Review of the Day: The Full House and the Empty House by LK James
As a reviewer of children’s books, I have a big problem that can impede my job right from the get go. I’m an adult. Now, generally this isn’t a bad thing. I know how to spell and type quickly. I can come up with lofty explanations about why a book featuring a llama or a farting toad is great literature. But like any adult, I’m far removed from my own childhood. And because I got a good education and learned big words about why one book or another is “distinguished”, my natural instinct whenever I pick up a picture book is to thrust that knowledge onto all 32 of their pages. Books like The Full House and the Empty House. As it turns out, this book is a primo example of why I sometimes have to reread a book repeatedly so as to best smother those grown-up voices in my head. The first time I read this story, I tried to predict what it was going to do. The second time I read it, I tried to supplant its simple storytelling with highly verbal explanations about the deeper meaning and significance present in its art and text. The third time I read it, I was confused because those first two reads didn’t turn out very well for me. I hadn’t accurately predicted what the book was going to do and I hadn’t counted on its ending. The fourth time I read it, I just read it as a picture book for kids. A very good picture book for kids. A very good and very beautiful and very happy picture book for kids. Sometimes it takes a while to get your reaction to a book right. But when you do? It’s worth it.
There once were two houses that looked very much alike. Their differences lay deep inside. In one house there were bursting cupboards, full kitchens, and bathrooms filled with trinkets and goodies. In the other you might find a single sandwich on a plate or a restroom with just a toilet and sink. Little else. Yet in spite of these differences the two houses were good friends, and each appreciated the differences in the other. And so they would dance and, afterwards, look at the world side-by-side, “until it was time to go home.”
So let me talk about what I thought was going to happen when I first read this book. I knew that its creator, LK James, was a debut picture book author/illustrator. I’ve also read a lot of debut creators in my day and when they want to make a new story they often rely on the old standby lessons. So when I discovered that one of the houses in this story was full and the other was empty I decided right then that the story was going to involve one of the following:
A: The full house was going to offer some of the stuff inside itself to the empty house.
B: The empty house was going to convince the full house to let go of its worldly possessions and just enjoy life.
C: The houses wouldn’t get along and then, at the end, realize that they both had something to offer.
Perfectly fine storylines. Believable ones. And, to be frank, subpar/boring ones. Because if even a single solitary one of those storylines had occurred, this book would have fallen into the same pit as the hundreds of other picture books that are published and forgotten in a given year. It would have become trite and predictable. Didactic and simplistic. I remember getting to the end of this book, completely flattened by the succinctness and clarity of the writing. So . . . so they like one another and see the benefits of their differences? There’s no overall conflict that separates them at any point? It’s just a story about friends who are different . . . and that’s that? This is why I started rereading it repeatedly. By all logic, a story with that little amount of plot shouldn’t work. You shouldn’t feel compelled to read it over and over. You should feel the book would benefit from some kind of problem. This book breaks all of those rules. It feels right because it is right. In one go, Ms. James has hit just the perfect tone. I was reminded of classic picture books from long ago. Titles like The Maggie B by Irene Haas where not a lot happens, but everything that does is just right. I don’t like to wield the term “contemporary classic” about, but this book would deserve the appellation.
The writing succeeds, but it’s the art that delivers the sucker punch. I suspect that if you handed this book, without explanation, to a children’s librarian or bookseller they would leap to the not entirely unexpected conclusion that the book was an import. This is because we’ve grown used to seeing a certain type of beautiful book only on other shores. Yet James is American, no doubt. And the publication page of this book could not be more straightforward about how it was created. “The art work for this book was hand-drawn in ink and edited digitally.” If 2019 is remembered for nothing else, it is (for me anyway) the year that I was continually fooled by the sophistication of the digital sphere. Like the French import, Sweet Dreamers by Isabelle Simler, this book feels handmade from start to finish.
Full House/Empty House felt like a gathering of linocuts when I read it. I think it had something to do with the limited color scheme. I know that James does do work with risograph two-color prints, and this book is very much in that same vein. James also keeps the book firmly rooted in umber, russet, teal, and goldenrod. She then alternates the pages between two very different vibes. When you are outside the houses they appear almost cartoonish, with their long legs and high heels. Inside, however, the level of detail is astounding. Just look at the full house’s bathroom. As the text says, it contains, “a big bathtub with gold clawed feet, a sink shaped like a seashell, a hairbrush and comb made of bone, and cakes of lilac soap.” But none of that even mentions the ukuleles, cigar box banjos, and plants that line the windows. What about that little pair of cat-heeled slippers next to the tub? Or the rather adorable family photos on the wall of different houses (including one that’s clearly of the empty house). The longer I stare into the full house the more I want to live there. Dance parties would be a problem, sure, but even as she sets up the beauty of the house’s interior, so too is there a beauty to its chaos. James makes the rather gutsy move to include a silent two-page spread of all the kitchen implements, utensils, art, ingredients, place settings, etc. flying up up up into the air as the house dances around. And then there are the little details that you only notice later. I liked watching the two tulips that the empty house gives the full house. They’re plucked in the very first two-page spread and they’re the last image you ever see in the book.
I mean, I fight against it but I want so badly to lay the relationship of the two houses in this book on top of some kind of real world relationship. If one house is full and the other empty, is that a metaphor for age? Is this an intergenerational relationship? GAH! Sorry, sorry. Honestly, the real beauty of this title is that it does exactly what every picture book should strive to do. It gives you a simple situation and allows the reader to bring their own interpretation to its pages. It’s not forcing its meaning on you, but is simply telling a tale without premeditation. And so I pick it up for a fourth and fifth read. I read it to my kids and we linger on some of the pages. I ask them what they think it means. We talk about it. And the book just lets me do that. A bit of art, a bit of text, this typifies picture books at their best. Bold and small and gutsy and quiet. A title you could easily miss, but why would you want to?
On shelves February 5th.
Source: Final copy sent from author for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- A House That Once Was by Julie Fogliano, ill. Lane Smith
- Moving House by Mark Siegel
- The Maggie B by Irene Haas
Professional Reviews: Kirkus
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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