By Elizabeth Wroten
Picture Book Review: Brick by Brick by Charles R. Smith, Jr.
On 20, Dec 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: In this powerful story of the building of the White House, Coretta Scott King Award winners Charles R. Smith Jr. and Floyd Cooper capture the emotion and toil that created this incredible structure, the home of our president. The White House was created by many hands, several of the slaves’, who will be remembered throughout history for their extraordinary feat. Many slaves were able to purchase their freedom after earning money from learning a trade through this work, which speaks to their unbelievable strength.
I don’t really remember where I came across this book, but I do remember I came across it shortly after all that ridiculous flack Michelle Obama got for mentioning in a speech that the White House was, in part, built by enslaved people. It seemed logical to me even though our educational system managed to miss teaching that fact. I guess it wasn’t logical for others?
Well, here’s a book to make sure your school does actually teach about who really built the White House and who profited from that work. While I think this book does a great job celebrating the hard work people, especially enslaved men and women, put into building the iconic building and how they were eventually able to use it to their advantage, I think it also does a really good job emphasizing that, by and large, the money and rewards went to the white owners of these enslaved people. There is a refrain “Slave hands saw/ twelve hours a day,/ but slave owners take/slave hands’ pay.” that repeats several times after longer passages that show the hard work everyone was putting into the building.
This is definitely a book that should be on school library shelves (public libraries too!). It counters the whitewashed and sanitized history we teach in schools. It shows pride in the work the enslaved and free blacks did. It’s history as it really was. Our second grade does a unit on African Americans, the Underground Railroad, and a little bit on slavery. It bugs me that, while the school claims to be progressive, we still only focus on African folktales (mostly written by white people in the 60s), slavery and the Civil Rights movement when studying anyone black (although with some new teachers this narrative is changing). I am aware that this is still a book that takes place during a time when Africans were enslaved in the US, but it’s a much less well known piece of that history. It does mention that there were free blacks and white immigrants who worked on the project as well. Again, something that isn’t well taught or known. This is the kind of book I want in my collection that counters the narrative of blacks only having two places in history (slavery and Civil Rights Movement).
While the text is important and interesting, the illustrations are also beautiful. Floyd Cooper always does amazing work. Here the illustrations have a hazy, tan wash over them that makes the work seem hot, dusty, and difficult. I love that Cooper gives each person a face to go with the names listed off in the text. It humanizes the people who worked on the White House.
The text is not long, nor is it graphic about slavery or anything that might be deemed too much for young children. I would say you could read this book down into first grade and up into the higher grades. There is a short author’s note at the end that adds a little more historical context that is fascinating and will stretch the picture book into the upper elementary grades. If your school has a library this should be in it. If any of your classes study the nascent nation, this needs to be in your collection. Make sure our kids are learning all our history.