Book review: The House on the Mountain by Ella Holcombe and David Cox

Ella Holcombe’s The House on the Mountain is a great empathy tool, for children and adults, in explaining the complex emotional feelings of victims of bushfire.

Eleven years ago, on 7 February 2009, bushfires ravaged the Victorian landscape. A total of 78 communities were affected as 400 separate fires raged on. The fear was echoed again in communities across Australia as the 2019-2020 fires burned across NSW, Victoria, Queensland, the ACT, Western Australia and South Australia. The inquiry into the most recent bushfire disaster is currently underway, bringing back memories of the Black Saturday fires.

Explaining Australia’s destructive bushfires to young children can be difficult. Depending on their age, it can be hard for a child to comprehend the images they see, which can cause sadness and confusion. Children’s author Ella Holcombe’s The House on the Mountain is a great empathy tool, for children and adults alike, in explaining the complex emotions experienced by victims of bushfire.

Holcombe tells the story of a family that lives through a devastating bushfire. As they deal with the aftermath of the disaster, we glimpse the community’s recovery process and its ability to heal. The House on the Mountain is beautifully illustrated by Walkley Award-winning artist David Cox, whose drawings lend a familiar Australian visual tone.

Told in first person by a young child, the language Holcombe utilises is simple yet evocative, giving space for the reader to consider the words carefully.

‘The drive down the mountain hides away in the back of my memories. There is the fierce wind, the crashing of things hitting the car, the skidding of tyres, crying, Dad swearing. And smoke, everywhere the smell of smoke.’

All around them the fire’s destruction is evident, and the trauma experienced by the main character is heartbreaking. 

‘In my class there are two kids who didn’t come back.’

This is a book that upholds the memory of those who died in the Black Saturday bushfires, where a total of 173 people lost their lives, and 2,029 houses were destroyed.

Holcombe’s poetically sparse language explains the feelings of stress and sadness through a child’s eyes:

And in assembly we talk about all the kids and teachers and families who will never come back … I just want to forget. In class I sit with my pen not quite touching the paper, frozen.’

The storytelling is brave. Holcombe’s own experience of losing her mum and dad to the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires was the impetus for this story and her emotion is palpable in her Note from the Author. (Holcombe also spoke about this experience and her recovery from it in How Can We Recover?, the third episode of our podcast The ArtsHubbub.) 

The House on the Mountain leaves the reader with a sense of hope. An incredible book to help young children learn and explore the more complex emotional issues that are brought up by the fires that frequently occur in our country.

4 stars out of 5: ★★★★

The House on the Mountain by Ella Holcombe and David Cox
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
ISBN: 9781760636968

Format: Hardcover
Categories: Children’s Book, 7-11 yrs
Pages: 32pp
Release Date: 1 February 2019
RRP: $24.99

Andrea Simpson
About the Author
Andrea Simpson is a freelance contributor and former Feature Writer and the Reviews Editor for ArtsHub. Andrea is a Filipina-Australian writer, editor, and content creator with a love for diverse Australian stories. She is curious about all forms of art, though she has an especially keen interest in Australia's publishing sector. Her feature writing has appeared in Inside Small Business. Andrea is an Assoc. member of Editors Victoria (IPEd.). Her short stories have been published in Visible Ink Anthology 27: Petrichor (2015), and Frayed Anthology (2015). You can find Andrea’s poetry in What Emerges (2013) poetry selected by Ania Walwicz.