Charles R. Smith Jr., Author
Floyd Cooper, Illustrator
Amistad an Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, Historical Fiction, 2013
Suitable for Ages: 5- 9
Themes: Building the White House, Slave labor, Trade, Buying Freedom
Opening: “Under a hazy, hot summer sun, many hands work together as one. The president of a new country needs a new home, so many hands work together as one. Black hands, white hands, free hands, slave hands.”
Synopsis: President George Washington needs a new house. It took both skilled and unskilled free men and slaves working together to dig, break, chisel and transport stone to lay the foundation for the president’s home. Even children worked with clay, sand and water to make the bricks. Hands are an important theme in the story because machinery didn’t exist. The laborers worked 12-hour days which was hard on their hands bodies. The title of the book Brick by Brick highlights how the White House was built by hands.
Why I like this book: This book is a beautiful tribute to the laborers who worked under harsh conditions in the middle of nowhere to clear the forest in 1792 to build the president’s house. Charles R. Smith, Jr., beautifully captures the rhythm and power of the workers through rhyme. Throughout his poetic text, Smith scatters the first names of workers adding a sense of realism and dignity to the forgotten heroes in American history. You have to love the power in his rhyme:
“Slave hands saw twelve hours a day,/ but slave owners take slave hands’ pay./ Slave hands bleed under a hot, hazy sun,/ slave hands toil until each day is done”.
“Slave hand learn/new trade skills/using chisels,/saws,/hammers,/and drills.” “Skilled hands earn/one shilling per day,/reaching slave hands closer/to freedoms with pay.”
Although the conditions were horrible, many slaves were learning skills and trades brick by brick that eventually yields shillings that buy freedom for their families. And, they play and important part building the history of their country. Floyd Cooper’s illustration evoke emotions of exhaustion, anger and pride. His illustrations are in soft brown and yellow colors that show uniformity and match the mood of the era. Great teamwork between Smith and Cooper who are both former Coretta Scott King Award winners.
Resources: The author includes a page at the end of the book about why slaves were used to build the White House, which was later burned by the British on Aug. 24, 1814. Smith also includes resources for further study. A good classroom activity would be to write a story about one of the many characters in his illustrations. The facial expressions are so lively they speak to you. Visit Charles R. Smith Jr. at his website.
Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Books.