Review of the Day: Brick by Brick by Charles R. Smith Jr.
Sometimes I feel like the older I get the more interesting history becomes. Not that history, real history, wasn’t always fascinating. It’s just that when I was a kid you couldn’t have named a subject duller. And why not? Insofar as I knew, the history taught in my schools gave me the distinct impression that America was a country forged by white people and that folks of any other race would crop up occasionally in the textbooks to be slaves or to appear in internment camps or to suffer Jim Crow. If anything came up about post-Revolutionary War America it was a pretty dry recitation of more white people doing whatever it was that they did. So for me the recent bumper crop of children’s books seeking to undo some of this damage is positively heady. Whether it’s works of historical fiction based in fact like Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson and Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, or fascinating works of nonfiction like Master George’s People by Marfe Ferguson Delano, we live in an era where kids can get a fuller, if not entirely complete, look at what has typically been a whitewashed era in their history books. For the younger sorts we have, Brick by Brick, a book that shines a light on something that I’m not even sure my own second grade teacher even knew, back in the day. Doesn’t hurt matters any that it’s gorgeous to boot.
“Under a hazy, / hot summer sun, / many hands work / together as one.” The time has come for the President of the United States of America to have a home to live in. So it is that white workers and free black workers are joined by slave labor to get the job done. In highlighting their work, poet and author Charles R. Smith Jr. focuses squarely on the hands of the laborers. Gentle rhyming text tells the tale, pulling in facts along the way. For example, we see that some of the more skilled laborers earned shillings that went towards buying their freedom. The house is built and the people look forward to a day when they won’t have to be slaves any long. Some factual backmatter appears at the end.
Last year we actually saw a book that was relatively similar to this one. Called The House That George Built it was by Suzanne Slade and raised hackles on my hackles when I read it. I was fresh off having watched the HBO John Adams series and it seemed to me an utter waste that Slade would write a whole book about the construction of the White House without giving additional attention to the sheer irony inherent in the fact that its very creation rested in large part on the backs of slaves. To be fair, Slade did mention the slave workers and her book had a broader scope in mind. Still, I read it and wanted it to be something else. And the something else I wanted, as it turned out, was Brick by Brick. I just didn’t know it yet.
Smith’s poetry sometimes stands second to his writing, if that makes any sense. He’s a great writer. Knows precisely what to highlight and how to highlight it. But I think it was the Booklist review of this title that mentioned that the rhythm sometimes feels “clunky, and the slant rhyme feels unintentional”. This is not untrue., though to be honest I had no trouble with the rhythm myeslf. But there are times when you’re not quite sure what Smith is going after. For example, there are two lists of names in the book. The first time you read the list, the slant rhyme works (“Len” and “Jim”). The second time you can’t help but wonder if it was supposed to rhyme at all (“Moses” and “Thomas”). That said, let’s get back to that writing, eh? Listen to this section:
and transporting stone,
slave hands ache,
dark skin to white bone.”
Now that is down and out beautiful. It really is. Dark skin to white bone. And the book is just chock full of little lines like that. This is what sets “Brick by Brick” apart from a lot of nonfiction fare for younger kids. Why can’t children get their facts wrapped up in beautiful packaging? Why can’t something be both accurate and poetic? As a work of nonfiction, there is sadly little backmatter to be had. Smith doesn’t offer much more than a well-put answer to the question “Why Were Slaves Used to Build the White House?” He makes it clear that the house they built burned down in 1814, but that the contribution remains memorable. And he includes three Selected Resources, though sadly they all appear to be intended for adults. It would be nice if there had been something there specifically for children. Still, you go with what you’ve got.
And though it sounds odd, I cannot help but praise the author for not ending the book with Barack Obama. Don’t get me wrong, I’m perfectly happy with most nonfiction works for children bringing the man up. But as I neared the book’s end I had to swallow my sense of dread. A shot of the White House today with Obama and his family would feel forced and obvious if it were just stuck in there. Sure, it would drill home the point of the book on a certain level but (A) the White House that Barack lives in is not the same as the White House built by the slaves and (B) do you really want an author to just shoehorn in someone contemporary when the entire focus until that point was squarely on the past? More to the point, Smith is not inclined to hammer home points above and beyond the facts. He doesn’t go on at length about what the White House would have symbolized (or not) to the slave laborers. He lets the facts stand on their own merit, and if there are connections to be drawn that is up to the teachers and the kid readers themselves.
Floyd Cooper likes the color brown. He’s quite partial to it. If you yourself are not a fan of the color brown, I suspect that perhaps Cooper’s style may not be to your liking. But for those of us that consider his work a step above mere sepia, Cooper gives readers a chance to feel as though they are peering at actual historical scenes through the foggy lens of history. I’ve always enjoyed the sheer beauty of a Cooper book but with Brick by Brick I found myself admiring his faces more than usual. If Smith’s text gives life to the long dead, Cooper gives those same dead their humanity. In him the faceless acquire faces. There’s a spread early on where the workers look at the reader dead on with mixed expressions. Front and center is a boy, not much older than the kids who would be reading this book, wearing a white shirt that with a little choice hemming would not be out of place today. This kid is there to give the child reader a chance to look and maybe realize that history is a bit closer than they may think.
As for the faces themselves, Cooper gives fellow illustrators like Kadir Nelson a run for their money. These are people who have worked their entire lives. One wonders where he pulled these faces from. They’re not the folks you would necessarily pass on the street. There’s toil in the lines of their foreheads. There’s something in their eyes. It’s unique. In terms of accuracy, I cannot say whether or not the image of the White House that appears here (that looks very much like today’s White House) is an accurate depiction of the building that burned. All I can say is that Cooper’s work on this book looks great. It’s brown, but you won’t mind. Not a jot.
It’s baffling to think that a book on this topic hasn’t really been written for children before. There’s the aforementioned Slade title but a book that considers the contributions of slaves to the most famous house in America should unquestionably be everywhere. How to account for Smith’s as the first? You can’t. All you can do is be grateful that the book is as good as it is. With a plain purpose and no folderols or frippery to muck up the history, Smith and Cooper have crafted a work of nonfiction that might actually be interesting to those small fry forced to sit through a recitation of late 18th-century highlights. Beautiful in every which way, it’s a gross understatement to call this book long overdue. Call it necessary reading instead. For every library, everywhere.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- The House That George Built by Suzanne Slade, illustrated by Rebecca Bond
- Dave the Potter by Laban Carrick Hill, illustrated by Bryan Collier
- Master George’s People: George Washington, His Slaves, and His Revolutionary Transformation by Marfe Ferguson Delano
- Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans by Kadir Nelson
Other Blog Reviews:
- Mr. Smith speaks with Jules at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
- It’s Nonfiction Monday! Check out Booktalking for the round-up.
- Browse inside the book here,
Mr. Smith does a bit of booktalking on his own title. Can he booktalk everyone else too? He’s darn good at it.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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