Week-end Book Review: The House Baba Built: An Artist’s Childhood in China by Ed Young

Ed Young, author-illustrator, text as told to Libby Koponen,
The House Baba Built: An Artist’s Childhood in China
Little, Brown and Company, 2011.

Age 4-8 and up

Born in 1931 the fourth of five siblings, Ed Young spent the years of the great depression, Japanese occupation, and World War II in a magnificent environment thanks to his father’s building skills and negotiating acumen. The esteemed Young, a senior talent in the world of children’s literature, celebrates his baba’s loving care and his extended family’s safe passage through terrible times in this collage-illustrated memoir.

In exchange for building the house on a Shanghai property he couldn’t afford to buy (a safe suburb of embassy housing), Baba secured use of the home for 20 years. He designed a substantial two-story edifice with many outdoor spaces and even a swimming pool. (Empty most of the time, the pool was used for riding bikes.) Young’s large-format book with several fold-out pages incorporates many old family photographs, sketches of siblings and relatives, and detailed diagrams of the house that Baba built. At the close of the story, double foldout pages display a layout sketch of both floors of the house, with tiny images of people pasted in the various rooms. Thirteen rooms are depicted, plus outdoor decks and a rooftop playground.

Koponen shapes Young’s words into a lyrical account of family life, repeating the phrase “the house that Baba built” to poetic effect. Text is interspersed scrapbook-style amongst cutouts of Young’s sketches–household members on a see-saw, roller-skating on the rooftop, dancing in the large ground floor living room. Baba, who had received a graduate degree from the University of Michigan in 1917, was cultured and somewhat westernized, but like everyone in Shanghai, the family suffered food shortages and overcrowded conditions for many years. Bombs fell nearby towards the end, but the house withstood the attacks, thanks to Baba’s sturdy construction.

Back matter includes the location of the house on a contemporary map of Shanghai, a family time line from 1915-1947, and an author’s note describing his 1990 visit to the house and how this book came into being. A fascinating window into Shanghai history, Young’s heartfelt tribute to his baba will endear children yet again to his stunning visual imagery and, this time, to his personal story as well.

Charlotte Richardson
November 2011

4 Responses to “Week-end Book Review: The House Baba Built: An Artist’s Childhood in China by Ed Young”

  1. Sally Says:

    Oh, this sounds good! I just saw an article in the NYT about this book and about Allen Say’s new book: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/13/books/review/picture-books-about-childhoods-in-wartime-asia.html?_r=2&src=tp&smid=fb-share

  2. Corinne Says:

    Can hardly wait to get my hands on this book (and Allen’s new book too) !
    FYI The National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature in Abilene, Texas has a new exhibit: A Journey Without End: Ed Young. It runs until Jan 28, 2012. More info here http://nccil.org/experience/artists/Young/index.htm

  3. PragmaticMom Says:

    I loved this book. I was also really moved by how, by and large, Ed Young has such warm and happy memories of this time that he portrays in this book, despite the hardships that his family endured. It’s a real testament to his parents (and to parents everywhere) of being able to create a loving and safe environment for their children in the worst of circumstances.