Monday, June 22, 2009

Loving The Little House

Sixty-seven years before the movie Up introduced us to a stubborn old man who refuses to sell out to make way for development...

Decades before the term "nail house" came into use to describe people who stay in their homes, surrounded by construction cranes…

Cover of The Little House by Virginia Lee BurtonThere was Virginia Lee Burton's The Little House.

One of the best-designed picture books ever created, The Little House tells the story of a place that changed over time. Its lyrical layouts and rhythmic illustrations won Burton the Caldecott Medal, and keep her book popular with children to this day.

The house, which was built on a green knoll with dancing apple trees around it, watches as its world is transformed. Road builders come through, and other houses spring up, then multi-story apartment buildings, until the house is surrounded by dark, towering behemoths and hidden beneath an elevated train.

Giant dirty skyscrapers tower over the tiny house while an elevated train track runs over its roof
Finally, the house is rediscovered by a descendant of the people who built it, and moved farther out into the countryside, where it lives happily ever after.

The house on a green knoll
I've always loved this book, and couldn't help thinking of it when I saw Up. In honor of Up, a website called DeputyDog did a wonderful write-up on famous nail houses, but made no mention of The Little House.

As part of Virginia Lee Burton week, I found my copy of Barbara Elleman's Virginia Lee Burton: A Life in Art. Elleman's book is a wonderful compilation of little-seen Burton artwork, not just from her published books, but also from her fabric printing and other artistic pursuits.

In it, I rediscovered this sketch of Burton's from the time when she first thought of doing a story about a little pink house:
Loose, painted rendering of a pink house from a three-quarters angle

And another fascinating piece, a series of thumbnail sketches. According to Elleman, Burton used the sketches to demonstrate "for her design classes how placement on the page, changes in line, and variances in black and white could alter the look of an image" (page 36).

24 square black and white drawings showing how a little schematic house could be positioned relative to other elements for 24 completely different appearances and feelings
Seeing the painted sketch and this series of thumbnails, I appreciated even more than I already had how much thought and decision-making went into creating The Little House exactly as it is. When a book is beautiful, it's easy to think it had to be the way it is, and forget how much work and visual thinking must have gone into making it just that way, and no other.

Part 2 of Virginia Lee Burton week on Daughter Number Three.

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