June 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

From the Ground Up | Jonathan Bean and the Art of the Story


Listen to Jonathan Bean introduce and read from Building Our House.

In the two books he’s authored, the artist Jonathan Bean has placed a child in the center of a warm family and a bustling world. Yet despite all the activity surrounding his young protagonists, Bean’s stories exude a sense of quiet and comfort. In his most recent title, Building Our House (FSG, 2013), readers witness the construction of a house from laying the foundation to installing the fixtures. With the help of family and friends—and lots of hard work—Bean’s “small crew” transforms a “weedy place” into a home.

Author Jonathan Bean

So, tell me, were you one of those kids who had to stop and study every backhoe and pick-up truck you saw?

I don’t think I was. My grandfather owned an excavating company, so I have early memories of being on equipment with him and watching him work. Of course, this was always very exciting, but for some reason I wasn’t the sort to fall head over heels for machines even if, now, they are buckets of fun to draw.

Like your earlier picture book, At Night (FSG, 2007), the child in Building Our House is at the center of a loving home, and a wide world. Yet, despite all the activity happening around them, your characters (and stories) convey a feeling of serenity. Can you talk about that?

I am always happy to hear people say this! When I was a young, aspiring illustrator, Wes Adams, my future editor at FSG, told me my portfolio work was rather cold. I knew that that quality would never fly in children’s books, and so I set out to decide what to do about it. In the end, I realized I needed to be less controlling with my process, to allow some entry point for surprises, humor, joy, or empathy. In that way, I discovered that my illustrations or stories couldn’t be manufactured, that there needed to be a more organic connection between my work and the memories or feelings that were already there. I must have been on the right path, because it wasn’t too long before Wes offered me a contract for At Night, which was the centerpiece of my new portfolio.

The many details you include about building a home are so well integrated into House. They’re sure to fascinate children who want to read every book about construction sites as well as those who lean toward fiction. Did you set out to tell one story over the other?

No, I didn’t. In fact, I knew early on that I wanted to tell both stories. That was the biggest challenge, finding a way to fit all the essential house-building steps into the book without it becoming a dry instruction manual. Fortunately, I had all the family photos and stories to fall back on if things needed spicing up. For instance, the truck named Willys in House is the actual model of Jeep that my parents relied on to transport materials. (A tidbit like that could launch its own story.) I had the luxury of getting to choose from a smorgasbord of such details.

As well as illustrating the step-by-step process of building a structure, your art tells a few of its own stories: the addition of new family member, the change of the seasons, and the passage of time, while details such as a pine tree perched atop the house frame are so playful. Do you have a sense of where you are going with the art before you start? Which stories will be told through illustration?

Often those anecdotal stories develop as I sketch out the primary story. I like adding them, first, because it’s fun! But also because it creates the feeling that, like in the larger world, the little world of the picture book contains surprises and details that are there to be found, if only time is taken to slow down, look, and listen.

While no one would call this a message book, I think there are a few lessons that kids will take away. Families require teamwork (“small crew of four”), even the youngest can contribute, and that to create something solid–or of lasting value–takes time and effort. Were these ideas you were hoping to communicate?

I agree that those messages are there, but I couldn’t really say I thought about them much, if at all. On the one hand, creating a story is a process of intense concentration and awareness, but I also believe that it should contain an element of mystery, even for the creator. There are things I often learn looking back at the completed project, as I am right now.

There are also messages in your parent’s comments, “Measure twice to get it right” and “A good plan for a good house.” (Truisms educators are sure to appreciate.) Were these actually their maxims?

No, I made them up for the story. However, I have, many times, seen my dad measure two or three times to get it right, or watched my parents plan carefully for a new project. I have a lot of respect for them: they are generally more comfortable in the trenches than on the soapbox.

Author Jonathan Bean

I love the photos at the end of the book depicting the building of your family’s home. You were quite small in them. Do you have any memory of that time?

I do remember a few things. I recall quite well the trailer we lived in, since my sisters and I spent much of our time there. I also have a clear memory of climbing to the second floor of the unfinished house. That memory probably sticks because the stairs weren’t in yet and the climb up scaffolding, even with Mom at hand, was frightening.

And one last question: Is the house still in your family?

Yes, it is. In fact, for the first big book signing we had an open house publication party and invited friends from all over to see the actual house and hang out with my family.

Building Our House (Bean)
©2013 by Jonathan Bean

Listen to Jonathan Bean introduce and read from Building Our House.

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Daryl Grabarek About Daryl Grabarek

Daryl Grabarek dgrabarek@mediasourceinc.com is the editor of School Library Journal's monthly enewsletter, Curriculum Connections, and its online column Touch and Go. Before coming to SLJ, she held librarian positions in private, school, public, and college libraries. Her dream is to manage a collection on a remote island in the South Pacific.