April 20, 2012

The House in the Night

The House in the Night
By Susan Marie Swanson
No Author Site
Illustrated by Beth Krommes
2-4 Preschool Primary Houghton Mifflin 40 pp.
978-0618862443 Hardcover $17.00

Here is the key to the house. In the house burns a light. In that light rests a bed. On that bed waits a book. In that book flies a bird.

The heart of The House in the Night is its cumulative narrative structure, one that has been made familiar by nursery rhymes and stories ("The House that Jack Built" and "The Keys to the Kingdom") for generations. It is dangerous territory that Swanson treads with this structure. Done badly, it can render a story sing-songy and trite. But done well - and Swanson does it very well - it leads the reader compulsively on, into the house, to the light and into the book where the bird flies. From there the narrative expands as the girl imagines herself flying on the bird's back into the starry sky past the smiling moon and into the cosmos. Then, with expert control, Krommes contracts the narrative focus, bringing the reader back to earth,  back to the house in the night.

Swanson's prose and use of structure place the book in the company of traditional tales, even as she lays the foundation for Krommes's inventive scratchboard illustrations, (for which she won the Caldecott Medal in 2009). The freshness and balance of Krommes's pictures, all black and white save for judicious dollops of gold, place The House in the Night in an aesthetic category all its own while Swanson's seemless narration provides the guiding light. Together, they create a book of enduring resonance that will likely becomes a classic. The House in the Night is a rare thing - a picture book that is both traditional and unexpected. A beautiful bedtime story, it soothes with language that ebbs and flows and illustrations that are, quite honestly, too perfect to be sufficiently described. It is a book that reassures little ones that, while the universe is mysterious and large, there is a place in it for them, in their room, and their bed and their house in the night.

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