Clancy & Millie and the Very Fine House by Libby Gleeson and Freya Blackwood (words and pictures, respectively) is all about space.* All. About. Space.
If you’ve heard about this book before, you’ve probably been told that it is a story about moving, and a house becoming a home. These are true. It is also a book about space. About spaces you are comfortable in: small spaces, familiar spaces, spaces full of memories; and spaces you are not comfortable in: large, unfamiliar spaces with no associations. When I say “you” I mean Clancy. The book is about Clancy, whose family moves from a house in what looks like a quiet suburb to a larger house that looks like 12 Grimmauld Place, minus the shrieking portraits and general nastiness, sandwiched in between equally tall and looming neighbouring houses. Clancy’s parents love the house, or more specifically, love how it is “better” – newer, presumably? and larger. The new house has more space in it.
For Clancy, the new house is too big. He misses the cozy spaces of his old home, where everything was familiar and he liked it just the way it was. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this book describes not only Clancy’s move, but gives a taste of what change is like for children who are introverted or who have anxiety (or similar conditions). I think this would be a really good book for adults who know these children (or these adults!), to share a little of how extremely uncomfortable and difficult new situations can be.
Clancy’s parents don’t notice his unhappiness; they enveloped in blissful clouds of their own pleasure with the house and (presumably) with the busyness of unpacking. The scene where Clancy wanders out of the too big house and into the yard is extremely subtle and incredibly potent.**
Clancy goes outside.
He kicks at the sticks and stones that lie on the path.
He flops down and watches a fat snail creep back into its shell.
I’m going to repeat that last bit, okay? He watches a fat snail creep back into its shell. He watches another living being withdraw into its home when it feels threatened, okay? The snail is able to step back (um, figuratively) and retreat to a space where it feels cozy and safe. Clancy does not have a place like this anymore.
IRL, and if this was a book explicitly about a boy with anxiety or depression, he would withdraw himself. In a way, he kind of has – he has walked out of the house that does not welcome him, away from his parents who have missed his feelings because of their own. (Maybe I should say that the text never blames them? They’re not being bad parents, they’re just so busy with what they need to do. Moving is a lot of work. And I’m just saying that also, the story is about Clancy. Not about his parents.) Instead, he starts making his own space.
And the girl next door climbs over the fence and they become friends. (Spoiler alert?) I loved that Clancy is doing his own thing, managing as best as he can (he’s kind of hiding), and this new person takes the initiative to walk in and start a relationship. I loved even more that they very quickly share on equal terms the initiative in their play: there is give and take!!! and shared imaginative space!!! It is a very lovely friendship, which the wonderfully grounded fantastical illustrations depicts just perfectly.
They make things out of the cardboard boxes that carried Clancy’s family’s possessions from the old house to the new. They make their own houses, so that the yard becomes their space, and the house (no longer Number 12 Grimmauld Place) is a home, and Clancy welcomes Millie into his house. There is a wonderful echo of something Clancy’s parents said near the beginning, in a fine piece of textual closure.
As for illustrative closure – just beautiful.***
My only quibble with the book is WHAT WERE THE PARENTS THINKING when they decided to move from a nice house in a nice neighbourhood to a maybe larger but also tall and looming house with no space between them and their neighbours (less than a townhouse in Richmond, y’all) but actually, I suspect that most of the tall and loomingness is because the illustrations show Clancy’s perception of the house. It looms not because it is tall and terrible but because he feels small and afraid.
But yeah. Imaginative play and friendship and home, oh wow is this book charming.
*Bonus: both author and illustrator are Australian, so this book fits last month’s theme as well.
**Especially if you’re reading with a mental health lens.
***Just kidding I am going to talk about it because we SEE Clancy claiming his new house as home when he welcomes Millie inside the house after they have built together a house of boxes, and the stuffed bear that Clancy clutched all the time he was on his own left on the stairs because right now it can return to being a stuffie and can be set aside instead of being a piece of the home he so desperately sought. As in, Clancy does not need to carry around his security
blankie stuffie with him because he feels safe here now.