I love houses.
Old and new. Big and small. Cozy and sprawling. Mansions, cottages, castles, ranches, igloos. Tudor, Cape Cod, Colonial, French Provincial. No matter the size or style, houses simply fascinate me.
One of my all-time favorite books for young readers is The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton, published in 1942 and winner of the Caldecott Medal. I remember being completely taken by this book as a child — the story of a little house that was happy living in the country, swallowed up by progress, then moved and happy again. I delighted in sharing this book with my three children.
What struck me as a kid, and still strikes me now, is the house’s expression and how it changes from a smile to sadness and despair, back to a smile again. How interesting it was that a house could have a face!
But the truth is, I think houses have stories too, shaped by the people who live in them and the neighborhoods they are a part of, and perhaps that’s why I love them so much.
I’ve never been a runner or very good at going to the health club, but I do take a long walk almost every day. Sometimes when I’m out walking and get a glimpse inside someone’s house, I immediately start imagining the story of the people who live there. (It’s a little creepy, yes, but admit it — you’ve done it too.)
My mini-obsession with houses prompted me to set my middle grade novel, The Summer I Saved the World…in 65 Days, in a cul-de-sac of eight houses. Here’s a drawing from the first page of the book. Each house in the neighborhood has a story and a personality. Mr. D, a reclusive neighbor who never comes outside, has a neat house with the shades drawn tightly. One house is for sale and it’s unloved and empty, with overgrown grass and broken shutters. Mrs. Chung’s house has Christmas lights strung around her trees year-round and marigolds in front.
All of these details come into play in the story, as the main character sets out to do 65 good things for her family and neighbors the summer after eighth grade, except things don’t go exactly as she envisions.
For me, character’s houses (or apartments or huts or igloos) go so much beyond just the setting. They’re almost characters in themselves, with quirks and emotions and unique attributes. And the details that are found in houses can become important parts of the plot, such as a lost toy or Grandma’s antique table or a rusty, squeaky swing set.
I particularly loved Kristen Kittscher’s The Wig in the Window for just that reason. Seventh-graders and best friends Sophie Young and Grace Yang, who make a game out of spying on their neighbors, stumble on an adventure and mystery that unfolds from something they see in a house.
To me, home is not just where the heart is, but where the heart of the story is.
Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of The Summer I Saved the World…in 65 Days (Wendy Lamb Books 2014) and Calli Be Gold (Wendy Lamb Books 2011). Both books are on 2015-2016 state reading lists. Michele can be found at micheleweberhurwitz.com.