Bonnie Shemie's books appeal to the kind of imagination drawn to tree houses (trees optional) and snow forts (snow not so optional). Often, she advances the careers of young would-be architects by including step-by-step building instructions.
Her latest book, Houses of China, is a departure from her Native Dwellings series in content, but not in style. Again, she lifts off the roofs in both text and illustration, to peer into the ways the Chinese create and inhabit their spaces. Intrusive? Yes. Informative? Again, yes. Enthralling? No.
Despite Shemie's knack for simplifying ideas and concepts (even feng shui and Confucianism), she isn't a writer who habitually enthralls her readers. Her writing frequently verges on being flat and stilted, to the point where it camouflages her excitement about her subject-matter. And she is only just missing the one element that would make her excitement contagious: she doesn't place the readers inside a narrative or get them involved. Despite peeling back the roofs, she leaves us perched up there without a ladder, instead of giving us a push and letting us explore.
In an earlier book, House of Wood, which is about native dwellings on the Northwest coast (Tundra, 1992), Shemie uses narrative to bring the text and the illustrations to life. And it works. By her tracing the building of a cedar house through the eyes and ears of a young boy, the world she is describing becomes real.
In Houses of China, she makes a stab at using this perspective, but doesn't stick with it. The section on "The Tibetan Stone House" allows us a quick glimpse through the eyes of a boy and his little sister, until Shemie pushes them aside and retreats to her usual impersonal distance. A younger perspective would provide a translator or medium. It isn't that her language is too difficult. It isn't. Nor does she talk down to her readers. But she lacks the excitement that a child's voice and way of looking at the world could lend to her work.
Despite just missing this hook that would pull in her young readers, Shemie's Houses of China is worth the read. The text is informative, and given her reputation and her customary long bibliography, we can feel confident that she has done her research. Even in her precise, highly detailed reconstructions, ranging from Mongolian yurts to the hutongs of Beijing, Shemie's illustrations resemble very sophisticated crayon drawings, which adds a certain charm. (And yes, she does stay inside the lines.)
Shemie's work allows us a glimpse into another world, another culture, and Houses of China is an important book. I hope that when she peels back the roof for a peek in her next book, she will let the reader jump into the house below.
Julie Bergwerff is at the beginning of a career that balances freelance editing with her own writing. After reading this book, she made a New Year's resolution to renovate her household's tree house, at least when the weather's warmer.