Review: The House Baba Built by Ed Young

house baba built

The House Baba Built: An Artist’s Childhood in China by Ed Young

Illustrator Ed Young grew up in Shanghai during World War II.  His father managed to get them a house that was safe because he built it himself.  He made a deal with the landowner that he would build a house and after 20 years, the landowner would get it free and clear.  But in those 20 years, Ed Young’s family lived there.  It was a huge home with a swimming pool, space to roller skate on the roof, staircases to slide down, and lots of other places to play.  This is the story of growing up in that house with the war raging around them, but also feeling very safe as a family because of the house.  It is the story of welcoming people beyond their family to stay with them, giving refuge and forming a larger family unit.  It is the story of years of playfulness and joy together despite the outside forces because his father thought brilliantly and quickly.

It will come as no surprise to those who know Young’s work that this is a beautifully designed book.  Young weaves together paper cutting, sketches, painting and photographs into a dreamlike world of his childhood where some things stand out crystal clear and others are fogged by time.  It is like looking into someone else’s memories along with them.  They are beautiful and mesmerizing.

This book may have trouble finding an audience.  While the illustrations are gorgeous, the story is told in vignettes rather than one large story.  This technique will resonate more with slightly older readers than usual picture book preschoolers.  On the other hand, teachers looking for a book to inspire telling a biography in more than words will delight in this book.  It will share aloud well and the illustrations will invite readers into Young’s world.

A book for older elementary school readers who may take some encouragement to pick it up.  Once they do, they will be transported to Shanghai in the 1930s and 40s.  Pair this with Drawing from Memory by Allen Say for two artist’s childhoods in Asia.  Appropriate for ages 7-10.

Reviewed from ARC received from Little, Brown.