Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

From The Ground Up...

When I was growing up my Dad who worked as a carpenter for years as his first job, made sure I had the fundamentals of hammer, nails, nuts, bolts, saw, pliers and wrench use down pat.  It came in handy when in 1976 after acquiring twenty acres of wooded property outside a city in northern Michigan, my husband and I found ourselves building our own home.  We each had our own chain saws to clear an area for the house; cutting down dozens of trees which provided heat in our wood stove for years.

A crew dug the basement and laid the foundation, drilled the well and put in the septic system.  We had hired a construction crew but when my husband found their work to be less than plumb, with the framing barely started, they were dismissed and we proceeded to finish the home ourselves.  We lived in a tent until it became too cold, then moved to one room in a motel.  Working at jobs and building a house with the remaining time each day is an experience I will never forget.  Looking back, I can't believe we did it.

For this reason (among others) after reading a post at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast about a new Jonathan Bean title, I knew I had to have it.  Building Our House (Farrar Straus Giroux) is written and illustrated to honor his family and is founded on his own parents building a house for their family.  As his parents painstakingly built the home step by step, Jonathan Bean builds this story picture by picture, word by word.

Today is moving day.  We left our old house in the city and are moving to the country.

Told in the voice of his older sister we follow the Bean family as their resourcefulness and spirit of self-sufficiency guide them on their adventure.  A field purchased from a farmer at the end of a dirt road is the site for a home they will build.  Tools, plans, Mom, Dad, a younger brother and a truck named Willys arrive ready to begin.

Essentials, running water and electricity, are first and foremost followed by the arrival of a small trailer.  The family of four will live in this small home on wheels while we build our new house.  Working together with the help of Willys materials are gathered; wood, rocks, sand and stone are piled about the field.

Grandpa provides the backhoe for digging the basement, the family builds forms for the foundation filling them with those collected items, then Mom measures and Dad cuts beams.  People, extended family, friends and neighbors, come for a frame-raising day and party.  Knowing winter is not far away as summer days grow cooler, the little family works harder than ever.

Siding, windows, floors, a door, roof, and chimney are pieced around the frame fashioned by many.  As snow and wind swirl outside, the house becomes more whole as the inside is filled with plumbing, electrical wires, insulation and walls shape rooms.  The seasons shift bringing a new addition and a very special day, moving day.  Family of five...house...home...contented, happy hearts...

There is no other way to describe the writing and illustrating of this book other than as a labor of love. The narrative voice is youthful, matter-of-fact but observant noting parental axioms and day-to-day details of the construction process.  Readers will notice the word choice, placement and pacing provide a certain soothing rhythm not unlike that of the house's changes through the months.  Here are a couple of selected sentences from one of my favorite parts.

On a clear, cold night Dad sets the corners of the foundation by the North Star.  One wall will face north to ward off the wind, one east to welcome the morning, one south to soak in the sun, and one west to see out the day.

From pencil sketches, to ink and watercolor, the pictures by Jonathan Bean are individual masterpieces, small captured moments in his family's life.  An identical jacket and cover feature a close-up of the building in progress on the front while the back shows the completed home in the early evening, lights in the windows.  Opening endpapers in tones of tan provide a vista of the countryside as it was before their arrival.  The same colors are used in the closing endpapers but the home, shed, gardens, laundry on a clothesline, a tree house and a foal with the horse in the farmer's field have been added to the original scene.

A heavier matte-finished paper adds to the warmth of the visuals which begin the story on the title page showing the family loading Willys up for the move into the country.  Some of the illustrations extend across two pages, edge to edge,  while others are smaller as the steps in the process are related; these having rounded edges as an invitation to the reader.  Still more pages are a series of pictures blended together as if links on a chain with the text woven among them.

With every viewing more details can be noticed; details adding to the life-affirming nature of the venture, a dream fulfilled through determination and love.  A cat appearing at their arrival is adopted and has kittens.  A tiny evergreen tree is placed on the peak of the roof after the frame-raising. During a rain storm Mom is holding an umbrella for Dad as his works on the roof; the children seeking shelter beneath the overturned wheel barrow.  Despite all the hub-bub a groundhog continues to build his home nearby as the months pass. It's these little things that contribute to this title's excellence.

Jonathan Bean in writing and illustrating Building Our House has invited readers into his past; a past filled with the best kind of memories, a cherished childhood.  This beautiful book in addition to being featured at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast (the array of artwork in various stages is a must see) is showcased at Kirkus and at The Horn Book here and here.  Make sure this title is on your must- purchase list.  You'll want to read it again and again.


  1. Isn't this one of the best books of 2013? Love it so.

  2. Yes, it is. I keep reading it over and over. You want to reach out and touch all the illustrations.