Subscribe to The Horn Book

Building Our House

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.


Martha V. Parravano About Martha V. Parravano

Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog.



  1. You’ve laid out all the things that make this such an excellent book. I love the details and, as you note, what the illustrations tell that the words don’t. Even on the endpapers … I love how on the first set, there’s one horse, and on the last set at the close of the book, there’s a horse and a foal — another family there.

    I love the white space on the pages (or spreads) with only one illustration — such as, the setting-the-foundation spread and the one where the stove warms the house. That white space creates a snug, cozy feel, fitting to the book’s subject matter. It *could* have been full-bleed spreads, such as the blueprint one, and that just wouldn’t have worked.

    Such a great book.

  2. Dean Schneider says:

    Great post, Martha. Yes, it’ll be interesting to see if the committee appreciates a quiet charmer when comparing it to splashier contenders.

  3. I love this book also. And, more importantly, so does my 7 year old son. We read it at least twice at day for the 2 or 3 months after we got it. We are down to a few times a week. I find the combination of detail and softness of color beautiful (and who knew tools and building supplies could look pretty?). My son announces regularly, “Can’t wait til we sell our city house and build a new house in the country”. I just wrote a mini-review of the book for our school newsletter in hopes that more folks here in LA will learn about the book. I’m also looking forward to reading it with my library class and watching the kids really take in the fascinating illustrations. Like Jules and Martha, I appreciate the evolving story from end paper to end paper. So much to love. I’m thrilled this book won the BG-HB award this year.

  4. Martha V. Parravano Martha V. Parravano says:

    Yes, Jules! such a good point about the role white space plays in the book .Thanks so much for bringing that out.
    Also, to add what you said about the endpapers — I also love how in both the first set and the closing papers, there’s still wildlife: a heron (I think) stands in the stream, and the groundhogs that have lived in the field from the very start are still there. This is a family with a very small footprint, but that fact is very subtly communicated.

  5. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    I love the endpapers too–cleared building plot to house with garden!
    Also, the first time I read it, I noticed the mother’s pregnancy slowing developing. And, when the baby enters the illustrations, it is with little fanfare, which I also loved.

  6. Looks like I’m going to have to reorder this one from the library – it was a favorite at our house for quite a while, but I don’t know that I noticed many of the details you mentioned (except the pregnancy – my daughter’s mind was blown when the baby showed up. We had to go back through and do a picture read just to watch the mother’s stomach!)

  7. Yes, these are such delightful details – which my son also enjoyed!

  8. Susannah Richards says:

    Last Friday was the BGHB Award presentation and I am still spinning a smile. It was a great event but a true highlight was listening to Jonathan Bean accept the Award for Building Our House. It is hard to add anything to this wonderful post and the reflective comments. From first sight, I thought that this book was exceptional. It just felt right and like Martha and others, I saw more and more with each reading. There were so many details about it that worked and while there are many books for youth on building and quite a few on building a house, this book took that experience to another level. It is the trim size, the careful and precise complement of the text and the illustrations, the realism that makes you feel like this could be your family, and the reality provided by the back matter that documented the experience. This book is about building a house, a family, a community and an artist. Congratulations to Jonathan Bean for constructing a house in a tale that extends beyond the pages. Thank you to Sarah, Karen and Pam for recognizing this book as a truly exceptional addition to the world of literature for youth. Once again, the Boston Globe Horn Book Award Committee shows great taste that may build lifelong reading engagement and maybe even a a few architects, designers and DIYers who understand how a house becomes a home and is part of the family that grows with it.

  9. Robin Smith says:

    The BGHB Award presentation is a wonderful ceremony and you are lucky to live nearby! How was his speech? The other speeches? I can’t wait until they are posted.

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind