Julia’s House of Lost Creatures: The Art of the Unexplained

Every time I hit the library, I try to bring home a stack of picture books. I have probably reached my 10,000 hours of reading kids’ novels, but I don’t think I’m there yet on the picture book. Plus, hey, I love them.

Yesterday, in my stack was a copy of Ben Hatke’s Julia’s House for Lost Creatures.


Let’s put aside my awe (and jealousy) of people who can both write and draw, and let me just tell you one of my favorite things that this book does. Or, rather, that it doesn’t.

It doesn’t explain.

Here’s the first sentence: “Julia’s house came to town and settled by the sea.”

What? Huh? A house that actively comes on its own? How? And why the sea?

Here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter.

Granted, the art adds to the words. We do see the actual arrival of the house (Note: Don’t skip the inside title page, or you’ll miss a lovely piece of the story.) But even the art will, if you let it, just open up more questions. Why is the house transported the way it is? Why did the house (or Julia) pick the sea? Why does Julia have to plant her mailbox?

Again…doesn’t matter.

Because all these whys and wheres, and the hows and whos and whats in the rest of the book, are part of the story world. The house transports the way it does (no, I’m not telling you!), because in this world it can. Julia has to plant the mailbox, because houses have mailboxes, and–duh–you can’t plant your mailbox until your house arrives and settled.

Within the context of the world, the details make sense, and–flip the coin–the details create a world that makes its own sense.

I know there are readers who will certainly ask these kinds of questions. They’ll ask why Julia’s house has a workshop. They’ll ask why Patched Up Kitty is actually made of patchwork cloth. They’ll ask why, if Julia is lonely, she makes a sign advertising for lost creatures.

But I would take just about any wager that the readers who ask these questions won’t be kids. Because kids work within the world they’re reading. And even if they have a question, they’ll feel in their own answers–they’ll add their own layers to the words they’re hearing and the pictures they’re seeing.

They’ll use their imaginations.

I think I have possibly gotten a little preachy here. (Who, me?!) But this is one of my favorite things about good picture books–that they create an entire world in so few words, so few pages of art. (If you want to see one that does a lovely job with pictures only, I also brought home a copy of Mark Pett’s The Girl and the Bicycle-gorgeous and sweet.) And that world may have its own rules, it may have elements that would–in our world–make no sense. But how many things in our world actually make total sense when we’re young. Plus there are other “worlds” out there, other worlds that we’ll grow up to learn about and that are outside our daily experience, and they are open to exploration and experimentation and adventuring.

Possibly books like this help kids get ready for worlds like that.

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