Thomas Harding's first children’s picture book is The House by the Lake: The Story of a Home and a Hundred Years of History.
It was an utter joy to talk to Thomas Harding about his new picture book, his craft and stories in general. His recommendations of favourite children’s books are a wonderful wide-ranging gift of delights (detailed at the bottom of the interview).
Thomas Harding first shared this remarkable true story in his Costa-shortlisted biography The House by the Lake. He grew up knowing about a little wooden house on the outskirts of Berlin, beside the shore of a lake that was built by his great-grandfather nearly a hundred years ago. He knew that his great-grandfather and family had to flee the house when the Nazis rose to power, but wanted to find out the rest of the story.
Thomas visited the house in 2013 with his grandmother and found it totally abandoned, derelict and soon to be knocked down. It was hugely upsetting to see the place that he knew was a ‘soul place’ for his grandmother, being left to utter ruin. ‘It was a truly horrible feeling when I went into the house and I felt that I must do something to bring it back to what it once was.’ From there he pieced together the extraordinary stories of the 4 different families who had lived there and set about on a renovation project with the help of the local community and his own family.
‘It was initially not a straightforward task to get my family to think this was a good idea as there were so many memories and deeply unsettling aspects to the past that were perhaps better left well alone.’ But Thomas couldn’t let it rest and felt sure that something could be done to make this little house tell its story somehow and eventually persuaded 14 members of his family to come and see the house. ‘When we all got there and saw the house, we all realised that there was something special here. It was with the extraordinary support of the local community that we managed to make some sort of reconciliation with the horrors of the past so that we were able to move on towards some sort of a better and more positive and accepting future.’
Lockdown has made us stop and think about everything and crucially about the place that we have been all shut up in. Our homes, are these places of refuge? Do they have secrets and a past of their own? This book comes at a very important time where we are all looking for a reconciliation with the past, of questioning identity and understanding what it is to belong.
How did you find yourself writing for children and did you enjoy the process?
I have always been a huge fan of children’s books, I was at a book festival in Scotland talking about my biography of The House by the Lake and I met a wonderful children’s author called Nicola Davies. We got talking and I said that I would love to introduce the story to a younger audience and her encouragement was so inspiring she gave me the confidence to just write it and see how it went. What is so incredibly special about the house by the lake itself is the actual size of it. It is entirely unintimidating, it measures no more than 9m x 10m and is so entirely charming that it seemed so right that children should be introduced to it and through it hopefully find some sort of connection with the past.
How do you manage to convey the darkness?
Well that is another question that I put to Nicola and indeed my editor, because I wanted to the tell the story straight, and not sweeten anything. So, again, I was advised to just write it and see how it went. I tried not to not step away from the truth of what happened and I have been so lucky to work with Britta who has such a gift in creating a perfectly sympathetic tone to her illustrations. The various more horrible moments in the history of the little house were so masterfully depicted in her illustrations. Britta visited the house herself so felt a real connection to the place aswell which I hope comes across in the book.
There is a section in the book where the Berlin Wall features in the story, it is told with such lightness of touch, but at the same time packs such a powerful punch.
I was intrigued by the fact that the Berlin Wall by pure geography was actually put up between the house and the lake and it somehow put the little house even more on the front line of history. I hoped that coupled with Britta’s beautiful illustrations just telling the story in its most simplest form will encourage readers, old and young, to find out a bit more about what exactly happened and see how it affected the lives of everyday people like ourselves.
Was it enjoyable to distill the story for children?
It has been a joy to write for children. Previously in my non-fiction books for adults it’s all about facts and you have to put the emotional side of the story in the far background. Whereas in writing for children you can put the emotions centre stage and that was a very liberating way of writing for me.
What books did you like as a child?
I have always passionately believed in the importance of reading and stories. I read lots as a child and then read lots to my children as they were growing up. It is one of the most wonderful things available to us all. So the books I read myself and those that I read to my children are rather intermixed. I have still got the books that sort of shaped me and often read and re-read them through.
- Humbert by John Burningham
- If You Give a Moose a Muffin by Laura Numeroff
- Fattipuffs and Thinifers by Andre Maurois
- The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton
- Farewell to Shady Glade by Bill Peet
Alexander Haus can now be visited today as a centre for education and reconcilation. Go to www.alexanderhaus.org to see how to book a visit. There is also some wonderful footage there of Thomas visiting the house and the work the community did to renovate it. Britta Teckentrup has some beautiful drawings and pictures on her website that she created during her work on the book, which gives another dimension to the story; www.brittateckentrup.com.
This is a hugely important story, perfectly told.
The House by the Lake is published by Walker Books on September 3rd.