Thursday, February 9, 2012

Literary Love: A Very Special House, by Ruth Krauss

In the first half of the twentieth century, Lucy Sprague Mitchell started what she called the "here and now" movement. Stories didn't need fairies or magic to be exciting, she postulated. What children needed was to see their own lives reflected in picture books. They needed to see and recognize a comb and a brush and a bowl full of mush, and they needed their inner lives legitimized and celebrated.

Enter Ruth Krauss, author of books including A Hole is to Dig and The Carrot Seed, and to my mind currently one of the most under-appreciated children's authors of her century. Her characters make simple, genuine observations about the world around them, the kind that are amusingly childlike without being gimmicky. And sometimes, they take flights of fancy, but those flights take off directly from Childhood Experience Airport.

Such is the case with A Very Special House, her 1953 collaboration with one Maurice Sendak, which is pitifully unavailable nowadays. It begins thus:

"I know a house--it's not a squirrel house--it's not a donkey house--it's not a house you'd see--and it's not in any street and it's not in any road- oh it's just a house for me Me ME."

The rapid-fire rhyming lines jumble together, rather as they do above, as the narrator gets more and more excited about the house where he and perhaps his animal friends can "ooie ooie ooie." Sendak's Caldecott Honor-winning illustrations, sketchy with occasional spots of color, make it pretty clear that this is an imagined place, and Krauss finally expresses that idea with perfect childlike linguistic playfulness: "oh it's right in the middle--oh it's ret in the meedle--oh it's root in the moodle of my head head head."

And I hope you discover it yourself self self--put it right in the middle of your shelf shelf shelf. (Which would make alphabetical sense.)

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