The Little House

CALDECOTT MEDAL WINNER – 1943

The Little House

Virginia Lee Burton

Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1942

40 pp

ages 2 +

Interests: machinery, cars, construction, country living, the seasons, and what life was like long ago…

The story of a little house built long ago in the country, who very happily watches the seasons come and go, but wonders what it would be like to live in the big city she sees in the distance. After many years the city expands to envelope her and she doesn’t like it one bit. When she is found again by a descendant of her original owners, she is moved out of the city, back to the countryside, and lived in and cared for again.

This is a deceptively simple tale, but the real draw here are the fascinating illustrations, showing the passage of time and the slowly encroaching roads, houses, skyscrapers. The little house stays in the same spot on each page, inviting the reader to flip back and forth to see the changes to the landscape.

There is a lot here to take in, for the curious child. One drawing shows the phases of the moon, and the changing seasons are described in charming detail. When the cars and roads start to invade, one can follow the steps in highway paving, and there’s a fair parade of trucks involved in the construction of the skyscrapers. The intense detail in the busy, busy city scenes will also draw in the reader for closer inspection of people, elevated trains, and crowded subways. And of course the evolution from horse and carriage to early automobiles, and later to more ‘modern’ cars will be extremely interesting for some.

A special overall theme is the connection with nature. After watching the seasons come and go for many years, the little house is so hemmed in by buildings she no longer even knows what season it is.

Everyone seemed to be very busy
and everyone seemed to be in a hurry.
Pretty soon there was an elevated train
going back and forth above the Little House.
The air was filled with dust and smoke,
and the noise was so loud
that it shook the Little House.
Now she couldn’t tell when Spring came,
or Summer or Fall, or Winter.
It all seemed about the same.

Terrific illustrations, and a really lovely read, though some may be irritated by the simple country = good, city = bad lesson. The point is taken to an extreme: the house is neglected and abandoned in the city, but cared for and loved in the country. Some may roll their eyes at this easy moralizing, but it didn’t bother me too much. It’s an environmental tale, far ahead of its time.

That said, it is rather ironic that the illustrations betray a definite fascination for the very processes that enable the creation of the big bad city – machinery and trucks, steam rollers, dump trucks, and perhaps even a cameo from Mike Mulligan’s steam shovel. Virginia Lee Burton is very interested in all this, evidenced by her many machinery-centred books:
Maybelle the Cable Car, Katy and the Big Snow (about a snow plow), Choo Choo, and Mike Mulligan’s Steam Shovel.

She retains however, a nostalgia and regret for lost ways of life, ie. the retirement of Mike Mulligan’s steam engine, obsolete and old-fashioned. Burton always maintains that the old ways are better than the new. In this book, the Little House is built so very well it seems like it could last forever, and can be transported anywhere.

(Whether or not the city will in the future creep into the countryside and swallow the little house up again is not addressed.)

As mentioned above, Virginia Lee Burton wrote many, many good books, all of them entrancing to those who love machinery… and others too.

(This title at amazon.com)

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
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