by Sam Juliano
Proudly displayed on a corner wall panel of their expansive ranch-style family room in a mansion-sized home situation on a scenic cul-de-sac in Butler, New Jersey are a cache of pictures chronicling the building of their home by family members and a few friends. I am speaking here about my wife’s sister and her husband, who accomplished what must seem to many as an inconceivable task, one that to this day has left many awestruck. Built in 1986 when grandfathers from both sides of the family were still alive and active, the spacious home now stands as a testament to teamwork and resilience and a model for the three college-going young men who were treated to an entirely new definition of the word homespun. Like anything else in life, nothing is appreciated and cherished more than what was created by one’s own hands or the proverbial blood, sweat and tears.
Jonathan Bean’s Boston Globe-Horn Book-winning Building Our House lovingly chronicles the event of a lifetime through the narration of a young girl, who of course properly embellishes the euphoric aspects of this monumental achievement. A family’s dedication and familial camaraderie is evident throughout the simple but remarkably detailed watercolor compositions that relate the entire experience of setting up camp like actual carpenters and the special technicians who needs to stay close to the work site over along period. There is vibrancy and a sense of good will on these pages that suggests the work of Caldecott Medal winning artist Stephen Gammell -The Relatives Came, especially- and the book is designed to include single and two-page spreads and scenes set on quarter panels to accentuate the passage of time and the forward progression of the construction. Life is not muted by the technical side of the story as children, animals and a pregnant mom intrude on the priorities at hand.
Bean draws on his own childhood memories of his family moving from the city to a purchased plot of land in the country where the new house will be built. The book is set up as an ongoing process seen through the eyes of Bean’s older sister. There is quite a family dynamic at work as mother, father, children and relatives all negotiate their assigned duties. Eighteen months go by before the family can leave the trailer and sleep under the roof, even while putting on the finishing touches. Bean does a superlative job documenting the change of seasons and how undaunted the workers become as they become irrevocably immersed in their task: stones are trucked from the quarry; Dad sets the corners of the foundation by the North Star; Grandpa follows the corners Dad placed, gently moving the levers that control the giant hoe; Dad saws the boards that Mom hammers and nails into a form that will hold concrete; Mom pours the concrete into a wheelbarrow and then dumps the wet mixture into the form; my brother helps Dad inspect the lumber – finally when the frame is nearly constructed a “frame-raising party” is staged. “Everyone visits. My grandfather and grandmother, my aunts and uncles and cousins, my other grandfather and grandmother, my great-grandfather, our neighbors, and the workers from the sawmill and quarry made up a big frame-raising crew.”
Bean is keen on weather as he draws a series of vignettes that denote both the passage of time and the continued progress. In his author’s note and book dedication Bean mentions that real house building actually took five years: “This book is dedicated to my family and is based on my parent’s experience of buying an old field and living in a small house-on-wheels while they worked on building a house for their family. Instead of a year-and-a-half, as in this story, it took every scrap of spare time and five years to complete. During those five years my parents had three children: two of my three sisters and me. Though I have vague memories of ladders and a cement mixer and a frame raising that have, no doubt, been enhanced by photographs my parents took, this book’s story is told from my older sister’s point of view.” Bean admits that “it’s hard for me to think of a better place to have grown up” and credits his parents “as homesteaders” who “brought to house building a pioneering spirit of ingenuity and independence.” Alas, a tiny minority of the population have ever experience such a gleefully soulful enterprise, and even fewer still are likely to do so in the future.
There is a deliberate effort in some of the busy, almost crowded page panels to re-create the fervent activities involved in such a communal project. In one delightful spread mom measures wood, while father saws, drills and chisels wood and carries lumber off a truck – stopping only for second to gulp lemonade, while the two youngest kids engage in pool activities. Bean suggests that building a house is not the arduous and frustrating task that would frustrate most from contemplating a task so daunting, but rather that one moments in life that will fill a scrapbook, that will forever be remembered as the defining activity in familial bliss. If only we could all experience what Bean did. Building A House is a picture book par excellence, one that may well inspire Caldecott voters on January 27th.
Note: This is the sixth review in an ongoing series focusing on Caldecott Medal and Honor book hopefuls in advance of the late-month announcement by the American Library Association