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The House Baba Built: An Artist's Childhood in China


I knew nothing could happen to us within those walls, in the house Baba built.

In Ed Young's childhood home in Shanghai, all was not as it seemed: a rocking chair became a horse; a roof became a roller rink; an empty swimming pool became a place for riding scooters and bikes. The house his father built transformed as needed into a place to play hide-and-seek, to eat bamboo shoots, and to be safe.

For outside the home's walls, China was at war. ...

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I knew nothing could happen to us within those walls, in the house Baba built.

In Ed Young's childhood home in Shanghai, all was not as it seemed: a rocking chair became a horse; a roof became a roller rink; an empty swimming pool became a place for riding scooters and bikes. The house his father built transformed as needed into a place to play hide-and-seek, to eat bamboo shoots, and to be safe.

For outside the home's walls, China was at war. Soon the house held not only Ed and his four siblings but also friends, relatives, and even strangers who became family. The war grew closer, and Ed watched as planes flew overhead and frends joined the Chinese air force. But through it all, Ed's childhood remained full of joy and imagination.

This powerful, poignant, and exquisitely illustrated memoir is the story of one of our most beloved children's illustrators and the house his baba built.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this picture book memoir by the Caldecott Medalist, which opens in 1931 (the year he was born), the stock market has crashed, and China is in turmoil. Young’s father, Baba, persuades a landowner in Shanghai to let him construct a huge brick house on his land; Baba promises to return the house after 20 years, long enough to keep his family safe until WWII ends. Young’s creation, shaped with help from author Libby Koponen, is as complex and labyrinthine as Baba’s house, with foldout pages that open to reveal drawings, photos, maps, and memories. Tender portraits of his siblings, torn-paper collages showing tiny figures at play, and old photos of stylish adults intermingle, as if they’d been found forgotten in a drawer. Young’s fans will savor stories of his East-West childhood; he and his four siblings raise silkworms, watch Westerns, train fighting crickets, and dance the conga when the war finally ends 14 years later. “Life,” Baba writes to his children, “is not rich not real unless you partake life with your fellow man”; Young set the course of his life by his father’s words. It’s history at its most personal. All ages. (Oct.)
School Library Journal
Gr 3–8—Young brings his exquisite sense of design, expressive brushwork, and mastery of a variety of mediums to the story of his childhood in China. A note explains how Koponen helped shape the stream-of-consciousness text. In the opening spread, birds lift off from the bottom of the brown pages, filling the heavens. Red rice paper forms the delicate outlines of Young's parents and their five children, connecting them as one transparent image. The text reads: "War was spreading to Shanghai, my father said, like the crows that came in summer…." Baba, an engineer, made a deal with a landlord in the safest part of the city: he would build a large brick home with gardens and a pool and give it to the landlord after inhabiting it for 20 years. The layers of cut paper and collage build, much like the house, which grew to accommodate relatives and refugees. This catalog of childhood pleasures (cricket battles, rooftop roller skating, silkworm hatching) is punctuated by distant bombs, fighter planes, and food rationing. Each scene is a surprise, as Young works in postcards, maps, currency, magazine images, family photographs, and acrylic portraits. Gatefold pages extend the scale. An illustrated afterword portrays Young's own children at the household gates as well as a time line and floor plans. This tale of filial devotion provides a fascinating contrast to Allen Say's Drawing from Memory (Scholastic, 2011) in which the Japanese-American artist describes his estrangement from his father and the nurturing received from his mentor.—Wendy Lukehart, Washington DC Public Library
Kirkus Reviews

Flashes of multi-media brilliance illuminate this darkly colored, leisurely paced memoir of childhood in Shanghai.

With war approaching, Baba (daddy) searches for a place to keep Ma and their five kids safe. "The safest part of Shanghai was where the embassies were—on the edge, next to fields," but that land is too expensive to purchase. Baba makes a deal: He'll use his engineering skills to build "a big brick house... with courtyards, gardens, [and] a swimming pool" that his family can inhabit for 20 years, after which it will revert to the landowner. The artist's childhood in this house comprises the story, a patchwork of games played (including roller skating on the roof), mild deprivation (little meat, but always food) and the distant-seeming war (first-person Eddy refers to Japan as the enemy but doesn't explain). Eddy feels safe in Baba's house, as do the other families sheltering there. The episodic text rambles; some illustrations are casual and chaotic. Others are magnificent. Young uses myriad textures, including crinkly paper and woven reed paper. Collaged family silhouettes feature tenderly sketched faces. Old photos and bits of painted collage glow on dark pages. Miniscule cut-out people populate fold-out drawings and complex, three-dimensional–looking collages of the house. Those wanting historical or cultural background will need supplements, though.

Sophisticated, inventive art invites close viewings for patient readers in this unusual family story. (foreword, time line, author's note)(Picture book/memoir. 7-12)

Terry Hong
With vibrant collages comprised of drawings, cutouts and manipulated photographs, Young…dreamily reconstructs his childhood…The House Baba Built is as intricately constructed as his father's house, with pages that extend and open to reveal additional detail and memories.
—The New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780316076289
  • Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
  • Publication date: 10/3/2011
  • Pages: 48
  • Sales rank: 679,528
  • Age range: 8 - 10 Years
  • Lexile: 900L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 9.30 (w) x 11.90 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Caldecott Medalist Ed Young is the illustrator of more than eighty books for children, seventeen of which he has also written. Born in Tientsin, China, he grew up in Shanghai and later moved to Hong Kong. As a young man, he came to the United States on a student visa to study architecture but turned instead to his love of art. A graduate of the Art Center College of Design, Young has since taught at the Pratt Institute, Yale University, Naropa Institute, and the University of California at Santa Cruz. Ed Youn was awarded the Caldecott Medal for his book Lon Po Po, and The Emperor and the Kite and Seven Blind Mice were named Caldecott Honor Books. Wabi Sabi, was a New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Book in 2008.

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 12, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    gracefully written by Ed Young

    Reviewed by Rita V for Readers Favorite

    The House Baba Built, an Artist's Childhood in India is gracefully written by Ed Young. War was spreading into Shanghai, and Baba wanted to move the family to somewhere safe to be out of harm's way. Baba, an engineer, made an agreement to build a grand brick house, but because Baba could not afford to buy land, there had to be an agreement made that his family could live there for only twenty years. Baba, Ma and their children moved into the grand house only to be followed by many other family members and guests to whom they'd given refuge. The children relished in everyday life by using their imaginations and making up fun games to play to occupy their time. Food was harder to come by, and finding the little miracles in everyday life was what kept the family strong. Soon, the war planes began to fly over, the family could hear bombs detonating all around them and would receive medical supplies by air. They would have to find the courage to stay strong and work together as a family unit to survive within the walls of the house that Baba built.

    Ed Young writes a very powerful memoir of his childhood in Shanghai, China during the 1930's. The cover and illustrations are truly unique and captured my interest immediately. Contained within the brilliant illustrations were fold-out pages, hand sketches, paper art, photos, time-lines and bamboo backgrounds. I loved the neat way that the author displayed each individual page, almost like a family scrapbook. I wanted to know all about Baba and his family, the Shanghai culture and their empowering struggles. The plot flowed smoothly, and the words were easy to comprehend. This is a wonderful history lesson to share with any growing child and showcases how important family truly is. Most of all, I loved the inspiring message behind this book which is that crisis does carry a blessing within its curse, but it is up to us to find it. Baba gives his children a sense of security, pride, and honor in this wonderful memoir. The house that Baba built is, in fact, much more than a house!

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