Reviews /

Little House

Authored by Katya Balen
Illustrated by Richard Johnson
Published by HarperCollins Publishers

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Little House is another tiny grenade of a novella from Katya Balen, packed with emotional truth and wisdom. As with her previous books for Barrington Stoke, the premise is deceptively simple: Juno is sad to be spending the summer with her grandfather while her mother has gone to join her father working overseas as an aid worker. But the discovery of an abandoned doll’s house in the attic gives Juno a purpose and enables her to empathise with her mother.

Balen excels at giving voice to emotions children might believe they are not supposed to feel. In this case, while Juno can understand the value of her parents’ work, she also feels an unshakeable sense of longing and resentment, which she is unable to express aloud: ‘But me needing her isn’t the same as the way the world far away needs her and so I can’t say anything.’ Balen takes Juno’s feelings seriously and acknowledges that there are no easy solutions: her kindly grandfather’s initial attempts to console her through food and jokes do little to shift her mood.

This honesty in turn makes the transformation that Juno experiences through rebuilding the ‘little house’ in the attic more moving. T. H. White’s Merlin famously said that ‘the best thing for being sad […] is to learn something’, but in this story, Balen seems to suggest that making something can have a similarly healing effect. Balen’s writing brings the sounds and textures of Grandpa’s workshop to life as Juno describes how ‘the sound of hammering and the screech of sawing starts to grow its own rhythm. It becomes like the beat of my heart and the breath in my lungs‘. Once Juno has built her new house, she observes that ‘a few hours ago this was just a pile of wood and now it’s something else completely. It’s a home.That’s a bit like magic.’ As well as giving Juno something to care about, this act of creating a home also allows her to understand her mother’s need help people in need and ‘to make them feel that life can still be beautiful.’

Like all of Barrington Stoke’s books, Little House is designed to be accessible to reluctant and struggling readers but engaging to all. Balen is in no way limited by this format, as she weaves a perfect story of loss and healing in just 80 pages. Her writing is full of beautiful and evocative descriptions, whether of her grandfather’s ‘soft lines that spread like crumpled cotton’ or Juno’s feeling that the ‘jigsaw puzzle of our family is broken into a thousand pieces.’ Once again, Balen’s writing is also enhanced by Richard Johnson’s soft pencil illustrations which match the gentle tenderness of this story.

Heart-warming without being sentimental, this would be a lovely book to share with KS2 classes. It would take less than hour to read aloud but could spark some thoughtful discussions about helping those in need, as well as inspiring children to discover or re-discover the joy of making things.