The Cosy House and Barn

The Cosy House and Barn

Home is important to all of us and perhaps even more important to young readers. This is why the mythic journey when it occurs in children’s literature is more commonly known as the home-away-home story — unless a child moves house at the beginning of the story they most often explore alone for a while then return to the cosy safety of home.

The Tidiness Rule

Cosy houses in story need to be tidy but not too tidy.

Hominess is not neatness. Otherwise everyone would live in replicas of the kinds of sterile and impersonal homes that appear in interior-design and architectural magazines. What these spotless rooms lack, or what crafty photographers have carefully removed, is any evidence of human occupation. In spite of the artfully placed vases and casually arranged art books, the imprint of their inhabitants is missing.

Home: A short history of an idea by Witold Rybczynski

I believe even in illustrations, even in picture book illustrations for children, houses are tidier than in real life. Strewn items are representative rather than photographic. The New Yorker cover below goes in the opposite direction, by creating a shared space which is slightly more haphazard and ‘lived in’ than your average train.

by Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987) The New Yorker cover March 24, 1945

The Cosy-Snowy Juxtaposition

Inga Moore from The Wind in the Willows
from Astrid Lindgren’s “Christmas in Noisy Village” by Ilon Wikland

Isn’t it true that a pleasant house makes winter more poetic, and doesn’t winter add to the poetry of a house? The white cottage sat at the end of a little valley, shut in by rather high mountains; and it seemed to be swathed in shrubs.

Baudelaire, French poet

This cosiness is exploited in full in the horror genre for all ages. Take Misery, in which Stephen King goes out of his way to create a cosy, loving shelter after a brutal car accident, before inverting the cosiness to invoke terror.

In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard makes some related points:

  • The reason we feel warm is precisely because it’s cold outside.
  • Dreamers tend to love winter. More time to dream.
  • Edgar Allan Poe had a thing about big, heavy curtains. When the curtains are dark, the snow outside seems even whiter. It’s all about juxtaposition and contrast.
  • ‘Everything comes alive when contradictions accumulate’.
  • When snow covers everything outside, the world is pretty much obliterated. There is no longer any struggle between the house and the environment. The whole universe has a single, unifying colour. ‘The winter cosmos is a simplified cosmos.’
  • ‘Winter is by far the oldest of the seasons. … On snowy days, the house too is old.’

In Blackdog we also have a cosy house (on the inside) but it is snowing outside. In this house, ‘everything may be differentiated and multiplied’ (Bachelard).

Maxfield Parrish- ‘Sunlight’, 1956
illustration from The Story of the Snow Children by Sibylle von Olfers

The Barn As Warm Cosy House

In pastoral children’s literature especially, the barn is sufficiently removed from the house to allow a warm, safe, cosy environment of the child’s own.

This cosy barn is painted by Swiss artist Luigi Chialiva (1841-1914).
The Hayloft. From Stevenson’s 'A Child’s Garden of Verses' illustrated by Maria L. Kirk (1919)
The Hayloft. From Stevenson’s ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’ illustrated by Maria L. Kirk (1919)
Gustaf Tenggren (Swedish-American, 1896-1970), Heidi in her bed in the hayloft, 1923
Gustaf Tenggren (Swedish-American, 1896-1970), Heidi in her bed in the hayloft, 1923
Edna Cooke Shoemaker (1889-1975) for Heidi 1881. O Heidi,” said Klara, “it is just as if we were riding in the sky.”
This watercolour illustration is by Carl Larsson
This watercolour illustration is by Carl Larsson
Charles Dudley - Alight with Interest dogs see mice in a lantern in a barn
Charles Dudley – Alight with Interest
The Mystery Of The Disappearing Cat by Enid Blyton
Mail Wagon in Snowy Landscape by Dale William Nichols (1904-1995)
1956 cover by Eugene Shepherd
George Copeland Ault (1891–1948) January Full Moon, 1941
Ends of Barns, by Georgia O’Keeffe. 1922
Red Barn and Tree Snow (1976) by Eyvind Earle (American, 1916-2000), serigraph on paper
Red Barn and Tree Snow (1976) by Eyvind Earle (American, 1916-2000), serigraph on paper
Christmas in the Barn written by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Barbara Cooney. First published by Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York, 1952
Christmas in the Barn written by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Barbara Cooney. First published by Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York, 1952
Trina Schart Hyman (1939 - 2004) in the book Cat Poems, by Myra Cohn Livingston barn
Trina Schart Hyman (1939 – 2004) in the book Cat Poems, by Myra Cohn Livingston barn
N.C. Wyeth from The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Published by Scribner's 1940 The Storm
N.C. Wyeth from The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Published by Scribner’s 1940 The Storm
illustration for Tenggren’s The Shy Little Kitten A Little Golden Book originally published in 1946 by Gustaf Tenggren
Helena J. Maguire, British (1860-1909)
Alice Bolingbroke Woodward (English, 1862-1951) ‘”Kiss my fluffy face,’ said the owl.” An illustration from the book The Brownies & Other Tales written by Juliana Horatia Ewing, published by George Bell & Sons, London, 1910.
Bird Biographies A Guide-Book for Beginners by Alice Eliza Ball (1867-1948) Illustrated by Robert Bruce Horsfall (1869-1948) New York Dodd, Mead and Company, Inc., 1923 barn swallow
Bird Biographies: A Guide-Book for Beginners by Alice Eliza Ball (1867-1948) Illustrated by Robert Bruce Horsfall (1869-1948) New York Dodd, Mead and Company, Inc., 1923 barn swallow
Vintage bookplate image of a Swift and a Barn swallow from 1965
Vintage bookplate image of a Swift and a Barn swallow from 1965
Edward Hersey
Edward Hersey
Charles Tunnicliffe what to Look for in Winter' 1959 Ladybird books barn farm spider
Charles Tunnicliffe what to Look for in Winter’ 1959 Ladybird books
Samuel Bough - At Barncluith, Hamilton 1854
Samuel Bough – At Barncluith, Hamilton 1854
The Horse and The Goblin 1905 Theodor Kittelsen tomte barn
The Horse and The Goblin 1905 Theodor Kittelsen
JOHN HASSALL (1868 - 1948) barn
JOHN HASSALL (1868 – 1948), in which someone has already stolen the cow’s milk?
Mirko Hanák (Czech painter, graphic artist, and illustrator) 1921-1971
Michael O’Toole (1963-2018)
Bird Biographies A Guide-Book for Beginners by Alice Eliza Ball (1867-1948) Illustrated by Robert Bruce Horsfall (1869-1948) New York Dodd, Mead and Company, Inc., 1923 barn swallow
Bird Biographies A Guide-Book for Beginners by Alice Eliza Ball (1867-1948) Illustrated by Robert Bruce Horsfall (1869-1948) New York Dodd, Mead and Company, Inc., 1923 A Barn Swallow

In Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White describes the barn at the beginning of chapter three. When writing notes for the film adaptation of Charlotte’s Web, White apparently included, “When you enter the barn cellar, remove your hat.” He seemed to regard barn cellars as a kind of cathedral. Via reading his correspondence we know he also liked the smell of manure, which reassured him that life is cyclical.

Indeed, the richness of White’s barn epitomizes the medieval concept of plenitude, the notion that God created the world full and complete. Such a notion is wholly compatible with the pastoral tradition that underlies a great number of children’s books. The presence of death in White’s idealised and bucolic paradise also is in keeping with the literary and artistic tradition of the pastoral

The Annotated Charlotte’s Web by Peter Neumeyer

That said, White was keen to avoid painting a community of barn inhabitants who all got on like the perfect utopian community. The goose is unsympathetic to Wilbur. White himself described the barn animals as “rugged individualists”.

See also: Storybook Farms

Some Mice Went Into A Barn To Spin, An illustration of the nursery rhyme “Some Mice Went Into A Barn To Spin” from the book “Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes and Stories” published by Sunshine Press, London & Glasgow, 1950
Mud Pies and Other Recipes A Cookbook for Dolls by Marjorie Winslow, illustrations by Erik Blegvad
George William Sotter (1879 - 1953) Barn on a Winter’s Night
George William Sotter (1879 – 1953) Barn on a Winter’s Night
The Enchanted Barn 1918 Written by Grace Livingston Hill Lutz Art by Edmund Frederick
The Enchanted Barn 1918 Written by Grace Livingston Hill Lutz Art by Edmund Frederick. “She was almost breathless when she reached the bottom of the hill and stood in front of the great barn.”
SUSAN AND THE RAIN Tell-A Tale Book Madye Lee Chastain frontispiece
‘Curved Barn,’ (1922) Bex Mill, Sussex
The Digest – Literary Digest – Magazine – September 4th – 1937 Barns In Brief
Lemon girl young adult novella

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Header image: Maxfield Parrish- Winter Wonderland