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Brick by Brick

Rythmic, thoughtful tale of slaves building the White House.

What parents need to know

Educational value

Brick by Brick adds to the multi-leveled view of slavery in America by showing how slavery touched every part of life in the United States -- including one of the nation's icons. By teaching children the history of slaves building the White House, the book offers them an opportunity to deepen their understanding of this period of Americna history beyond traditional, sanitized images of farm and plantation work and period costumes.

Positive messages

It's difficult to associate a positive message when thinking of America's dark past of slavery, however Brick by Brick's overarching message is that even while slaves, Black Americans played an invaluable role in the creation of the country. The book also reflects the parallel hopes and opportunities of slaves and the nation: The American Dream is rooted in the belief that any citizen can achieve socio-economic success through hard work and opportunity. Many slaves were able to buy their freedom with money they earned using the specialized skills they acquired while working on the White House.

Positive role models

The slaves seen toiling throughout the book, many focused on buying their freedom, are inspiring role models.

Violence & scariness

An overseer with a gun guards slaves swinging axes to prepare the construction site. The text notes, "Slave hands bleed/ under a hot, hazy sun."

Not applicable

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that Brick by Brick tells the often-forgotten story that slaves built the White House. There's discussion of forced labor, the difficulty of life as a slave, and the raw emotions at play during this period of American history. Children will have questions about the institution of slavery and how it conflicts with the founding principles of this country. Parents should be prepared to offer age-appropriate details.

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What's the story?

In 1792, a young country still recovering from the Revolutionary War cannot find enough laborers to build its new seat of power and turns to society's bottom rung, its slaves, to complete the task. Craftsmen teach slaves trades such as carpentry and cabinet making -- skills they can use to earn money to buy their freedom. While stirring emotions about the institution of slavery, the book also points to slavery's role in America's economy at that time.

Is it any good?


Brick by Brick is an inspiring story of perseverance, heartache, and hope told in simple, rhythmic, rhyming verse that echoes the Negro Spirituals of the era. Author Charles R. Smith, Jr. exposes the heartache and irony of a society that compels one group into forced labor while honing its founding ideals of freedom.

Floyd Cooper's evocative oil-wash paintings in a mostly brown-and-white palette have an emotional richness that draws readers of all ages into the story and offers plenty of opportunity for discussion. The book wisely focuses on this history of black slaves as a part of the creation of America rather than as a separate history. The slaves' struggles, pain, and oppression are an American tale of struggle, pain, and oppression.

Families can talk about...

  • Have you ever seen movies or read other books about slavery? How do the movie versions compare with written accounts?

  • What can you learn from the pictures in the book? Can you imagine how the laborers felt?

  • How do you feel after learning that the White House was built by black slaves, now that there's a Black president living in the White House? What does that say about our country?

Book details

Author:Charles R. Smith Jr.
Illustrator:Floyd Cooper
Topics:Great boy role models, History, Misfits and underdogs
Book type:Non-Fiction
Publication date:December 26, 2012
Number of pages:32
Publisher's recommended age(s):4 - 8
Available on:Hardback

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