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Brick by Brick

3.95  ·  Rating Details ·  221 Ratings  ·  61 Reviews
The president of a new country
needs a new home,
so many hands work
together as one.

Black hands,
white hands,
free hands,
slave hands.

In this powerful story of the building of the White House, Coretta Scott King Award winners Charles R. Smith Jr. and Floyd Cooper capture the emotion and toil that created this incredible structure, the home of our president. The White Hous
Hardcover, 32 pages
Published December 26th 2012 by Harper Collins
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I really didn't like this one. The rhyming text felt amateurish and almost reminiscent of Dr. Seuss without the humor, if that makes any sense. I believe a Booklist review called it "clunky". Yep. Terse. Repetitive, and not in a way that works. Like it wants to be shelved in the Easy Reader section. Just absolutely did not work for me.

I enjoyed the Author's Note more than the story. The rhyme scheme forced Smith to leave out interesting, educational details that only show up in the Note. Readers
I had no idea that slave labor was utilized in the making and building of the white house. It's so interesting to read about how much slaves contributed to our nations capitol. I didn't really care for the poetry element, but I did like how the author focused on using the term "hand" in two different ways. One way being the physical body part and the other focusing on another name for those contributing to the labor needed to complete the project.
Alex Baugh
Jul 29, 2013 Alex Baugh rated it really liked it
Shelves: randomly-reading
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 wa
Feb 23, 2013 Jill rated it really liked it
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 blis
Feb 09, 2016 Amy! marked it as picture-books
I found this thanks to a list of "Better Books About Slavery" that was released after the A Birthday Cake for George Washington brouhaha. This book was powerful, and the illustrations luminous. And though the text was simple enough for younger kids, I wouldn't read it with a young crowd. I think this could be a great addition to a 3rd-5th grade class discussion about the founding of America and how a large part of our history was built on the backs of slaves.
Mary Ann
With rhyming verse and moving illustrations, Smith and Cooper tell the story of how slaves were brought in to help construct the White House as a home for the president of our new country. The illustrations and rhythmic text convey the toil and struggle these men endured, but the overall tone balances these hardships with the pride workers felt and the skills they gained. "Month by month, / slave hands toil, / planting seeds of freedom / in fertile soil."
I am ashamed that I never really thought about who built The White House. This beautifully illustrated book, written in poetic form, does a wonderful job of describing how The White House was built using slaves.
Mar 24, 2013 Betsy rated it really liked it
Sometimes I feel like the older I get the more interesting history becomes. Not that history, real history, wasn't always fascinating. It's just that when I was a kid you couldn't have named a subject duller. And why not? Insofar as I knew, the history taught in my schools gave me the distinct impression that America was a country forged by white people and that folks of any other race would crop up occasionally in the textbooks to be slaves or to appear in internment camps or to suffer Jim Crow ...more
Smith, C. R. (2013). Brick by brick. New York, NY: Amistad.

Age/Grade Level: (Ages 4–8, Preschool, Grades K–3)

Workers were in short supply in 1792, the year the building of the White House was begun. Slaves were hired from their owners to help complete this monumental task. They dug, sawed, broke stone, and laid bricks for twelve hours a day. The result: a new home for the president of this new country.

Awards/Reviewing Sources:
Booklist (February 1, 2013 (Vol. 109, No. 11))
Kirkus Reviews (
Nov 03, 2015 Kelly rated it really liked it
Shelves: rll-538
Another Coretta Scott King Award winner, Brick by Brick tells the story behind the original building of the White House. What still stands as a powerful symbol of the United States was created by several slaves, many of whom purchased their freedom after putting in countless hours of hard labor. The story is a tribute to the slave's hard labor, told in a rhyming format and filled with beautiful illustrations. Author Charles R. Smith Jr. helps give an identity to a few of hundreds of thousands of ...more
Cindy  H
Oct 28, 2014 Cindy H rated it liked it
Brick by Brick was written by Charles R. Smith Jr. and illustrated by Floyd Cooper. This book contains rhymes and it is very poetic; therefore, I would say that this book is both a fictional book and poem at the same time. It uses it beautiful rhythmic text to tell a story of how the black men built the White House brick by brick in hopes for attaining their freedom. This book is very compelling because often times when people think of the White House, they think of the "Land of the Free" and " ...more
Abby Johnson
Jan 17, 2013 Abby Johnson rated it liked it
In almost-rhyming verse, Charles R. Smith Jr. presents the slaves who built the White House. I think the rhythmic verse does a lot to evoke the feelings that Smith is probably going for. He emphasizes how much back-breaking work it was to build the White House, that the slaves didn't get paid but their masters did, and how working on the White House increased some slaves' skills so that they might one day earn money to buy their freedom.

Accompanying illustrations are washed out, almost hazy, wh
Caryn Caldwell
Jul 18, 2013 Caryn Caldwell rated it it was amazing
Shelves: picture-books
The original White House was was so big that its construction required the help of local workers, immigrants, and even slaves, whose masters hired them out for five dollars a month. This book highlights the plight of the slaves, who didn't earn a penny for their help in clearing the forest, making the bricks, and carrying the stones. It was back-breaking work that did have one payoff in the end: some of those who stayed on were trained to do more detailed work, thus becoming specialists and fina ...more
The story of the construction of the first White House unfolds with Floyd Cooper's beautiful paintings of the working men, mostly slaves, who built it. At first, free men worked, but it was soon found that more were needed, so slave owners were asked to send their slaves. Sadly, even in the backbreaking work, the slaves earned nothing because the wages were paid to the owners. One good thing happened, however. As the slaves built alongside craftsmen, they learned the skills, which eventually, a ...more
Carson Atkin
Dec 03, 2016 Carson Atkin rated it liked it
Smith, C. R., & Cooper, F. (2012). Brick by brick. New York, NY: Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins.

This book was a very interesting read for me because I was impressed with all the ways in which the author broached the subject of slavery while still making it appropriate for younger audiences. It is the story of many nameless workers who built the White House, meant to show how many peoples shoulders we stand on and how many people we have to thank for the country we live in today. Additi
Maria Rojas
Nov 02, 2015 Maria Rojas rated it it was amazing
Shelves: wow-books
So much history, so much sweat, so much sacrifice! So much physical and emotional pain! These are some of the powerful thoughts and feelings evoked by this poem style book by Charles R. Smith Jr. This book tells us how The White House was built. We read about how many hands were needed to help build the President's house and how slaves were part of the construction of this historical and most important landmark of the United States. The illustrations are powerful and beautiful! At the end of the ...more
Marinna Bressel
This book is a story of how the White House was built. The home of our president was built by many hands, several of them slaves', who undertook this amazing achievement long before there were machines to do those same jobs. Many people don't take the time to think of who built the White House. The illustrations bring to life the faces of those who endured hard, brutal work when the profit of their labor was paid to the master, not the slave. The fact that many were able to purchase their freedo ...more
Aug 04, 2016 Melle rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: everyone in the United States
Recommended to Melle by: Michelle Obama
The White House was built, in no small part, to Black people -- people with hopes, with dreams, with families, with sorrows, with pain -- people, our fellow human beings -- held immorally in bondage. This is history. Period. Charles R. Smith, Jr., goes above and beyond in telling this part of history (that many people currently have forgotten or are trying to de-emphasize, as seen after First Lady Michelle Obama's 2016 DNCC speech) in succinct, understated, powerful poetry with rhyme and repetit ...more
Sondra Eklund
The pictures in this book are wonderful. The story is important -- how slaves helped build the White House. I didn't like that it was told in rhyme -- because in many places the rhymes didn't quite work. It was also a little confusing. It says more than once that owners took the slave hands' pay. Then it starts saying they were earning their freedom. Based on the note at the back, I think once they learned skilled trades to help build the White House, they could earn money to buy their freedom. ...more
I appreciate that a picturebook exists about how slaves were used to build the White House, but I didn't particularly love this book.

I wanted the text to do more, to convey more information -- like some of the information that shows up in the note at the end. And I didn't understand the move from the "slave owners take / slave hands' pay" to slaves saving up their earnings to buy their freedom. And while I wanted the narrative to do more to point out the irony that the residence of The Leader of
Rhythmic text tells the story of how slaves built the White House. The emphasis is on their hands as they cleared land and built a grand house in what was once a forest.

Illustrations are hazy yet clearly illustrate how hard the slaves worked. The illustration that sticks with me is that of the slave owners taking the slaves' pay. It evokes a deep feeling of disgust in me.

Overall, a great read aloud with an author's note following the story that provides more background information on this topi
A beautifully written story about the slaves who worked so hard to build the White House, brick by brick, while the slave owners took the slave hands pay. Written in poetic verse, with a couple recurring lines throughout, the language tells of the struggles and turmoil. Back matter includes why slaves were used to build the White House. Warm colored, yet heavy illustrations, that have a bit of a grainy texture, seem to exemplify the strain of those depicted, and the reader must strain a bit to t ...more
Rebecca Tew
Brick by Brick tells the story of the slaves who had to build the White House. They had to go through strenuous labor and did not get any credit for it. It tells of how African Americans freedom was built one step at a time, just as the White House was built brick by brick.

The illustrations were done in oil pastels.

This book shares a harsh truth with young readers. Slavery is not easy topic to talk about, but it is important for them to learn how our country's foundation has a lot to do with sla
Brenda Kahn
Mar 31, 2013 Brenda Kahn rated it really liked it
Learned about this one in last week's Non-fiction Monday gathering. Betsy Bird wrote about it. I have admired the author's work in the past. I adore the illustrator's work and when I spied the last copy at my local indie on Saturday, I snapped this baby right up. I can't say that I ever gave much thought to the White House and how it was built before reading The House That George Built by Suzanne Slade last October. I learned some other interesting tidbits as well, but found the overall effect a ...more
Margaret Chind
The pictures in this book are a fabulous portrait of history and the slave labor as part of what went into building the original White House for our American Nation. Through out giving name to nameless faces and hands as they participate to build more than just a building. I think this would make a good read for black history month and more.

*Thanks to HC for providing an ARC for review.*

Feb 20, 2016 Monique rated it it was amazing
Shelves: library-book
I've decided to read 29 children's book during Black History month 2016. This was book #26. Brick by Brick by Charles R. Smith, Jr and illustrated by Floyd Cooper. This story chronicles the building of the White House in the late 1700s. Slaves performed back breaking work using their houses to build the most famous home in the USA. The illustrations detail the pain, long hours and poor conditions slaves endured. This is a wonderful way to share a slavery tale with young children.
Karen Arendt
Jul 21, 2013 Karen Arendt rated it liked it
This book is a story of how The White House was built with slaves. It more about slavery than the White House construction, however. The illustrations are detailed yet muted with plenty of browns and grays. Author's note at the end explains why he chose to focus on the slaves hands- because so much of the work done today by machines did not exist in the late 1700s when The White House was originally built.
Jun 03, 2013 Ann rated it it was amazing
This collaboration between two Coretta Scott King Award winners is marvelous. Told in rhyme, this true story about how slaves helped to build the first White House (it was burned down by the British in 1814) is essential history, presented artistically with deep feeling. I like how Smith includes stanzas of first names (Jerry/Jess/Charles/Len) in an attempt to give each man his due. Highly recommended; I'm sure it will show up in next year's award season.
Angie Quinn-Clark
I think this is a beautiful book that honors the people who worked under very hard condition to build the white house. Charles Smith Jr. did an awesome job capturing the power of the workers through rhythm and he gave the slaves names which really made this book memorable. I truly enjoyed reading and explaining this book to my god-children.
Mar 25, 2016 Haley added it
Shelves: children-s-lit
This is a story about all the work that went into building the white house. It focused primarily on the slave labor that went into it and how challenging it was for these people.

My favorite part were the verbs used. They were very sensory and made me feel like i could really feel what the slaves were feeling.

I would use this to teach a lesson on slavery and how hard and unfair it was.
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Charles R. Smith Jr. is an award-winning author, photographer, and poet with more than thirty books to his credit. His awards include a Coretta Scott King Award for illustration for his photographs accompanying the Langston Hughes poem "My People" and a Coretta Scott King Honor for his biography of Muhammad Ali, Twelve Rounds to Glory. He is the author of Rimshots, Hoop Kings, Hoop Queens, Tall Ta ...more
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