Quote of the Month

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

Thursday, June 27, 2013

With These Hands...

Mentors, colleagues and friends can make a huge difference in shaping your reading life, offering encouragement and flinging doors wide open into unexplored worlds.  Every single time I read a nonfiction picture book I am reminded of Donalyn Miller's essay at the Nerdy Book Club, Book Gap Challenge and more recently of Alyson Beecher's Kid Lit Frenzy blog posts,  Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday.  A single, carefully-worded invitation and a weekly reminder can be very powerful for members in a reading community.

When completing the reading of many nonfiction picture books, it is with a sense of gratitude the final page is turned.  You long to personally thank the author and illustrator or author/illustrator for their efforts in bringing little known or unknown information into your world. With every reading of Brick by Brick (Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers) written by Charles R. Smith Jr. with illustrations by Floyd Cooper, I continue to be struck by the strength of the words, pictures and of the people who grace the pages.

Under a hazy,
hot summer sun,
many hands work
together as one.

As a new country, having gained freedom from British rule, the United States had a considerable amount of building to do.  One structure made would be the home of the president, The White House.  Land was cleared, stone was dug and broken and wood was sawed using slaves.

They were rented, these humans, working day in and day out in the grueling heat and bug-infested land. Their owners would collect the day's pay, twelve-hour days.  Without the use of modern engineering and machines, it was the hands of these men which completed all the necessary tasks.

Their hands held saws, chisels, hammers, shovels and pick axes working until they were raw and bleeding.  The younger slaves formed the bricks from clay, sand and water.  Mortar was made from oystershells, rock, lime and sand.  All by hand. So many hands. So much work.

Tradesmen taught the slaves more intricate craftmanship.  With these skills they were paid, money to be used to purchase freedom.  Shilling by shilling much was gained.  A home for a president built by the hands of slaves.

Thorough, meticulous research supports the solid, powerful words of Charles R. Smith Jr. The rhythm one feels from his rhyming words is truly of many hands working.  By repeating certain phrases, together as one, hazy hot sun, twelve hours a day, and brick by brick the cadence captures readers' attention, not releasing it even when the cover is closed.  Including the names of the slave workers makes this a very personal experience, unforgettable.

Beginning with the double page spread spanning the matching jacket and cover, award-winning Floyd Cooper recreates the past for readers, bringing them into the everyday lives of these slave workers.  Inside a single-page landscape featuring the finished White House provides a fitting vista for the title.  The following two-page illustration, a line of workers carrying their tools, some in shackles, voices lifted in conversation or song, provides a place for the verso and dedication.  It's stunning.

All of the illustrations, two-page paintings, edge to edge, spectacularly portray the narrative; most bringing us close to the people.  The faces, the hands, the physical fortitude and emotions shown on each individual are incredible.  The artistic technique used by Cooper forms a texture, making his illustrations seem to breathe.  I have several favorite illustrations but the one for the words:

Freedom has a price
in a land of liberty,
so slave hands toil
to no longer be property.

with the people of all ages gathered together on a grassy meadow looking upward and out is extremely moving.

I consider Brick by Brick written by Charles R. Smith Jr. with illustrations by Floyd Cooper to be a shining example of the best kind of nonfiction.  It brings the past strikingly into the present, informing with poetry and pictures that have their own kind of beauty.  Please follow the links embedded in each of their names to gain a greater understanding of the author and illustrator.

This link will take you to the publisher website to view several pages inside the book.  This link is to an interview of Floyd Cooper conducted three years ago giving insight into his process.  Below is an outstanding video book talk by Charles R. Smith Jr. about this volume.


  1. What a wonderful review. Thanks for sharing it with us. Brick by Brick sounds like a real knock your socks off book and a needed addition to African American history. I will be looking for this one next library visit.

    1. Thank you, Alex. You are welcome. This book is one of those true life stories which rarely makes it into history books. It is very moving. I appreciate you visiting the blog and leaving a comment.

  2. Brick by Brick does sound like a wonderful and powerful story. Thank you for a great review. I shall look for the book also.