At the risk of sounding like comedian Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man character, circa the early ’90s (“In my day, we didn’t have safety standards for toys. We got rusty nails and big bags of broken glass!”), many young people today don’t have a firm grasp of where things come from, how they started or precisely why it is that they work. Whether it’s understanding a piece of fruit’s path from orchard to grocery store or how one’s cellphone works, they’re at a loss.
I’m a 40-year-old who often feels the same way. My daughter once asked me how the computer saves a file to its hard drive, and I stuttered and stammered and put her off till I could look it up myself and explain the computer as much more than just a magic box. (I figured “there’s a fairy with an abacus inside” would not suffice.)
Cue the talented author/illustrator Jonathan Bean, whose newest picture book, Building Our House, relives his own family’s experience of building a new home when he was but a small child. “My family makes up a strong crew of four,” he writes in an immediate, present-tense voice, telling the story from the point of view of his older sister. Mom, Dad, the young girl and her baby brother (observant readers will notice the growing baby in Mom’s belly) construct a home from absolute scratch. The details provided and plans involved will certainly engage those young readers who love tools, vehicles and construction, but this story transcends even that: It’s the loving story of a family uniting to create something they can call their own.
And Bean doesn’t spare us those details: That’s what this affectionate ode to creation is all about. The family chooses “the middle of a weedy field Dad and Mom bought from a farmer” and brings a trailer to serve as home base on the property. The family, as they begin to build, certainly secures help from extended family (Grandpa, for one, shows up with a backhoe) and friends, but they—and their sturdy truck, Willys—primarily handle it alone. They drill for fresh water; lay pipes; supply electricity to the trailer; work with lumber, rock, sand and stone; form the basement; set the foundation with concrete; have a festive frame-raising party; establish the roof, siding, and windows before winter arrives; deal with plumbing, wiring and painting; and much more.
They throw a moving party, welcome a new baby to the family (with no fanfare—they have a house to finish, after all) and top it all off with their first night in their new home, cuddling on the couch with the family pets, reading together. Look closely, though: Both Mama and baby have fallen asleep, leaning on Dad. Whew. Building a home from scratch can wear one out.
Having the right tools for the right job. Measuring twice to get it right. Bean brings these notions vividly to life in this book—with its tall trim size, like a sturdy house. It’s a wondrous read, especially for those children who don’t often think about how modern-day things are built. The notions of setting the corners of the house’s foundation by the North Star and positioning the house to ward off the wind? You can see what rich discussions the book can generate.
Bean’s art is warm and detailed. He captures the family’s determination with humor and precision. In a closing Author’s Note—“My parents thought of themselves as homesteaders and brought to house-building a pioneering spirit of ingenuity and independence”—he speaks with great respect about finding it difficult to “think of a better place to have grown up.”
In a consumer culture where shelves are full of “magic boxes,” it’s rewarding to see such a thoughtfully crafted picture book about laying the foundation, in more ways than one, for a “solid house.”
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
Building Our House. Copyright © 2013 by Jonathan Bean. Published by Farrar Straus Giroux, New York. Spread reproduced by permission of Jonathan Bean.