Monday, August 21, 2023

Yes, You Should Read The Full House and the Empty House by LK James

Yes, You Will Enjoy The Full House and the Empty House by LK James

    Almost every thrift store has a section of shelves brimming over with children's books. It's an easy section to get lost in--both as a book and as a reader. Many of the fictional titles, if not most, are the purposely didactic (and often pedantic) stories that teach a lesson or wrap a moral in dull writing and unimaginative illustrations. Of course, children and adults do need reminded to check their emotions, to pursue kindness, to be aware of bullies, and to use tissues and employ polite language--though often the books are so terribly created that one hopes that the readers will learn such valuable lessons and cultural values elsewhere. 
    But then, and reader you know exactly what I mean, and then there are the wildly interesting children's books that capture something in the story--something like catching an unknown creature after dark and under a marvelously patterned sheet--something that is not fully identifiable and, thus, compelling. We see this, of course, in Shaun Tan's works, such as Rules of Summer, or in Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. Tan's originality and interest come in the collision of meaning that occurs between language and illustration--things are never what they seem, and what they seem is often difficult to pinpoint. Sendak's charm and depth often come from the drawing style itself and how unreasonable or unpredictable behavior (of children, adults, or both) can lead to a world that functions by similarly mysterious rules. The pleasure from reading Tan or Sendak does not come from a surprise ending or the resonance of characters' behaviors finding punishment or praise as often happens in fairy tales, but in the experience of the story and the sort of hushed undertones of darkness and mystery that pulse between the pages.
    LK James is not Shaun Tan, and she's not Maurice Sendak, and she's thankfully unlike many other children's books creators. She is fully LK James, and The Full House and the Empty House is both her first children's book and our first chance as readers to begin learning what we mean when we say an LK James' children's book. 
    I first learned of LK James when she illustrated my novel Hezada! I Miss You. At the time, she was designing all of Awst Press's titles, and so it was a matter of fact that she would do mine. The result was exactly right, if you as me, and there are innumerable authors who do not share that sentiment about their own covers. So pleased was I with the process and result, when Awst chose to publish my next book Unexpected Weather Events, even though LK James was no longer designing their books, I asked if she could, and luckily, both Awst and she agreed. And, again, I'm thrilled by her cover. 
    Recently, I asked her if I could interview her, and she agreed. Look for that post in the coming months. But it wasn't until I began thinking of the questions and spending time at her website looking at her work that I learned that she'd written a children's book. Or that she'd gone to school for English Literature before studying visual art and working as such an artist.
    Long story short, I ordered The Full House and the Empty House, and now I have it. 
    It does not take long to read. 
    One might find that to be an obvious statement; however, many children's books suffer from unnecessary text that distracts and detracts from the story, art, and experience. 
    The language of The Full House and the Empty House is minimal and right, which makes both the story and the illustrations receive more weight. All is precise. What happens in the story is not what turns the page but the sheet used to catch the aforementioned creature. Like with any well-told story, what makes The Full House and the Empty House so compelling comes from what the story asks us to wonder without providing any answer that fully satisfies. 
    Why is the full house so full? 
    What happens to empty a house so thoroughly? 
    Why is it that neither house holds humans, only the signs of humans--their lives and their absences--and yet both houses have no concern for their intended purposes or the people who do or do not live within them? 
    It was refreshing read a children's book that not only invited the eye to roam within the page, but one also with a storyline so deceivingly simple that the child listener will want to hear it again and again. One house is full, the other is not. One makes noise when it dances, the other does not. Each enjoys the sound of the other but neither suffers from wishing to be the other.
    The book is enjoyable read to oneself and I'd imagine a good book to dwell inside with a child listener. The conversation it invites will be an interesting one--What do you think our house would sound like if it danced? Why do you think each house is pleased by the other? --and any questions will allow reader and listener to experience the pleasure of sharing a book and experience together.        
    Published in 2019, just before COVID shut everyone away from bookstore and libraries, this book may have suffered for it. But! This is absolutely a book that needs rescued from the long, littered beach where children's books wash up month after month, wave after wave, year after year.