Things in the Basement, written and illustrated by Ben Hatke, is a heroic journey through the depths of a basement on a quest to find a lost sock. Milo is in a new house. Well, the house isn’t new. It is old and filled with mysteries and adventure, and Milo is ready to explore in the shadow of moving boxes. However, while busy with twin infant sisters, Milo’s mother needs help finding a lost pink sock, made by his Tia Maria for his sister Lucy. He has been called for a quest, and heroes must answer the call.
Milo ventures into the basement, reluctantly peering into shadows and around corners, until he finds the sock in the mouth of a rat. When the rat disappears into a wall, Milo must follow. In his quest to find the rat and the sock, Milo uncovers unknown depths to his basement, monsters, mountains of socks, and some friends along the way.
The story is a classic hero’s journey into the underworld from the point of view of a child. It is abundantly clear that Hatke respects that point of view, and I think because of that many children will find themselves in Milo and in the story. The plot follows a child-like logic without being demeaning or using it as a punchline. The levels of the basement underworld unfold in the way pretend play with an adventurous child does, with something akin to the “yes, and…” improvisational structure. Turn the corner, embrace the unknown, and move forward bravely. Above all else, a sock must be found.
I always appreciate stories of children who waste little or no time in confusion when falling into a new magical world. There is no need to put up a pretense that this isn’t the exact type of world a boy like Milo could imagine for his basement. He befriends a large eyeball with tentacles instead of a body and a skull that talks in simple images, because why would he not. They were perfectly friendly, and as we all know, heroes need support on their quests.
Hatke’s illustrations perfectly blend the strange, dark, and unusual with enough whimsy to ease the imaginations of his young readers. Most of the book pages have monotone color palettes ranging from sepias to some blue and green. There are occasional pops of intense color for menacing green ooze and Lucy’s lost pink sock. The palette evokes the feeling of epic adventures. It also gives room for the strange details of each basement level to remain in the background, available for those interested in looking with a closer eye, but without taking attention from the story at hand.
Milo is Latino with brown skin, but overall his illustration lacks detail. He has a mop of tousled hair that obscures his eyes. The absence of great detail leaves room for children who want to see their face on Milo’s. Without eyes, we follow Milo’s emotion through his posture and movements. Hatke also has to be similarly creative with other important side characters, such as the skull and the eye, or a shepherd with a bell for a face. For young readers to have empathy for the strange and unknown, there must be some level of familiarity. Hatke accomplishes this balance of making the strange familiar through the character’s emotions, often without the ability to rely on facial expressions. It is a tightrope to walk as an illustrator, but one that Hatke clearly masters.
Things in the Basement made me smile, laugh, and feel all sorts of warm fuzzy feelings. It includes themes of friendship and kindness, but isn’t overtly didactic, and is funny without mocking. It’s a journey with child-sized epic proportions. I highly recommend it for elementary and other graphic novel collections for young and middle grade readers. I truly think children will love this story, along with those of us adults who appreciate authors who understand childhood.
Things in the Basement
By Ben Hatke
Macmillan First Second, 2023
Publisher Age Rating: 6-9
Series ISBNs and Order
NFNT Age Recommendation: Easy Readers (5-9)