cover image Brick by Brick

Brick by Brick

Charles R. Smith Jr., illus. by Floyd Cooper. HarperCollins/Amistad, $17.99 (32p) ISBN 978-0-06-192082-0

Two Coretta Scott King Award winners pool their substantial talents in a somber tribute to the slave laborers who helped build the White House. Smith (Stars in the Shadows) emphasizes the toll that the work takes on the slaves’ hands and bodies (“Slave hands swing axes/ twelve hours a day,/ but slave owners take/ slave hands’ pay”) and takes the time to give names to these “Nameless, faceless/ daughters and sons,” forgotten by history. In gauzy scenes dominated by a sepia palette, Cooper (These Hands) spotlights the laborers’ hands, but their faces—which project resilience, exhaustion, and even anger—have much to say, too. There’s a slight upswing in tone as Smith notes that the skills the slaves acquired opened new possibilities (“Skilled hands earn/ one shilling per day,/ reaching slave hands closer/ to freedom with pay”), but there’s little joy evident when the completed White House is unveiled. A grim reminder that in America’s early decades, freedom didn’t come cheap for many, and that our most venerated symbols, institutions, and forebears are not without flaws. Ages 5–8. Agent: Miriam Altshuler Literary Agency. (Jan.)