'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Monday 9 January 2012

Review: The House Baba Built

Subtitled An Artist's Childhood in China, The House Baba Built is a biographical account of the childhood of Ed Young, ensconced in the house his father built in war-stricken Shanghai with extended family and friends.

Born in Tianjin 1931, two years into the Great Depression and just as China was invaded, leaving incalculable people homeless, Ed retells his memories of this time, both through word and picture.

When Ed's father, an engineer, couldn't afford to buy land to build a safe house for his family, he instead offered a land owner the free construction of a large house, complete with courtyards, gardens and a swimming pool - so long as the family were allowed to live in it for 20 years. After that time, the house would revert to the land owner. The land owner agreed.
Tumbling and rolling text and labelling bring intimate insights into Ed's family and everyday experiences during his family's time in the house . . . from waxing the floor to make it slippery enough for social dancing, to game-playing and listening to war reports on the radio. I particularly love the references to childhood imaginations that make an extraordinarily difficult wartime experience into something magical and memorable.

In the rooms of that house, Ed became a pilot, a mountain adventurer, a tightrope walker and Tarzan. There was rollerskating on the roof, scooter-riding in the empty swimming pool, storytelling with guests, all manner of childhood games in the halls, bamboo shoots and fava beans in the garden - all to the dulcet tones of fighter planes over the skies of Shanghai.

Pockmarked with references to the goosebumping sounds of war and an astonishing line-up of guests and relatives and even strangers who came to take refuge in Baba's house, this book is about offering support, about being close and about pulling together to survive, protected by the walls of a house built on love - through which nothing, not even bombs, can penetrate.

Using a striking combination of paintings, sketches, outlined images, photographs and collages of stunning ephemera, this book is a true joy to behold. Fold-out pages reveal lustrous double-page spreads, resplendent with texture and muted colour. An extraordinary amount of work has gone into creating this beautiful keepsake of a most remarkable childhood . . . and having the privilege of peeking into that childhood feels mighty special.

A timeline, author's notes and 3D house plan at the back of the book round out an astonishing creation that will mesmerise both children and adults.This is a strikingly beautiful, emotive book - a true work of art and an historical tale well worth the retelling.

A Caldecott Medalist, Young is the illustrator of more than eighty children's books, and author of seventeen. Having lived in Shanghai, Hong Kong and the United States, where he studied architecture before turning to art, graduating from the Art Center College of Design, Young was awarded the Caldecott Medal for his book Lon Po Po.

Title: The House Baba Built
Author/Illustrator: Ed Young
Publisher: Little, Brown, $24.99
Publication Date: September 2011
ISBN: 9780316076289
Format: Hard cover with dust jacket
For ages: 5+
Type: Picture Book