a house that once was

After a summer hiatus, I’m happy to be back to Perfect Picture Book Friday. I found this week’s story – or it found me – at Grassroots Bookstore. The title, A House That Once Was, manages to be both inviting and a little spooky. The same is true of the cover image. In the foreground, we see the legs and feet of two kids facing a once-grand but now clearly abandoned house. It’s a little bit spooky; check out those boarded-up windows. But that whale-topped weather vane? Inviting! What kid (or adult) could resist a look around?

Title: A House That Once Was

Written by: Julie Fogliano

Illustrated by: Lane Smith

Roaring Brook Press, 2018, fiction

For ages: 3 and up

Themes/topics: imagination, past/present, homes/houses

First spread:

Deep in the woods
is a house
just a house
that once was
but now isn’t 
a home.

Summary (from the publisher):

“The dynamic duo of Ezra Jack Keats Award–winning author Julie Fogliano and Caldecott Award–winning illustrator Lane Smith team up to tell a delightful story about a boy and a girl who explore an abandoned house and imagine who might have lived there in A House That Once Was.”

Why I LOVE this book:

I’m a huge fan of Julie Fogliano’s lyrical writing. If you haven’t already, please read her other picture books, especially If You Want to See a Whale. And check out her gorgeous poetry collection, When Green Becomes Tomatoes.

As with all of Julie’s work, it’s best to read A House That Once Was aloud. She is a master of poetry and she draws us, along with the two characters, into this house that once was. I especially love how she describes the front door:

There’s a door that is not really open

but barely. A door that is closed

but not quite. A door that is stuck between coming and going.

A door that was once painted white.

I find this text manages to beautifully straddle the line between spooky and enticing and between a sense of coming/going and past/present. And when the text is melancholy, as in “The someone who once was is someone who isn’t. The someone who once was is gone,” we have Lane Smith’s gorgeous India ink and oil illustrations to temper the effect. Throughout the story, we see glorious flowers, some spilling into the house through cracks and open windows. And flowers aren’t the only living things in and around the house. Can you find the sweet blue bird on nearly every “present day” page?

The house and the many compelling objects left behind set the children’s imaginations on fire. They ask a flurry of questions about “this someone who ate beans for dinner….” And then they imagine different scenarios and we go back in time to intriguing possibilities like “a woman who painted all day in the garden portraits of squirrels while sipping iced tea.” They also wonder about the house itself. Is it waiting for its occupants to return or is it happy to sit and remember “with the trees coming in where the roof used to go”?

a house that once was_2

Kids – and adults – will delight in this lyrical and imaginative story.


(For a collection of picture book reviews please visit Susanna Leonard Hill’s site: http://susannahill.com/for-teachers-and-parents/perfect-picture-books/.)


11 thoughts on “Perfect Picture Book Fridays: A HOUSE THAT ONCE WAS

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