(A note about the giveaway is at the bottom of the post, but first I want you to read about this gorgeous book.)
You know, I didn’t plan to write about this book. I didn’t plan to write about anything tonight, honestly, and if I had planned to, it would have been about one of the really recent books I found and love– some are very new, and some I’ve been meaning to write about for several weeks, in fact… including the exquisitely beautiful Dreamers, by Yuyi Morales, which I only just bought but have loved since it came out in September. And then something happened.
I’ve been tired, honestly– happy tired, but tired. Work, family, and life have sort of ganged up on me and I haven’t had much time for anything but getting by, day to day. So there are a lot of things which have slipped by me: things I love, including knitting for my daughter, and even reading and writing. Oh, I manage to get both in, or else you’d only find me in jail. If I don’t knit, write, or read– I go bonkers. But I’m doing a base level of these to get by, and I miss keeping up with new books and making beautiful things.
Please, don’t worry about me! I’m doing good work and I’m excited about it. I know that after I finish my dissertation I’ll be back on the knitting, reading, writing horses and as productive as ever. But I admit that I was feeling a little melancholy.
And then my daughter, the little Changeling I live with, pulled this book off of my shelf tonight: The House of Lost and Found by Martin Widmark and Emilia Dziubak. I bought this book about a year ago (I see it came out September of last year, which sounds about right). And when I first bought it I flipped through it a few times, admiring it, but deeming it too old for my daughter. Then this child, this Changeling, pulled it off the shelf tonight and I read it to her and narrowly avoided tears.
This is, without a word of a lie, one of the most exquisite books, visually and intellectually, I’ve ever read.
The story is of an old man, Niles, who lives alone– his wife is dead, his children have grown up and moved away, and even his cat has wandered off: “Just as well, thought Niles. That’s one less thing to worry about.” Whereat this cat-lover’s chest tightened and eyes prickled. He turns off the lights in his house, one by one, saying good-bye to everything he used to love, one by one, as dreariness sets in.
And then his doorbell rings, and a small boy is there holding a flowerpot full of dirt, and asking Niles to look after his flower while he’s away. Niles is left with the flowerpot and no desire to look after any living thing.
But he waters the dirt in the pot.
And he finds himself wondering, as the seed sprouts and a tendril of a leaf pushes through the dirt, “What kind of flower is it?”
And as the plant grows and grows and our curiosity increases, so does his excitement increase– and his interest in life revives: he cleans the house, the cat comes back (YAY!!!), and he reads again (there go the tears again…). And the flower grows and grows until…
I’m not going to spoil the ending for you. It’s too beautiful.
But the story might sound a little familiar to fans of folklore out there. The story is decidedly similar to that of the traveller who brings something of some apparent value, but dingy, to a family in dire need and asks them to look after it for him. The family is virtuous, and with every act of goodness their fortune increases and the dingy item brightens. The traveller returns and sees how their goodness has polished the cup or horn or whatever the item was and says something about how good they are and they can look after the item for the rest of their lives. And so they live on in prosperity and virtue for the rest of their lives. I’m sure I could look it up in Aarne and Thompson and find something there– it’s an old story!
There are key differences: here it seems like the tender growth of the flower fuels the revival of life in the old man, rather than the virtue of the man fuelling the growth of the flower. (There are other differences but you can discover them when you read the story!) But the symbiotic relationship between the protagonist and the special object is key to the soul of the story and it’s a thing of beauty: both the beauty of the flower and the beauty of spiritual heart of the book.
I want to add something here about the illustrations, while we’re talking about beauty. First of all, Polish illustrator Emilia Dziubak is new to me, and I’m both sad about that (what have I been missing?) and happy (I’ve discovered someone new and amazing!). She might be the only one out there so able to convey the dinginess and gloom of Niles’s house while at the same time rendering it with visible tenderness and love: he’s not slovenly, her art seems to tell us, he’s just old and sad. And as light and air and cleanliness and the cat creep back into the house, the tenderness and love remain but the dinginess and gloom flee the scene; her skill is glorious and if, like me, you’ve been missing out, you may want to rectify that.
All in all, this was a lesson for me in many things:
a) Listen to the Changeling, for she is wise;
b) Read new and poignant books, for they will open your heart and soul and render you more fit for future work;
c) Hug your cats and water your plants, for who knows what the future will bring?
So that’s the story of an unexpected book creeping in and changing the course of my evening.
Finally, I want to thank all of you for participating in the Joan Aiken and Diana Wynne Jones giveaway! For those of you who participated: I have ordered the books into the Children’s Book Shop and they should be arriving this week. It might be the third week of February before I get them to the post office, but I promise I will email you as soon as they go into the mail! Thanks again.