Read This: Build a House

Kerry Dexter's picture

It’s a story that began with a song.

It is also a story that began long before the song or the book came to be.

The story began when the first enslaved people came to what is now the United States.

“You brought me here
to build a house...”

Rhiannon Giddens begins the song, and the text of Build a House.

Read This: Build a House

That first person perspective and economy of word winds through the story of building a house, raising crops, making a life, really for someone else, as Mikai’s illustrations show a family of enslaved people working to create a plantation.

From which, the narrator’s family -- father. mother, daughter shown in the illustrations -- is then told “Go!”

They build a house of their own, and they tell their own stories in music.

Each of these is taken away, too. The few words and clear drawings of one family, a family readers will have come to care about, make the brutality and the arrogance of these things clear.

There is sorrow, there is anger, there is pain.

“But then you came
And took my song
And claimed it for your

Giddens writes, in what makes a powerful point in the story.

In this video, Rhiannon Giddens gives a bit the story of how she came to write the song, and performs it onstage, accompanied by Jason Sypher on cello and Francesco Turrisi on percussion

Build a House is at its heart a story of resilience. The family travel on, build another home for themselves, and over last pages of the book, the story unfolds as they find their well of song and story will never run dry:

“I learned your words
I wrote my song
I put my story down

And I will not be moved.”

This is the first picture book Rhiannon Giddens has published. She is well-qualified to distill these challenging aspects of history in this creative way. A Grammy-winning musician whose work spans old time string band music of her native North Carolina, classic and contemporary opera, and other parts of music, including the occasional excursion into the music of her adopted home in Ireland. Currently, she is also the artistic director of the gathering of musical talents, genres, and creativity that is the Silk Road Ensemble.

Giddens is mixed race, an artist, a researcher, a woman who thinks deeply about history, race, and story. She is also a mother. She has said that part of her mission is to share a more accurate version of America’s musical history

Another idea that Giddens has offered is that the heart of the story of African American history is “not what was do to us, but what we did with with it.”

Resilience, sorrow, joy, hope determination: in Build a House, Giddens and Mikai distill all these, along parts of history, too, into a short book that you will likely find in the children’s picture book section of a bookstore and a library.

It may well prompt questions from any child who looks into it -- and from any adult, too. That is a result Giddens and Mikai would both likely be happy about.

Side note: Build a House began as a song Giddens released to mark the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth. That is June 19th, a day that has long been celebrated in African American communities as marking the end of slavery in the US. In 2021, it became a national holiday. Here is a video of the song with some illustrations from the book:

Build a House
text by Rhiannon Giddens, illustrations by Monica Mikai
published by Candlewick Press, Somerville, Massachusetts

Kerry Dexter is Music Editor at Wandering Educators. 

You may find more of Kerry's work in National Geographic Traveler, Strings, Perceptive Travel, Journey to Scotland, Irish Fireside, and other places, as well as at her own site, Music Road.