Wednesday, July 20, 2011


By Elisha Cooper

(Greenwillow Books, 1999)

There are many picture books that are breezy reads with cute illustrations, but they fade from memory shortly after closing them. A good book is one that lingers. Elisha Cooper's Building had me flipping back to reread fresh phrasing and peeking again at his simple, yet effective pencil sketches filled in with watercolors.

After reading the disappointing This is Daniel Cook at the Construction Site, I searched for a better book to captiure boys' fascination with construction. I'm a ferry ride away from a well-stocked bookstore so I had to settle for what I could find at my small, but vibrant local library. Building was a surprise discovery.

I'd anticipated coming across a loud book with big bold text matching photos of monster-sized bulldozers and cranes in action. Building is not that book. Instead, it is a quiet, reverant homage to the tasks and the workers in the construction industry, more real than any photojournalist's work.

The reader gets a full sense of the sounds, sights and feel of transforming a barren lot into a new building "waiting to be filled with people." The backhoe, cement truck and crane all get their due, but the construction workers earn the spotlight. Cooper's writing comes alive in the rich details. "Another worker smoothes the wet concrete. His hands are crusted in gunk and he has to use his wrist to push his glasses up to his nose." He compares a wheelbarrow of mortar to "a big tub of oatmeal." His portrayal of life on the work site includes the radio tunes that keep painters company ("Some days they hear the same song five times."), the choices during lunch and even mentions bathroom breaks ("[One worker] finds the Porta Potti."). Women work alongside men on site. ("[A]nother worker opens sawhorses, puts in her ear plugs and cuts boards for the first floor.")

Published a dozen years ago, I wonder if an editor would save a manuscript like this from a slush pile today. The language is not watered down for 4-6 year olds. While every word matters, the word count is high in the current 600-words-or-less picture book world. More allowance for nonfiction? Maybe, but Cooper's sentences contain clauses and are often metaphorical. ("With the skeleton of the building in place, the skin goes on.")

Perhaps to minimize language concerns, the text is creatively shaped and chunked. When an architect and workers survey the empty lot, the text crawls around the perimeter of the double-page spread. The text regarding the cement truck spills from the chute of a cement truck sketch and forms the rounded image of the drum.

As a read-aloud, this book will have more meaning through repeated reads over several years. I can also see it being used to teach descriptive writing in grades three and four, something to go along with literary examples of flower gardens and pristine lakes. Description is not just in the adjectives which are used sparingly in Building. The actions must be realistic and vivid. Kids will smile as they easily visualize passages like, "A contractor lugs toilets up stairs. She bumps into walls and can't see her feet." (Again, more toilet talk without the base humor.)

Elisha Cooper's Building makes a substantial addition to any picture book collection.

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