Since 1976, Habitat for Humanity has built more than 300,000 houses in over 3,000 communities in 90-plus countries. David Rubel chronicles the history and accomplishments of this organization in If I Had a Hammer: Building Homes and Hope with Habitat for Humanity, an October title from Candlewick. Copiously illustrated with photos, the book features a foreword by—and many additional quotes from—former president Jimmy Carter, who first picked up a hammer to participate in a Habitat project a quarter-century ago.

The book was built on Habitat’s wish to commemorate Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter’s 25 years of service to the organization, as well as the hope of extending its outreach to a younger demographic. Rubel, an author who is also the founder and president of Agincourt Press, a packager, enthusiastically signed on to write a book and to shape its direction after Habitat contacted him about a collaboration.

“Habitat had struggled in the past with how to get young people engaged in the organization, and I thought a book like this would be a wonderful way to do that,” he says. “What I wanted to do in If I Had a Hammer is tell Habitat’s story, but particularly to show what is so appealing to those involved in the organization and its work. I realized the best way I could do that was to focus on individuals Habitat has helped and make their stories accessible to children.”

One way Rubel accomplished that goal was to draw extensively from what he calls the “wealth of great images” Habitat holds in its archives. Along with photos of Habitat building projects and volunteers, the book includes heartwarming shots of new Habitat homeowners who Rubel interviewed for the book—all of whom, per Habitat policy, lent a hand in the construction of their new houses.

Jimmy Carter.
Photo: Habitat for Humanity.

When the author and Jon Glick, the book’s designer, sifted through the photo archives at Habitat’s Americus, Ga., office, they were impressed with what they found. “We started out researching photos of the 40 people whose stories I was telling in the book and we quickly realized that that number is nothing compared to all the lives Habitat has touched all across the world,” Rubel recalls. “So we labeled a file ‘Just Nice’ and filled it with photos unrelated to the specific stories included in the book, but photos we knew we wanted to include. We ran quite a few of these in the book, with caption stories, to give readers a sense of how widespread Habitat has become.”

Rubel conducted his interviews with Habitat homeowners via Skype and phone. But he conducted one memorable interview—with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter—in person. “I got to spend an hour with them at the president’s office at the Carter Center in Atlanta and it was a fabulous experience,” he says. “The Carters sat in a Windsor chair built for two and answered all of my questions graciously and attentively.”

Karen Lotz, Candlewick’s president and publisher, and the editor of If I Had a Hammer, acquired the book from Rubel’s agent, Amy Hughes of McCormick & Williams, in a preemptive bid. “Several people at Candlewick have been Habitat volunteers and we were very excited by this project,” she says. It was especially gratifying for Lotz to work on the book, since she also edited Jimmy Carter’s Talking Peace: A Vision for the Next Generation, about the importance of global negotiation, which Dutton published in 1993. Lotz credits “the unbelievably helpful and cooperative people at Habitat for Humanity” for the project’s unusually quick turnaround time, enabling Candlewick to get the book out just six months after signing the contract.

Rubel was struck by the willingness of his interviewees to share their stories. “They were so eager to tell me how much Habitat had affected their lives,” he says. “My challenge was to find the kernel of emotion at the center of their stories and to write about it so that readers can understand it. I ran everything by the people I’d interviewed to make sure I got the nuances right, and so many people told me that reading what I wrote made them cry. That’s just the best response an author can ever get, to hear someone say, ‘My own story made me cry.’ ”

As a result of the contacts Rubel made while writing the book, he will head to Thailand in November to work on Habitat’s annual Jimmy Carter Work Project. And in the future he may get a chance to meet some of the Habitat homeowners he interviewed from afar. “I now have invitations to visit such places as Mumbai, Kentucky and Honolulu,” he notes. “It’s really lovely.”

If I Had a Hammer by David Rubel. Candlewick, $19.99 (160p) ISBN 978-0-7636-4701-8