to the others, but it’s a bit beyond their carpentry skills, so they put in a call to the Beavers.  This hard-working crew agrees to do the work, with payment to be delivered in the form of bucket-loads of peanut butter sandwiches.  Fair enough.

Wow!  When you say “busy as a beaver” you aren’t kidding!  This gang of log-felling, wall-raising, window-installing, beavers gets straight to work, and faster than you can say Jack Robinson, there’s a lovely, cozy, log cabin nestled among the pines. Marvelous!

Peanut butter sandwich production commences, which the Pigs, Bear and Moose deliver to the Beavers’ outstanding lodge on the lake!  Finally, it’s time to take a deep breath, relax in front of their new hearth, and snuggle down in their soft beds.  Sweet dreams!

Darling story line, and gorgeous illustrations in pencil, pastel and wash that whisper across the pages.  Inga Moore draws up for us a delectable, endearing world that we wish we could step into, with delightful, chummy neighbors, tea carts and antique marts, shops brimming with jolly provisions, and a landscape lush with lofty trees and filtered sunlight.  Super pleasant read for preschool and up.

tree houses fairy tale castles in the air cover imageTree Houses: Fairy Tale Castles in the Air, by Philip Jodidio, illustrations by Patrick Hruby

A tree house can be just a cobbled-together bunch of planks,  precariously perched in a back yard tree, yet still have the power to fire imaginations, transform a simple snack into an adventure, provide a hide-away from the pestering intrusions of real life.

The tree houses in this coffee-table size book, however, are not “cobbled-together.”

Today’s  elite tree house designers are taking the germ of the idea — the affinity we seem to have for fanciful retreats, for precarious perches, for the loveliness of trees — and creating unbelievably diverse, jaw-dropping structures around the tree houses by philip jodidioworld.

Philip Jodidio has gathered for us stunning photographs of tree houses from Washington state to Indonesia, from Brazil to Japan.  There’s an airy lodge for eco-traveleres to the Amazon, an utterly charming guesthouse in Avignon, France, an ultra-modern Japanese tea house whose designer describes it as ” a house for a midget from a fairy tale,” and a massive double-decker birds-nest built as a play house in New York .  Fifty tree houses in all, each with numerous entire pages of gorgeous photos. 

tree houses by philip jodidio2

It’s a great deal of fun to page through this book and gape at these fantasies, to imagine what it would be like to climb the towering ladders and step inside.  It’s not a “kids book” but it appeals to the kid in all of us and definitely will hold rapt many a young dreamer.

 Inspire your kids to design their own dream on paper, to build fantastical structures out of found materials, tiny enough for a lady bug or, why not, big enough for their own hiding place in basement or bedroom or back yard.  If you’re lucky enough to be near one of the commercial tree houses, perhaps you can take a look.  There are several amazing tree houses in Longwood Gardens near Philadelphia which we had a blast exploring when we were there a few years back.

For those on the older end, there’s a fascinating history of tree houses as an introduction to the book.  The book is printed simultaneously in English, German, and French.  Very hefty.  Look for it in your public library.

Here are Amazon links for all these brilliant books about home, sweet home.

Building Our House
The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig
The Biggest House in the World
A House in the Woods
Tree Houses: Fairy Tale Castles in the Air