Monday, July 29, 2013

Brick by Brick by Charles R. Smith, Jr. Illustrated by Floyd Cooper

We see pictures of the White House everyday in newspapers, magazines, on televison.  We use it as a metonym when we say the White House meaning the president and/or his staff.  But how often do we think about how or by whom the White House was built.

Brick by Brick is about the first White House that was built for the new president of the United States, George Washington, back in 1792.  It was a big job and required a lot of workers.  Local workers were hired as well as free blacks, but when that wasn't enough, slaves were used:
Black hands,
white hands,
free hands,
slave hands.

 But while everyone else was paid for their labor, slaves were hired out by their masters who collected their pay and kept it for themselves:
Slave hands saw
twelve hours a day,
but slave owners take
slave hand's pay.
But as new skills are learned, some slaves were able to receive pay and to save to buy their freedom:
Slave hand build
and slave hands save
shillings to be free
and no longer a slave.
The story of the slave labor in Brick by Brick is written in sparse verse, with four lines to a stanza, repetitiously using the word slave yet it paints am incredibly vivid picture of the blood, sweat and hard work that these men and boys were forced to do by their masters.   What makes this such an outstanding book is that Smith uses the names of real slaves he discovered while doing the research for Brick by Brick.  In this way, he humanizes them for us, turns them into real people rather than allowing them to remain a nameless, faceless, anonymous people, easy to overlook, easy to hurt and easy forget about.

And just as Smith's words give the slaves an identity, the illustrations give them a face, making the job all the more real and the workers all the more human for the reader.  The illustrations were done by Floyd Cooper, one of my favorite illustraters.   Cooper's oil wash paintings, done in earth tones, makes us feel the hot sun burning down on the workers, the sweat running down their bodies, the pain in their arms and legs, the blisters and aching back and muscles that must have plagued these men and boys day in and day out.

Brick by Brick is a poignant narrative that should be read aloud to appreciate its full impact and meaning.  It is a book that should not be missed by anyone interested in American history and/or African American history.  Be sure to read the author's note at the back of the book that explains why slaves were used to build the White House.

Nonfiction Monday is a weekly event hosted this week at Sally's Bookshelf

This is book 7 of my 2013 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge hosted by Kid Lit Frenzy


  1. oh this looks like a perfect book for young historians to read. I know my kids would have loved it. Thanks for sharing your review.

  2. I'm so glad you reviewed this book today! I had read about it on another NF Monday, and meant to pick it up. And I'm particularly intrigued that it's written in sparse verse. Off to get it!

  3. This looks like a great book for my blog. Thanks for reviewing it!

  4. That is fascinating that the White House was built by slaves. Tweeted and pinned it. Will look for it too!

  5. I had no idea slaves were used in the building of the White House. You find the most fascinating books.

  6. Thank you for letting me know about this book. Just visited Thomas Jefferson's Monticello yesterday which was another house of the founding fathers built with slaves.

  7. I enjoyed this book as well and found it hugely informative. I agree that it should be read aloud.

  8. I read this when it first came out and found it fascinating. Thanks for reviewing it and linking up your review. :-)

  9. This is a book I will definitely have to check out. I never gave much thought to how any of the White Houses were built. What a wonderful educational tool. Thanks for sharing!


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