Black History Month Kid Lit Review of “Brick by Brick” by Charles R. Smith, Jr.

The original White House in Washington, D.C. was built in the 1790s with the help of slaves rented from nearby plantations. The irony of the Founding Fathers who, in search of liberty and justice for all, utilized slaves to achieve it, is a subtle undercurrent in this poetic history of the construction of the new symbol of Free America.


Smith uses rhythmic repetition that focuses on the hard tasks of mixing mortar and spreading it; chiseling, carving, and transporting stone; and bleeding and blistering under a hot son.

“Up, down, push, pull
two men per pit saw,
spraying sawdust
until slave hands are raw.”

Perhaps the best part of this book is the way the author’s fierce passion for justice is evinced by his recitation of the names of some of these slaves, names which he uncovered in his research for the book. By giving them identities, he turns them from faceless slaves into real people, whose descendants would go on not only to gain their freedom, but even to see Michelle Obama, a descendant of slaves like them, occupy the White House with her husband.

Picture 1

Illustrator Floyd Cooper (like the author, a Coretta Scott King Award winner) captures the mood of the book perfectly in oil-wash paintings that emphasize the brown tone of the work site, and almost bring to mind the story of the Exodus, with slaves working in the desert to build the pyramids.

Brick by Brick_p20-21small

In an afterword, Smith shares some of what he learned in his research about the building of the first White House, and includes a list of selected resources.

Evaluation: This book is meant for children 5-8, but I think children will appreciate having a parent co-reader answer the questions they may have about this very different era in our history. After a first “explanatory” reading though, I imagine children will want to return to this book repeatedly. It offers mesmerizing pictures and a compelling story about a symbol of America children will undoubtedly recognize.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2013

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About rhapsodyinbooks

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8 Responses to Black History Month Kid Lit Review of “Brick by Brick” by Charles R. Smith, Jr.

  1. jama says:

    Just read another review of this book yesterday. It looks fabulous.

  2. Diane says:

    The illustrations are wonderful and the story an important one. Great selection.

  3. What stunning illustrations. They evoke well the sentiment of the book.

  4. Another beautiful book, I have a couple books I wanted to read this month too for Black History Month and the month has just got away from me!

  5. This book looks fantastic – it’s important to remember things like that. By the way, our museum is having an exhibit of David Drake’s pottery. I thought of you when I saw this announcement:

    “Experience the powerful story of David Drake, one of the 19th century’s most remarkable artists. An enslaved African-American who worked as a “turner” in several pottery manufacturing facilities in South Carolina’s Edgefield District, David Drake learned to read and write, dangerous and even illegal skills for a slave to possess. Apparently with his owner’s approval, Drake openly expressed his literacy and his literary skills by inscribing original poems on many of the utilitarian works he created. Eight large pots, including three poem-incised vessels offer a captivating look at the inspiring figure of David Drake.”

    Do you want to go see it with me?

  6. What beautiful pictures…I didn’t know that fact about the building of the White house.

  7. Charlie says:

    It’s a difficult subject, but the illustrations are gorgeous. It is incredibly ironic what you say about the White House. Sounds a very interesting and educational book.

  8. bookingmama says:

    I agree that five might be a little young for this book! As I read your reviews of all the great picture books out there, I wish our school curriculum included more of them!

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