‘The sweet smell of the little green flowers floated around him as he worked, but he was too busy to notice…’

I’ve said previously that one thing I love about picture books is that there is such a variety. Some of the books I will recommend and review are bright, colourful, cheery stories with rhyme, rhythm and a laugh-a-minute. And others will make you think, consider and reflect on the world. This is very much the latter. Illustrated by Jon Klassen, most famous perhaps for his hilarious, subversive ‘hat’ series, ‘House Held Up by Trees’ is a haunting and almost accusatory story of misplaced priorities and man’s feeble attempts to subdue nature.

Synopsis/Review

A man takes immense pride in ensuring that his yard is clean, pristine and free from green(ery). Whilst his children grow up playing in the woods and enjoying the sounds of animals to the side of the house, their father works hard day after day to keep his lawn looking perfect and unblemished by the incessant foliage. However, as the days roll into weeks, weeks into months and months into years, and as his children move on to live their own lives, the man discovers too late that he may have focused his energies for too long on things that cannot last or satisfy. And when he does, it isn’t long before the nature he has fought for so long begins to rear its head once again.

Quite simply, this book is an unsettling delight. There are numerous questions and perspectives left unanswered which can give a variety of meanings. There are so many aspects of this picture book that I’m sure I’ve missed, even with multiple re-reads, but there are tantalising details within the pictures that would be fascinating to explore with pupils. For example, throughout the book there is only one page without a picture of the house, and yet there is very little detail shown of the man himself, to the extreme that his face is not seen at all. With some picture books, you may be forgiven for accusing me of ‘over-thinking’, but the combination of the deep and fairly substantial prose, a good-sized paragraph per page, and the heart-breaking dreary-coloured illustrations, soon persuades you that, if anything, I have probably severely ‘under-thought’ in this case.

The book draws together various themes such as man vs. nature and the very meaning of life itself! It is a sad story of one man’s obsession and at the same time a remarkable rebuttal of much that our culture tells us is good and right. It is certainly aimed at older pupils (and adults!), and although I don’t think it is the kind of book to build a topic around (please, berate me if you disagree!), there are several themes which, if tackled sensitively, could provide some wonderful learning opportunities.

Recommended age: For deep understanding I would be looking towards Upper Key Stage 2 for this one, but as ever do tell me if you disagree!

Themes/topics:

  • Family
  • Nature
  • Humans vs nature
  • Growing up
  • Priorities
  • Woodlands
  • Deforestation
  • Plants/Trees
  • Loneliness
  • Abandoned places
  • Loss
  • Rural vs urban places
  • Urbanisation
  • Environment
  • Homes

Teaching ideas:

  • Use the illustration of the house on the first page to elicit questions from the children – Who might live here? What makes you think that? What if I told you…?
  • Write 1st person retelling of the story from the children’s perspectives
  • Write letter from neighbours to the man in the story
  • Discuss moral/meaning – write a story which teaches that meaning
  • Discuss effect of the colours and style of illustrations
  • Art: drawing/painting from different perspectives
  • Art: use colour to create backgrounds in order to set mood
  • Art: 3D modelling – various stages of story
  • Science: Growth of different plants
  • Science: Seed dispersion
  • Geography: Discuss/research the effects of deforestation

As ever, this is not exhaustive, and as ever I would love to hear how you have used this story in the classroom!

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