Build a House by Rhiannon Giddens,  illustrated by Monica Mikai

Build a House by Rhiannon Giddens,  illustrated by Monica Mikai. Candlewick Press, 2022. 9781536222524

Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 4

Format: Hardcover picture book

What did you like about the book?  Rhiannon Giddens (musician, songwriter, and McArthur fellow) uses song lyrics she wrote in collaboration with Yo Yo Ma in her first picture book. Simple, rhyming text and glowing digital illustrations show an enslaved family arriving at a plantation, where they help build a fine brick house and harvest cotton.  When the family is ordered to “GO”, they take their mule and a sapling and build a small cabin, which is later burnt to the ground by a White man on horseback. Finally, they find a place to rebuild and plant their tree, which we see flourishing over their new home, the entire family gathered on the porch playing their banjos. There’s a lot of room here for discussion, and young children will need support and clarification to follow the family’s experiences. Giddens is a world-renowned instrumentalist and vocalist and pointedly makes special mention of the appropriation of Black musical styles (with ghostly instruments flying out of the parents’ arms while White musicians play country tunes). This was an age-appropriate treatment of a complex story. End matter includes a brief essay from Giddens and a QR code that readers can scan to hear the striking and spare hymn-like song. 

Anything you didn’t like about it? I thought the digital illustrations lacked texture and didn’t quite match the mood of the story. 

To whom would you recommend this book? Giddens wrote the song in 2020 to commemorate the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth, so the book would make a great read aloud for this occasion. With its large, bright illustrations, it would work well with a group, although some of the detail (especially facial expressions) would be lost. 

Who should buy this book? Elementary schools and public libraries

Where would you shelve it? Picture books

Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? No

Reviewer: Susan Harari, Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA

Date of review: January 2, 2023

This entry was posted in *Book Review, *Picture Book, African Americans, Monica Mikai, Music, Rhiannon Giddens, Slavery and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.