A House That Once Was

Book review by
Jan Carr, Common Sense Media
A House That Once Was Book Poster Image
Lovely, lyrical adventure as kids explore abandoned house.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Introduction to skilled poetic language: "A door that is stuck between coming and going." And to the poetic device of repetition: "Who was this someone / who ate beans for dinner / who sat by this fire / who looked in this mirror?" And to alliteration: "A path that once welcomed. / A path that is winding. / A path that's now covered in weeds." Intro to idea of the cycle of life.

Positive Messages

Though change happens, and people pass from our lives, there are always new things to enjoy. New life sprouts from old. The past is still present, and can comfort us and bring us joy. If you climb up the hill and wend your way through the thorny weeds, adventure lies down the path.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The kids are adventurous, as are the people they imagine. The kids are respectful of the house and its contents, and also of nature around them. It's suggested that the house itself might enjoy the changes that have happened.

Violence & Scariness

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that A House That Once Was is written by best-selling author Julie Fogliano (And Then It's Spring), with art by Caldecott Honor-winning Lane Smith, who has illustrated such classics as Math Curse and The Stinky Cheese Man and other Fairly Stupid Tales. Fogliano has a poet's soul, but her touch is lightly lyrical, so parents needn't be afraid of the poetry. The language is always within reach and accessible to both young and old: "At the top of a hill sits the house that is leaning. / A house that once wasn't / but now it is peeling. / A house that was once painted blue." And though the subject matter is sweetly sad -- an old house left to ruin -- the book manages to be oddly life affirming. The soft, stippled art is full of detail to pore over and inspect, just as the kids in the book carefully search the bric-a-brac in the house.

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What's the story?

In A HOUSE THAT ONCE WAS, two kids walk through the woods and down a weedy path, and come upon an abandoned house. They climb through a window "that now has no window at all," and explore the house that's still filled with evidence of the people who once lived there, everything in disarray. As they find a mirror, an empty can holding paintbrushes, books, and framed pictures, they're inspired by the objects to imagine the people who might've once lived there. The lives they come up with are fanciful: a sea captain, a shipwreck, an escape to Paris. Before they leave, they take the old can and fill it with flowers to bring to their own home "that is cozy and warm."

Is it any good?

This haunting poem about an abandoned house "haunted" by the household objects its former owners left behind is pure pleasure to read and reflect on. Though A House That Once Was is contemplative, it never sinks into sadness. The kids are adventurers. When they imagine the previous owners, they dream up exciting lives. And the story has a happy, hopeful ending. The house, though changed, still hums with life. "And maybe it likes it out there in the forest / with the trees coming in where the roof used to go." As the kids leave to go home, a bluebird in that tree delivers worms to the hungry babies in her nest.

Though there's some light rhyme, author Julie Fogliano's verse is never singsong, and the poem draws much of its forward-moving rhythm from a soothing, mesmerizing repetition. Lane Smith cleverly adds a fun switcheroo to the art: The illustration of the kids as they explore are gauzily dappled and dreamy, while the scenes they imagine are more vividly defined. Take a breath. Slow down. This is a book for kids and adults to savor together at the end of a busy day.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the abandoned house in A House That Once Was. Have you ever seen an abandoned house? Was there anything left inside? Who do you imagine once lived there?

  • How is the house in the book home to new life now? What information did you get about that from the poem? From the art?

  • If you compare the illustrations of the kids actually exploring and the pictures showing the things they imagine, how is the art different in each? Why do you think the artist chose those two different styles?

Book details

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