I have a special affinity with picture book biographies – as I think can be gleaned from most of our Nonfiction Monday posts. And I would be totally remiss if I do not include in our list this breathtakingly-illustrated picture book of the one and only Ed Young: The House that Baba Built. Our lovely host this week is Tammy Flanders from Apples with Many Seeds.
Enclosed Joys and Wide Open Spaces. Ed Young’s father was an Engineer. Concerned with his family’s well-being during the time of war in Shanghai in the 1930s – he built a huge edifice in what was considered the safest part of Shanghai – where the embassies were. Since the place was staggeringly expensive, Ed Young’s father made a bargain with the landowner:
… he offered to build a big brick house on it, with courtyards, gardens, a swimming pool, and let the landowner have it all – after we had lived there for twenty years. The owner agreed.
While the book opened with the threat of war and the crows covering the sky with blackness, this is a book that celebrated the other side of war – a more joyful story lying behind this gated, enclosed bubble of space that Baba built for his loved ones.
Similar to Allen Say’s mention of war in Japan in his own memoir Drawing From Memory, the war is not the central focus in the narrative. It remains a looming threat in the background, yes, but it seems more like a bad dream, more surreal and disembodied – felt through the lack of food in the house, the sound of fighter planes overhead in a distant sky, the growing number of people in their home:
Only toward the very end of the war did we hear bombs. First we’d hear the long warning siren that meant enemy planes had been sighted. Then came the quick, shrill blasts signaling that bombing was about to begin.
We gathered in the hallway, where the dinner bell was – the safest part of the house, Baba said. There were no windows there, so we could keep a light on. When everyone was settled comfortably, the stories began. Baba told of a woman kung fu warrior with bound feet. She was chasing an enemy, who was getting away until his shadow from the slanting moonlight fell in her path. She kicked his shadow so hard that she killed the poor bandit. I pictured her, not the bombs outside, which didn’t frighten me anyway. I knew nothing could happen to us within those walls, in the house Baba built.
Extended Family (and its Further Extensions). I also smiled when I saw how many more people started drifting in to their home as years passed and as the war continued to rage on outside. First came the cousins, then a German refugee family, then more relatives.
My heart also lifted with glee as Ed Young shared recollections of roller skating on the roof, having picnics on the pool, and the adults helping out the children shrieking with joy in the seesaw. Times were hard, yes, but Ed’s family managed to find pieces of joy where they could – and this is the gift that is shared to the readers through this beautiful book.
Unlike Allen Say’s memoir which details his learning the craft of drawing and illustration, this book of Ed Young shows how the seeds of his love for artwork began – not really his pathways to becoming an artist. It shares with us a glimpse from his childhood and the stories and loud laughter enclosed within The House Baba built.
The entire layout of the book is likewise a labor of love. While there is a scrapbook-y feel to it (with photos and captions), it stretched the boundaries of the usual memoir a bit further, with fold-outs, text that fly and flit and forming curlicues on the page – and the glorious artwork of Ed Young that simply made me gasp in sheer pleasure. There is much love that can be felt in these pages, my heart was filled to overflowing.
Lessons Learned from Baba. One of my favorite parts of the book was Baba’s letter to his children found somewhere at the end. I’ve been reading quite a lot of Csikszentmihalyi’s literature these past two years for my own academic writing (he is the psychologist who coined the term “flow”) – and in one of his books he made mention of the “transcendent self” – an aspect of one’s being that goes beyond self-actualization as one gradually realizes one’s place in the cosmos, and one’s contribution to humanity as a whole. This is clearly reflected in Baba’s message to his children:
You may put down as rule No. 1 that life is not rich not real unless you partake life with your fellow man. A successful life and a happy life is one as measured by how much you have accomplished for others and not one as measured by how much you’ve done for yourself. Love Dad
Words of a wise man, indeed. This book is a wondrous gift. Meant to be shared to all. Do yourself a favor and get a copy. Read. Learn. Be filled with love.
The House Baba Built: An Artist’s Childhood in China by Ed Young. Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2011. Book borrowed from the community library. Book photos were taken by me.
The book won the Picture Book Award for the 2012 Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association (APALA) Awards.
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