We are delighted to invite Thomas Harding onto the Picture Book Party blog to tell us all about the making of his new book, The House by the Lake, illustrated by Britta Teckentrup. You can now read the full post below!
|Thomas Harding first shared this remarkable story in his Costa-shortlisted biography The House by the Lake – now he has rendered it into a deeply moving picture book for young readers. On the outskirts of Berlin, a wooden cottage stands on the shore of a lake. Over the course of a century, this little house played host to a loving Jewish family, a renowned Nazi composer, wartime refugees and a Stasi informant; in that time, a world war came and went, and the Berlin Wall was built a stone's throw from the cottage's back door. With words that read like a haunting fairy tale and magnificent illustrations by Britta Teckentrup, this is the astonishing true story of the house by the lake.|
Guest Author Post - Thomas Harding
In 2013, I visited my family’s little wooden lake house outside of Berlin. It had been built by my great-grandfather Alfred Alexander, a prominent Jewish doctor. The Nazis had stolen the house from us back in the 1930s. Now standing outside, I was filled with sadness. The walls were covered with graffiti, its windows were broken, its floorboards rotten. When I asked the neighbours what the city planned to do with the house I was told it was going to be demolished. This made me feel even worse.
So, with the help of members of the local community and members of my family, we saved the house and set about its renovation. From this experience, I wrote the adult non-fiction book, THE HOUSE BY THE LAKE.
In 2019, we opened the house to the public. It was so exciting to see people visit for the first time, to experience what my grandmother called her ‘soul place’.
I was particularly interested to see the response of our younger guests. They touched the hole in the side of the house-made from a Russian bullet back in 1945. They stared at the piece of concrete and iron poking up from the soil in the garden, a leftover from the Berlin Wall. They looked at the sunflower wallpaper inside put up during the time of East Germany. They took in the beautiful view of the lake. And I thought to myself: could I find a way to tell this story for a younger audience?
I adore picture books. As a child, I read them again and again. My favourites still sit proudly on my shelf. As a teenager, I had a summer job in the children’s bookshop in Muswell Hill, London, where I was introduced to new types of books, history, nature, fantasy and much more. Later, when I had kids, I read to them every night. I wanted so much to make a picture book of my own.
But I had my doubts. I had never before written a book for children. I felt intimidated and lacking in confidence. Even if I tried, I thought to myself, how could I tell this story for 6, 7, 8 year olds? After all, it had so many dark themes — Nazis, refugees, the Berlin Wall, the Stasi, bombing raids.
A few weeks later, I was in Scotland at a book festival and I met the wonderful children’s author Nicola Davies. I told Nicola about my concerns and she said I could do it. All I had to do was take the one step and then another.
Which is what I did. I sat down at my desk and wrote the first few words. ‘A long time ago there was a little house by a lake.’ And then the next line, and then the next. Remarkably, the incredible people at Walker Books decided to publish the story. I was so happy.
Working with Britta Teckentrup was a dream. I admire her books so when I heard she would be creating the illustrations for THE HOUSE BY THE LAKE I was delighted. We first met in a little café in Berlin near where she lives. We had an immediate connection. We talked about the story, what it meant to me and what it meant to her. Britta then went to visit the house by the lake and did some research on her own. A few months later I was sent her work and I was thrilled.
The first image I saw was of the kind doctor and cheery wife and their four children outside the house. Of course, this is my family and I found the picture very moving. And the colours were so beautiful.
The next picture I saw was of the aircraft dropping bombs on Berlin. This was very different, angry, dark, powerful. I was very impressed at how Britta had captured the sudden shift in the story.
When I saw the illustrations of the ‘young man’ arriving at the house towards the end of the book I laughed out loud. Britta had captured me so well, down to my flat cap and purposeful stride.
I am so pleased this story is now available for a younger audience and I am excited to hear how they respond.
The house by the lake is now renovated and open to the public as a centre for education and reconciliation. For more information about programming or to arrange a visit please go to www.alexanderhaus.org .
- Thomas Harding
A special thanks to our guest author this week, Thomas Harding!
The House by the Lake is now available to buy from all good booksellers.