Reviews /

Build a House

Authored by Rhiannon Giddens
Illustrated by Monica Mikai
Published by Walker Books Ltd

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Rhiannon Giddens first venture into children’s fiction writing, Build a House, is an uncompromising account of the experiences of a slave family and their resilience on their journey to freedom. Taking on this challenging aspect of history and making it accessible for children is hard – but Giddens has managed it. She is better known as a Grammy award winning singer-songwriter and banjoist whose work often reveals truths hidden within the past that teach us about social injustice within our present.

On first glance this new picture book might appear to be pitched at younger readers as the illustrations by Monica Mikai pop with vivid colours and bold, simplistic depictions of rural family life. The words, however, tell a darker story of displacement, cultural appropriation and the unstoppable desire for stability in a life controlled by others. The words themselves come in the form of a poem, with the persistent refrain ‘You brought me here/ To build a house’ woven through the book. The poetic form may seem a confusing choice until you realise that the words in the book are taken from Giddens song of the same name, performed with Yo-Yo Ma and available to watch on Gidden’s website. The song is a gloriously enchanting number with the banjo, cello and Gidden’s vocals adding additional layers of melancholy. The song and book together are a mesmerising combination and Gidden’s delivery of the final line ‘No, I will not be moved’ hammers home the gentle defiance demonstrated by the family as they seek to carve out a space for themselves against all odds.

The themes explored in Build a House are suited to a Key Stage 2 audience who are ready to engage with the contextual background of the history of slavery. Whilst the illustrations in the book evoke a typically American landscape, the ambiguity of location in the words could support discussion around slavery in any country. Experiencing and discussing Gidden’s song of the same name would add a richness to lessons relating to slavery or immigration and would support children’s understanding of the journeys that people have encountered in order to make a home in the country they are now living in.