Jonathan Bean’s Building Our House came out way back in January, so everyone probably knows by now that the book is based on a true story: the author’s parents (the ultimate DIYers) built the Bean family homestead from scratch while living in a trailer and raising three small children (!).
Here are things I appreciate about the book, some of which I saw right away and some of which (thanks, Robin) I noticed only after repeated viewings/readings (it’s hard work pretending to be on the Caldecott committee!):
- The trim size. Appropriately, it’s larger than average (after all, they are building a HOUSE).
- The integration of subject and treatment. The book is about solid, carefully planned and -executed construction, and the line and watercolor wash art — while in a loose, relaxed style — is equally purposive, with the illustrations taking us step-by-step from the day the family moves out of their house in the city to the day they move into their new home. Each picture connects to the one before and the one after, whether it’s one of six separate vignettes or a full page, or something in between. And each individual illustration is tightly composed and carefully planned.
- The use of the full run of the book’s real estate. The story begins on the title page (packing up their city house); by the next spread (which also incorporates the copyright page), the family has left the city behind, well out into the country. No wasted space here. The old-fashioned, sepia-toned endpapers fill in more of the story: a very satisfying before-and-after progression, a la Virginia Lee Burton.
- The detail and subplot choices. The text never mentions it, but that distinctive vacuum cleaner (with the trailing cord) comes with the family from city house to trailer to finished homestead. It’s just the right symbol of domesticity. And of course (also not mentioned in the text), there’s the stray white cat the family gradually adopts; she (or one or more of her eventual kittens) is pictured in just about every illustration, and I imagine kids will love finding her and following her story. The addition of the cat works so well both because of its child appeal and because her becoming part of the family is so in line with the story’s main theme: creating a home.
Which takes me to:
- The idea of a house becoming a home. Throughout the book, the text refers to the family’s building project as a “house” until the very last line: “It’s our very first night in our new home.” It’s a worthy theme for a picture book, and it is well earned, to say the least.
What this book does not have is much individual characterization. None of the family members seem to have much personality. Faces, in particular, are mostly expressionless. (In fact, I have to confess that for a while I was really bothered by the depiction of the mom. I think it may have been her glasses that made her look especially…blank.) But this is a book about a group (“my family makes up a strong crew of four”) and about a group project; and everything about the book reinforces this idea. The art shows picture after picture of the whole family’s involvement in building the house; in the text, the repetition of the words we, us, and our (the narrator rarely uses the word I) reinforces the strength of their connection, their solidarity.
There are some very inventive, highly imaginative, envelope-pushing picture books out there. This is not one of them. And there aren’t a lot of laughs. But there are a lot of warmth and security and love. This is a book that exudes calm, sanity, order, purpose, and care.