Thomas Harding is the author of The House by the Lake, a nonfiction book for adults, which was shortlisted for the Costa Award. It is a compelling read that uncovers 100 years of history centring on his family’s summer house by the shores of Gross Glienicke See, a wooded area of natural beauty. Piece by piece Harding unveils 100 years of history from the halcyon pre-war era to the present day. The Alexander House bears witness to Nazi persecution, the building of the Berlin Wall; its fortunes fluctuate through periods of characterised by love, forced acquisition, neglect and restoration. I thought I had a reasonable grasp of European history, but this book was a revelation in so many ways.
So you can imagine that I was delighted to discover that Walker Books was going to publish a picturebook version and that it was going to be illustrated by German artist Britta Teckentrup, who by happenchance lives a stone’s throw from the Alexander House. There’s poetry in the pairing of writer and illustrator to tell this story about the fracture and reconciliation of a community.
Harding rejects the nonfiction register for his picturebook, assuming the classic narrative voice of the storyteller instead, with its fairy tale resonance. The story begins, ‘A long time ago, there was a little wooden house by a lake.’. The simplicity of the narration removes the story from the specific and attributes a more profound, universal significance. We are in the realm here of ‘once upon a time’. As the years pass, many families inhabit the house, but the real character is the house itself. It becomes a protector, ‘When the family was asleep, the house held their dreams.’ and it mirrors the emotions of its inhabitants, ‘This was a happy house’, ‘The house was now alone.’. Simplicity in the language should not be taken to mean that it lacks artistry; on the contrary, the placing of each word conveys mood and emotion through cadence and rhythm. Take, for instance, the placing of ‘now’ in the sentence I have just quoted and consider how prosaic the sentence becomes if you move the word to the end of the sentence. This is a story written to be read aloud.
Britta Teckentrup’s illustrations provide historical detail. She displays tender respect in her portrayal of the family and their home, referencing family portraits, wallpaper, ceramic tiles, furniture and fireplaces. While the family are recognisable individuals connected together by touch and gaze, the soldiers are anonymous; they stand alone, faceless, avoiding eye contact with each other and with the reader. Their uniforms are represented with meticulous accuracy. Getting these details right is important.
But the pictures are not solely documentary; they add an emotional depth through the patterning of light and dark – the contrast of the dazzling sun on shimmering water with the image of soldiers blocking the doorway to the house. The reader knows that when the door closes, the last light will be expunged, and everything plunged into darkness.
The images are pregnant with symbolism: the open door through which the family’s cat freely roams contrasts with the Nazi soldier locking the house, the jailor’s bunch of keys in his hand, silhouetted against the harsh light. And then a repeated motif with the image of Thomas returning to his family home surrounded by the warm glow of summer, the single key at the bottom left of the page ready to unlock not only the door to the house but also the treasure chest of memory.
The seasonal shifts are symbolic too. The Berlin Wall is erected in the winter (historically it was built in August). Like the Selfish Giant’s garden, there is perpetual greyness and the persistent presence of hoar-crusted trees, until the wall is finally demolished and summer returns. Teckentrup’s joy in nature, which is evident through her work, surfaces here in the abundance of greenery. Young children will enjoy spotting the return of a black cat at the end of the story – a symbol of restoration and freedom.
The story works on its own terms, but the inclusion of an author’s introduction and historical end matter will be fascinating to older children and appreciated by teachers sharing the book in school.
A comparison of the covers of the UK and German editions could promote some thoughtful discussion too.
A silent film and photographs on the Alexander House website https://alexanderhaus.org/film-1930 provide further documentary resources which could support classwork.
A wonderful book. Highly recommended.
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These notes may be printed freely for use in classrooms but may not be reproduced in any other format without the permission of the author.