Picture books for children, when read aloud each night before sleep, is the single greatest gift you can give to your child’s imagination. The experts back me up on this one. Every librarian that organizes story hours for children, inviting them into the library before they are old enough to go to school and learn to read, becomes a habit for a lifetime. Children love the library (I did and I’m sure you did too)- because we were welcome, encouraged to get a library card and use the library for knowledge, enjoyment and community. It was an essential part of growing up. As a child grows, so does her use of the library.
When my editor Tamar Brazis approached me about writing children’s picture books, it was an idea I had in the back of my mind for a long time. I have a collection of children’s books, that grows ever larger, even though the child in our home is now in college. I have conversations with authors about what we read as children a lot- it was thrilling to find out that historian/author/professor Douglas Brinkley was hooked on the same autobiographies of American patriots that I was- the Bobbs Merrill collection. Reading autobiographies as a young reader has me reading them to this day. Beverly Cleary is an author who I read over and over again, so many times. There are readers who know I love her work- there’s something in the style- she influenced the way I work. Beverly Cleary was one of my childhood heroes. So was Tomi DePaolo. Astrid Lingren. Betsy MacDonald. Louise Fitzhugh. Louis Slobodkin. Authors. Illustrators. Sometimes artists who both wrote the story and drew the illustrations. I could fill this page and a hundred more with the great artists who create for children.
When I began the process of the story of The House of Love, I knew I wanted to set it in the mountains of Virginia where I grew up. I remember specific moments and days, as we all do- and when I miss my mother, I think of the way she made the world beautiful for our family. I wanted to write about living in Appalachia, and how she took an old house and made it a home. I’m sitting here in Greenwich Village in an old house, so I never shook the comfort that comes from doors that can’t close, drafts that blow through, bringing the outside indoors through old window jams and holes in bricks- you get the picture. I wouldn’t know what to do with a modern anything- and maybe it’s because if I ever went modern, I would be farther from my mother’s memory.
The wonderment of the brilliant illustrator/artist Amy June Bates (thrilled that she, a mother and lover of old houses) took on the book- we didn’t talk before she drew- nor had I ever met her- but I had met her- I guess- I loved her previous illustrations- cozy, warm, real and emotional. I wasn’t prepared for her sixth sense- she drew the house I grew up in- from the words- and I couldn’t believe how she captured the experience of living in the old house- with its peeling wallpaper, high ceilings, the aforementioned drafts- and the children that fill it wall to wall like a garden in full bloom. Amy June understands the chaos of life in a big family- and the beauty of it. There are always children in big families that wish they weren’t in one, but I was not one of those kids. I liked the experience in general- and to this day, marvel at how my parents handled the responsibility of raising children. Of course, it wasn’t perfect- but for me, now that my own daughter is raised, I have a greater appreciation of what they went through- and how hard it was to do their best. By now, you probably guess that I’m a glass half full person- maybe that’s true. I love family stories because I love the gift of family- for me, it is the central idea, concept, and reality from which I write. And so, with The House of Love you will meet the Amore family who live in Appalachia in an old house on a hill. It’s Valentine’s Day, and the mother of the children who makes every holiday special, enlists the help of the youngest child, her daughter Mia Valentina, to help her make the day special for the whole family. It’s a simple story that I hope captures the essence of my mother, who was loving and kind, and made beauty out of nothing. Well, maybe not nothing- a tree branch, thread and gumdrops- little things- that when they came together in her hands, created magic. A holiday. A feeling of belonging. The feeling of being loved.
I hope it reminds you of the feelings you experienced in your family when you were a child. When you read The House of Love to your children, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, great-grandchildren or a special child in your life, your voice reading to them will become the thing they remember when they look back on their childhood. It doesn’t get any better than that.