Review of the Day: Someone Builds the Dream by Lisa Wheeler, ill. Loren Long
Whenever I write a review I first ask myself a simple question: What does this book do that sets it apart from all the other books out there? That question goes tenfold for picture books. With hundreds and hundreds of picture books published in a given year, the dreck can far outweigh the good. That said, you could have the best picture book in the world, but unless it has a hook, something I can hang a review on, I won’t have boo to say about it. Now there are times when I read a picture book and the review comes instantly to me right then, so instantaneously that it’s all I can do to type fast enough. Other times I have the experience I had with Someone Builds the Dream. I read the book. I like the book. I sit on it for a few months. And then, slowly, like the petals of a flower unfurling, I realize how I can review the book. Lisa Wheeler and Loren Long have given us a title that is filled up to the brim with dignity. Dignity for the people who actually put their blood, sweat, and tears into making the places and objects we so desperately need to live. In an era where the term “essential workers” is commonplace but their stories are not, Someone Builds the Dream could not be better timed.
Who makes things? I mean, really? Sure an architect comes up with the idea for a building, but let us not forget that other people “guide the saws, plane the logs, lead the team.” An engineer knows how to use their skills to create a bridge but other people, “mine the ore, smelt the iron, pour the beam,” and make that beautiful structure rise. With care, different creators are paired alongside the workers that make their ideas real. Even the author and illustrator of this book are mentioned… right alongside the people who produce copies of the books, and the librarians that read them aloud. As the book says, “It takes a team to build a dream.”
Every Labor Day librarians across the country try to figure out what books to pull out and read to classes and groups of kids. If you want someone pro-union then Click Clack Moo, Cows That Type is a good choice. If you want something historical and catchy then Mother Jones and Her Army of Mill Children is a primo selection. And if you want something about workers doing necessary jobs you’ll usually only find books for very young children. There is a reason for this. Creators write books. When they write books, they tend to focus on other creators. That’s just the way of things. Like begets like. Which is not to say that they won’t also create books about skilled workers. Heck, some of the first books you ever hand a child will focus squarely on jobs and workers. A three-year-old is going to be bored to tears if you read them a book about a trust officer or hedge fund manager, but they’ll be over the moon with books about construction workers, plumbers, etc. Yet as kids get older, their books don’t really highlight those jobs anymore. Skilled laborers fade from view, only cropping up occasionally here and there. And yes, while Someone Builds the Dream isn’t exactly a YA novel, it’s important to remember that it is also not intended for babies or toddlers.
A lot of credit for the very idea of this book goes to author Lisa Wheeler. Coming from a family of steel workers and welders, and living within the proximity of Detroit, her deft author bio on the back bookflap succinctly states how, “she hopes that readers will share her deep respect for the nature of labor.” That respect just radiates from the pages. Amusingly, I did not notice that the book was written in rhyme until I started quoting it in this review. Instead, I noticed the nice use of repetition with the titular phrase. I noticed that the book goes far beyond the rule of threes, and that when the author gets to the people who physically make books, she uses them to sum up the story. I even noticed that the repeated beat in this book is teamwork. How it takes many hands to make the world in which we live. As beats go, that’s a nice one.
I’ve followed the artistic career of Loren Long for years. He’s such an interesting creator. In his early days he had this elongated style that really pulled and warped his characters in interesting ways. Otis the Tractor is an excellent example of this, though he’d do it to a certain extent with Madonna’s Mr. Peabody’s Apples too. Then, as time went on, he started work on more realistic titles. Books like President Obama’s Of Thee I Sing or Amanda Gorman’s Change Sings. With this book he mentions on the book’s flap that he, “called upon his love of 1930s WPA murals.” This makes utter and complete sense, once you hear it. Utilizing acrylics, colored pencils “and whatever dust and dog hair happened to be floating around the studio” (his words, man, not mine) his workers are created in a distinct Social Realism style. In fact, the longer I looked at this art, the more interesting I found his choices. Do you notice how the architect, engineer, artist, park designer, author, and illustrator are all featured alone? The workers, in contrast, are almost always pictured together or alongside other people. Indeed the first words of the book are, “All across this great big world / jobs are getting done / by many hands in many lands. / It takes much more than one.” This stark contrast between the creators and the workers is very interesting. It sets up a visual call and response, where someone comes up with a vision but others are the ones to bring it to life.
I appreciate that Long creates a before and after effect in this book that stands in stark contrast to some titles. At the beginning of Someone Builds the Dream a group of three construction workers, excavator at their backs, look down on a part of the river that has dilapidated developments falling to pieces on its banks. When you get to the last two-page spread at the end of the book it’s the same river, but now there’s a gazebo, soccer fields, and more. Long has cleverly avoided the trap of showing these workers bulldozing pristine wildlife and hitherto untouched land. The strip of property they are considering was developed and had fallen into ruin a long time ago. I found this a smart solution to a potential problem.
Best of all, the art is riddled with little details worth peeking at. Sometimes it might be as mundane as the hole in the heel of one of the workers’ socks as he reads his son this very book at night. I was gratified to see the tattoo on the back of the dad’s hand too, since one of the mild criticisms I might level at this art is how tattoo-free the bulk of the people, workers and creators, are. There are other tiny things to spot as well. In the two-page sequence where Loren has painted both the author, Lisa Wheeler, and himself. I enjoyed reading the handwritten notes on her desk (“Dream, Bridge, Fountain,” etc.) and spotting the toy excavator on a shelf up above. There are even cameos. Librarian Alia Jones appears as the children’s librarian in this book, beautifully rendered right smack dab in the middle of the page. A wonderful little treat to those who know her or her work.
The world is a different place than it was when I was a kid. These days, a bit more thought goes into what kids should do after high school. Should they go right into a job, or should they go to college? The answers aren’t the same for everyone. Part of what makes this book so impressive to me is that while we live in an America that fairly thrums with the joy of setting people up against one another, this isn’t a book about blame. It’s not saying that tradesmen and skilled workers are any better or worse than the people that create “the dream”. It’s saying that maybe we should stop for a moment and actually acknowledge our workers. In doing so, this book both feels like an answer to the pandemic, and a book that can live on long after the pandemic has (hopefully) shuffled off into the past. A book for all times then.
On shelves now.
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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