Home is Where You Build a Story

A Boy and a House – by Maja Kastelic, Annick Press, 2018

This is a wordless picture book about creating a home. The home is not only a building, although the buildings which grace the streets are beautiful and mysterious. It is not only the dark interiors with their carefully placed objects: a red wing chair, a teakettle, an aging pile of magazines.  The home is not the domestic setting for a nuclear family. Instead, it is the bond between two children, beginning inside, and ending outside in a vision of freedom. A Boy and a House, by Maya Kastelic, asks readers to question what constitutes a story and a picture book, by presenting an alternative possibility.

When we meet the boy he is walking down a street of townhouses with double doors, sculptural elements, and iron balconies.  We are in a world of literature, with one placard labeled Grimm Street, although its carved cherubs are smiling.  The boy is smiling, too, although he looks puzzled as he finds an entrance on Andersen Street, where a cat peers out of the doorway and the silhouettes of mice in conversation appears in the window.

Each scene offers clues, not to a specific plot, but to the purpose of the boy’s journey.  The author’s name is affixed to a note asking that anyone entering care for the house. The lobby is a visual puzzle, including a baby carriage with a peace sign painted on its side and a number of post cards nailed next to a group of mailboxes, as if the cards’ recipients had never claimed them.

The book continues with more objects framing an as yet untold story.  There is the weighty suggestion, “GIVE DESTINY A CHANCE,” as well as assorted keys, toys, and children’s pictures placed in locations which may or may not be significant. Literacy is everywhere. Rather than showing children eagerly opening a book or listening to an engaging story, there are books and other reading matter stacked and collected everywhere. Some have titles, like a New Yorker magazine, and titles by Provensen (Alice and Martin?), Tove Jansson, and Uri Shulevitz. Some of the titles are difficult to read, in small letters against a low-contrast color. 

The world of people finally intrudes in the form of an exquisitely or oddly laid table with food and playing cards.  The boy has been collecting a child’s drawings left on the floor, assembling them as a kind of entrance ticket.  He finds a gallery of paintings, and then, finally, the young artist who has been producing the drawings.  She is sitting in the attic and carefully folding them into planes, set to take flight.  Normally, a paper folded and launched this way connotes fun, mischief, and disregard for whatever is written on it.  Here, the two children set the works free from a balcony, into the town below.  The town looks peaceful, but momentarily, the image of birds and planes floating above seems to allude to a scene of war, transformed into reconciliation by the magic of art.  There are endless ways to share this story with children, by inventing a story, encouraging them to do so, or talking about what it means to create and share.

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