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Building Our House: Author/illustrator Jonathan Bean’s 2013 BGHB Picture Book Award Speech


Photo: Shara Hardeson

It’s always a bit of a shock to get pulled out from behind my lonely drawing desk and plopped down in front of people, let alone a crowd. But when it’s a crowd of book lovers, family, and friends, on an occasion such as this, it becomes a decidedly pleasant shock. I would like to thank all of you for your support and tireless promotion of books and reading and, especially, thank the Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards committee for somehow finding it fitting to select Building Our House from such a vibrant field of books equally deserving of this incredible honor.

It is an acceptance-speech staple to at some point say something like, “I could not have reached this milestone without the help of…” and then go on to list all the indispensable so-and-sos who would be upset not to receive mention. Often, these mentions fall at the end of a speech, sometimes after such unabashed self-congratulation that the indispensability of the indispensables is cast in critical doubt. But tonight, for reasons I’ll explain, the only appropriate place for that speech staple is right here, from the start, because my debt to family, friends, editor, and publisher is so deep that it would be inappropriate to begin with anything else.

So, without further ado, “I couldn’t have reached this milestone without the help of…” my parents. At last, thanks to Mom and Dad, I have a watertight answer to that shadowing, sticky question that every author gets asked a million times: “Where do your ideas come from?” To have a clear, concise answer to that question is book-signing, school-visiting, speech-giving gold! Now I can simply point to a photo of the “real” house and smile. Question answered. Next? But that’s a bit unsatisfying. So I’ll supply you with the logical, stickier follow-up: “Why?” Why write a story about a family building their house? I’m not naive enough to assume there’s any absolute connection between good house-building and a good home. In fact, at one signing, a woman confided that if the book were about her and her husband building a house, the only possible title would be “Building Our Divorce”! So, for the answer to the “why” of telling this story, I also thank my parents, because if the foundation of their home was any less solid than the foundation of the house they built, I could not fall so easily into the celebratory mode. And that’s one way I think of this book, as a celebration. I prefer the word celebrate over romanticize or idealize, because celebrations are not fluffy or illusory but, rather, a regular part of our shared human experience — something we all take part in now and then, setting aside for a moment life’s more dismal facts to honor something we value. What does this book celebrate? I won’t attempt a complete answer to this question. The book itself is that question’s answer. But let me drop a few hints for the sake of talking.

I think we all desire to make, out of the weedy fields of life, a familiar place, to fell and hew and build and roof, to carve out a cozy spot fitted for ourselves. Sometimes, when I hear the first spring peeper or catch the familiar smell of marshy woodland, a deep ache of longing for home awakens in me — home as it was, as my parents made it. The odd thing, though, is that even then, as a child, I recall feeling a similar longing ache for home — while at home, and a decent one at that. In a home built on a solid foundation, with strong beams, protecting walls, and rain-shedding roof, some longing compelled me, as it still does, to make sofa cushion houses for myself — a reminder that even the best of life’s situations are foretastes or, as a better writer put it, “reflections seen in a glass darkly.” I think it is part of the artist’s job to keep such longings alive, to not let folks settle for the humdrum or ordinary. If in some way the creatively refigured particulars of my own experience awaken such longings, it is only because my parents gave me a reflection worthy of celebration to begin with. And, making such a reflection possible, because it was their ambition to “lead a quiet life, attend to their own business, and work with their hands,” as, once again, a better writer put it.

But there is a second sense in which this book is a celebration, and that brings me to my family, friends, editor, and publisher.

building our houseBetween my first and second book there is a five-year gap. This gap was not part of my plan and certainly not part of my editor’s. Even as I celebrated on a similar occasion in Boston in 2008 [at the Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards ceremony honoring At Night], the specter of unexplained arm and leg pain had begun to haunt me daily and make the long hours of work that are necessary as a professional illustrator difficult. Medical sagas can be tedious, so I’ll keep the details to a minimum. Suffice it to say, despite all the experts and every effort, the pain finally made work nearly impossible. And so, broke and demoralized, the big New York City hotshot illustrator found himself returning to the house that, in a then-unwelcomed ironic twist, he was making a picture book about. It would be a sweet ending to say that the country air, the house and home, the family and faith that inspired me to write the story in the first place began immediately to work its healing magic.

But the world of medical specialists seems to turn in slow motion, and while I wondered and waited, my family and friends and fellow illustrators relentlessly offered their hope, prayers, and support to an often hopeless, miserable, and downright annoying illustrator. Eventually, after a Lyme disease diagnosis and significant dietary changes, the pain showed its first, sustained signs of dissipation. And just as slowly as it arrived five years before, gradually, incrementally, it began to disappear. So, last winter, when my parents graciously allowed me to open the doors of the house to intrepid travelers from all over the Northeast, it was much more than a book-launch celebration or open house. Yes, it was a celebration of returning health, but it was also my attempt, albeit inadequate, to say thank you to all the caring people who helped me through a hard time. Among many other reasons, I am thrilled that this occasion affords me another opportunity to express my gratitude. To the friend who loaned me money to cover my health insurance bill; to the roommate who allowed me to pay rent with a drawing; to my sister who spent a hellish week in New York City transporting me from one doctor to another; to my editor who reassured me that when things turned around he and FSG would be waiting; to my parents who, once again, put a roof over my head; to my nephews and niece who didn’t know any better than to be cheery and cheered me; to all the friends who, simply, were better friends than I deserved, I say, from the bottom of my heart, thank you! I will always be in your debt. All things considered, it seems oddly appropriate that, like the house of its story, this book’s completion required the efforts of a very strong crew indeed. Again, thank you.

This speech was originally delivered on October 4, 2013, at the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards Ceremony at Simmons College.

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