Aspiring young women builders wielding hammers, saws, and drills are at the center of Girls Who Build: Inspiring Curiosity and Confidence to Make Anything Possible, in which author Katie Hughes explores such topics as safety gear, terminology, tools, and basic building skills. Illustrated with photos, drawings, and diagrams, this new release from Black Dog & Leventhal also features interviews with 45 girls who have learned to build, directions to complete 13 projects that they have mastered, and tips for readers who are ready to power up their own tools.

Hughes honed her building skills as a child growing up in rural Pennsylvania, where she and her older sister tackled their first construction project, at the respective ages of three and seven, when they built a tree fort in their yard, complete with a swing and an elevator for their cat, Bubbles. “My mother was a single parent and a stay-at-home mom, and she always gave us the freedom to explore the world,” Hughes recalled. “As an adult, thinking back to building that fort, I asked my mother if there had been an adult involved as well, and she said, ‘Oh no, the two of you definitely built that all by yourselves.’ It made me realize that it was a great way to grow up—never being afraid to try something new.”

The author continued to nurture that can-do attitude after she graduated from the University of Portland (Ore.) in 2002 and spent a year in Bucks County, Pa., working for Habitat for Humanity through AmeriCorps. After that, when she moved back to Portland and discovered that her bachelor’s degree in social work wasn’t landing her job interviews, Hughes said, “I realized that I had to eat and pay the rent, so I took a job as a carpenter and began working for Oregon Tradeswomen, a nonprofit that helps women join the construction industry. I spent eight years there and started their summer camp for girls.”

When the organization discontinued its youth program and local tradeswomen urged Hughes to start her own nonprofit to carry on the initiative, she obliged, launching Girls Build in Portland in 2016. “The idea of starting a nonprofit was daunting, but the idea of teaching girls building skills was not,” she said. “I realized that I was uniquely qualified to do that—and knew that this was where the past decade and a half had been leading me.”

Hughes charged ahead, organizing two week-long Girls Build summer camp sessions at the University of Portland, which served a total of 80 girls between the ages of eight and 14 during its debut year. Interest in the camps (which offer workshops covering carpentry, electrical, plumbing, roofing, painting, and more) grew exponentially, and in summer 2019, Girls Build held a total of 11 weeks of camp in five locations in the Pacific Northwest, attended by almost 400 girls. Campers, Hughes noted, “attend four workshops over the course of any given day and use as many tools as we can put in their hands.”

The Building of a Book

A stroke of serendipity catapulted the Girls Build initiative into the publishing realm when literary agent Jennifer Herrera saw Hughes spotlighted in a 2017 episode of Mike Rowe’s Returning the Favor on Facebook Watch, a show that features individuals who have given back to their communities. Hughes said that Herrera “called me out of the blue, and asked if I’d be interested in doing a book for girls about building. I was flabbergasted! I called her back and we clicked immediately. We talked about some ideas and I set to work on a proposal. I wanted to get it right, even though I didn’t know what I was doing! A friend, Heather Binns, was willing to take all the photos for the proposal—and ended up being a main photographer for the book. And Cat Cheng, one of my best friends who is a graphic designer, designed the proposal—and in return I built her a fence!”

Senior editor Lisa Tenaglia, who acquired Girls Who Build in the summer of 2018, recalled that the book immediately snagged her interest when Herrera mentioned it at a lunch. “I thought this was an interesting expansion of girl empowerment books about women who have changed the world,” she said. “Rather than focus on influential historical or contemporary figures, Girls Who Build introduces real-life girls—in their own words—whom readers can see themselves in. And Katie’s honest and inspiring voice comes through so clearly. Given her experience teaching girls at Girls Build camps, she is able to communicate so well in a ‘you-can-do-this’ way as she walks readers through the steps, emphasizing that it’s okay to make mistakes and that once you master the skills, you’ll feel like a champ. It is a voice I think girls will really respond to.”

The rewards of researching, writing, and fitting together the puzzle pieces of the book outweighed the challenges involved, Hughes reflected. “It was obviously a lot of work, but it was wonderful,” she said. “I really enjoyed tracking down and interviewing the girls. They surprised me at every turn with their personalities, and they moved me in a lot of ways. And I loved that I could be myself in the book and talk to readers in a way that is informal and comfortable. Like acknowledging, for example, that it’s intimidating to go into a lumber yard and ask for what you need. The idea that Girls Who Build can teach girls enough to get through that experience is very exciting to me.”

Girls Who Build: Inspiring Curiosity and Confidence to Make Anything Possible by Katie Hughes. Black Dog & Leventhal, $30 ISBN 978-0-7624-6721-1; $17.99 paper ISBN 978-0-7624-6720-4