I was one of those introvert kids with an empathy for inanimate objects that went well beyond stuffed animals. Looking back, it makes sense — I was obsessed with fairy tales and poetry. The worlds of Grimm and Andersen and Carroll were filled with just as many talking sticks, stones, teapots and washtubs as animals and people. Plus, being Greek meant that anyone or anything one encounters might be cursed, arbitrarily, at any time. When it comes right down to it, if it exists in my world, it has an attitude.
Which explains why one of my favorite picture books of all time is Arnold Lobel's The Man Who Took the Indoors Out. Don't get me wrong, I love Frog and Toad as much as anyone, but this epic rhyming poem had my name written all over it. It's the story of an old man with a big heart — Bellwood Bouse — who loves all the things in his very large house. Bellwood gets it in his head one day that it isn't fair his beloved possessions aren't able to enjoy the beautiful spring day, so he throws open the door and invites the indoors to come out. (I guess the title The Man Who Invited the Indoors Out didn't have quite the same panache.)
All the things inside Bellwood's house eventually oblige, in a big way. Stoves and lamps and clocks, the bed and the quilt, the cups and platters and spoons, even the broom and duster empty out into the front yard, and Bellwood leads them on a parade through town.
The illustrations are a gorgeous cacophony of furniture at play. There are so many things to see, and everything is so alive! From the wax grapes on the table and the cookie jar full of cinnamon rolls to the dancing chairs and flying flatware, everything has a stupendous day cavorting about town and bringing people joy. The furniture has so much fun that it doesn't want to go home again. It runs off into the night, leaving poor Bellwood all alone (with the exception of one white wicker rocking chair).
The indoors runs all the way to the ocean and frolics at the moonlit seaside. The bed and piano relax on the sand. The cups and pans take a dip in the ocean, watched by a crowd of standing forks, spoons, and knives. Bellwood, meanwhile, is distraught. He searches high and low in inclement weather. He waits hours, days, months, pacing through his empty, quiet house, with only the company of his good old friend, the white wicker rocker.
Then, one winter's morning, Bellwood hears soft piano music coming from the front yard. He rushes down the stairs to find that his indoors has finally returned, battered and cracked and definitely worse for the wear. But Bellwood doesn't care. He's just so happy that everything has returned home! He then locks the door (a move that rubbed me the wrong way until I was much older and lived by myself). But the story's not over! Bellwood bows to the white wicker rocker and invites it to dance with him over the snow-covered hills. And they do.
This book had such an impact on me that, at the ripe old age of 4 or 5, I instantly befriended an oak tree in our front yard — because who would love a tree so close to the road? I would, of course! It freaked my parents out at the beginning, but that tree remained my best friend for many, many years.
This March, Bellwood's story began to haunt me again. The furniture and I — all of us — were placed under lockdown. I went for many walks, enjoying the spring days alone, but when Florida summer came, I went back inside for the duration. I know I have too much stuff and I need to get rid of some of it, but how lonely would I be without my most beloved items? And it was so much worse for the people forced to be apart from the ones they loved.
The themes of The Man Who Took the Indoors Out are fairly obvious and twofold: Be Careful What You Wish For, and If You Love It, Set It Free. Who knows what this winter will bring? The things in the world we once took for granted may come back to us battered and broken and not quite the same. Can we love them anyway?
For now, I will remain as the white wicker rocker, safe at home. But I look forward to the day we can all dance across the snow-covered hills once again.
Alethea Kontis is a voice actress and award-winning author of over 20 books for children and teens.