An Old Favourite for Earth Day: The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton

Happy Earth Day everyone! It promises to be a gorgeous day here in Galway and I hope to spend most of it outside in my own patch, encouraging the green and growing things. But I do like to spend part of the day reading a favourite book or two. And I have gone back to my own childhood (and beyond) with this extraordinary picture book that was quite ahead of its’ time.

The Little House written and illustrated by Virginia Lee Burton was originally published in 1942 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, which makes it 79 years old. It’s a story about the life and times of a little house. Built strong and well, sitting on top of a hill where she watched the countryside around her, the days and the seasons passing, the man who built her said;

“This Little House shall never be sold for gold or silver and she will live to see our great-great-grandchildrens’ great-great-grandchildren living in her.”

A beautiful dream; a gloriously simple hope. Time does go by, and indeed the Little House was never sold. She sat on her hill and watched all the changes the people of the world bring; farms, then more houses, and roads. Machinery, bigger and bigger buildings; more people and more people and eventually. The air was no longer fresh and clean, the nights were no longer peaceful and she could no longer even see the sky. The Little House became empty and derelict. But, even with her broken windows, she was still well-built and strong, though very sad and lonely. It seemed no one wanted a cozy little home anymore. Until one day….

So, 79 years ago, a charming, poignant book was written for children that addressed the issue of urban sprawl. And addresses it with a voice that is so genuine; so filled with feeling that it is remarkable, even after all these years. Though it must be said, Burton herself denied it was a critique of urban sprawl, stating that instead she wished to convey the sense of the passage of time to young readers. I think it does both very admirably. Yes, it has a quaint, out-of-time feel to it. You wouldn’t mistake this for anything other than a classic. But its’ relevance still shines through. Reading it today, a child (or grown-up, for that matter) will understand how long we have been dealing environmental issues; how long we have been building climate change. In the illustrations, you get a real sense of impact. The personification of the Little House herself, as she stands steadfast, present to it all speaks to us, making us aware of the things we bring to the planet and the effect it has on those who are easily forgotten and set aside. But the ending, when the Little House is remembered and recognised brings a different gift, one that is joyous and within all of us. It allows us to understand that we can make a difference, even if only to one Little House (or person.) We can remember. We can take responsible action. We can care. And everything will be better for all of us.

The Little House is such a joyous, heartfelt and simply beautiful book. You should read it…and share it with the children in your life.

“Virginia Lee Burton (1909-1968) was the talented author and illustrator of some of the most enduring books ever written for children, including the classic Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. Burton included in her books heroes and happy endings, lively illustrations and a dash of nostalgia. She lived with her two sons, Aristides and Michael, and her husband, the sculptor George Demetriod, in a section of Gloucester, Massachusetts, called Folly Cove.” The Little House was the 1943 Caldecott Medal winner.

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