The Carpenter’s Gift: A blog tour by author David Rubel

  THE CARPENTER’S GIFT: A Christmas Tale About the Rockefeller Center Tree by David Rubel

Written by David Rubel in collaboration with Habitat for Humanity and illustrated by Jim LaMarche, “The Carpenter’s Gift” celebrates an American tradition.

This year marks the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree’s 80th anniversary. Since 2007, the famed tree has been milled into lumber that Habitat uses to build a home. The story of a young boy in Depression-era New York who wishes for that kind of decent home for his family, “The Carpenter’s Gift” shares a lesson about helping our neighbors.

I am honored to be able to host Mr. Rubel on his blog tour. This book is beautiful and meaningful. The “chooseKIND” message is a great tie-in to my class’s reading of Wonder and the discussions we’ve had. Please be sure to visit Mr. Rubel’s other tour stops and sign up to win a copy of The Carpenter’s Gift. (Information below.)

{Eat the Book}: Thank you for stopping by my blog today to share about The Carpenter’s Gift. 

Jim LaMarche’s illustrations are beautiful. Did you have input into the artwork of The Carpenter’s Gift? What was that process like? What is your favorite picture/spread?

David Rubel: When Random  House acquired The Carpenter’s Gift, the book didn’t yet have an illustrator. I had a couple of people in mind, with Jim LaMarche at the top of my list, but I hadn’t yet shared the list with Heidi Kilgras, the editorial director at Random House. Entirely independently, Heidi asked me what I thought of Jim’s work, because he was her first choice for the book. We were fortunate that Jim liked the text and worked the project into his busy schedule.

My first conversation with Jim went much the same way. While writing the book, I had two thoughts about the way it should be illustrated. The first was that faces would be important. The readers needed to see the faces of the characters and understand the subtleties of their feelings though their expressions—and that’s what drew me to Jim’s work. There are actually more than a few children’s book illustrators who seem uncomfortable with the human face, often depicting characters with their faces turned away from the reader in one way or another. I knew from Jim’s previous work that this wouldn’t be a problem for him.


My second thought was that the style of the illustration should be something of a throwback to the 1930s. What I had in mind was the mural style of the artists who worked for the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. The first time I got on the phone with Jim, he told me that he had just been looking at some WPA murals at Coit Tower in San Francisco, and he thought they would be a good model for the illustrations in The Carpenter’s Gift. Again, synchronicity. I can barely draw a stick figure, but if I had Jim’s artistic skill, I think the illustrations would have come out exactly the same. He read my mind.

I put together some reference material for Jim, including some photographs of Rockefeller Center in the 1930s, and we talked about a few of the particulars, such as the truck that Henry and his father use to haul the Christmas trees into the city. But the illustrations are really entirely Jim’s creative product. In fact, Jim probably had more influence on the text than I had on the art. As he was nearing the end of the project, he emailed me with a request. He was working on the illustration in which Old Henry gives his special hammer to the child of the family who will be receiving the lumber from the tree. In the original text, this character was a boy, emphasizing the continuity from Henry to the child. But Jim asked whether it could be a girl. He said he just had a feeling that the story would be better that way. And so the boy became a girl. [See picture in next answer.]

My favorite piece of art in the book is the illustration of Henry and his father loading trees into the truck. (Thanks to Jim’s generosity, that illustration now hangs in my home.) What I like most about it are the subtleties—the quality of the light, the mist in the trees, the way Jim articulates the pine needles in the tree in the foreground.

[Here is a great video from the illustrator, Jim LaMarche, and his thoughts on the illustrations in the book.]


{Eat the Book}: As you mention above, Henry ends up meeting the girl whose family is getting a Habitat house. Though it never says he does in the book, I sure hope Henry tells her his story as he hands her the hammer that was handed to him….

David Rubel: As the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe famously said, sometimes less is more. I think Jim LaMarche’s illustration says It all.

This is actually my favorite moment in the story. It has been my experience that when people read the story out loud, this is the point where they get noticeably choked up. At one elementary school assembly in which I participated, teachers took turns reading different sections of the story. The principal saved this last part for herself but then couldn’t finish. She just starting crying when she got to “Here you go, Sparky” and had to leave the stage.

To tell you the truth, even I get choked up at this point when I do a reading, and I wrote the thing!

{Eat the Book}: I imagine that the researching and writing of If I Had a Hammer led to The Carpenter’s Gift. Is that right? What one or two aspects of that research impressed or inspired you the most?

David Rubel: While it’s true that If I Had a Hammer in a sense inspired The Carpenter’s Gift, the path from one to the other wasn’t as direct as one might think. I had never volunteered with Habitat before I was invited to write If I Had a Hammer; and once I began that project, I knew I had an important decision to make: should volunteering on a Habitat home be part of my research? I decided that it shouldn’t be, because I didn’t want my own experience to overshadow the experiences of the people I was interviewing for that book. On the other hand, I knew that once the book was finished, I would have to find out for myself what working on a Habitat house was like; and it was while working as a volunteer that I realized I had something more to say that required a different type of presentation.

[Here is a great video of the Random House team volunteering on a Habitat house. I want one of those awesome t-shirts!]

[You can catch a cool slideshow of another Carpenter’s Gift building a Habitat home.]

{Eat the Book}: Did you get to meet or talk with President Jimmy Carter, who wrote the foreword to If I Had A Hammer? What was that like?

David Rubel: I’ve written several books about the US presidents and consider myself something of a presidential historian, so meeting President Carter was a particular thrill for me. I was able to spend an hour with him and Mrs. Carter at the president’s office in Atlanta, which would have been enough of a treat in itself; but because I was interviewing him, the experience wasn’t just a meet-and-greet.


For the first five minutes or so, he asked me a number of questions about myself. I’m sure he wanted to know something about the person he was talking to before deciding what or how much he wanted to say. I got the very strong impression that he doesn’t tolerate any wasting of his time—after all, the world has quite a few problems that he’s still working hard to solve—and he wanted to be sure that I was prepared. Evidently I passed the test (which he conducted in a most gracious manner), and for the next hour he paid close attention to what I was asking and gave me very thoughtful answers. And that was what really made the hour special: I wasn’t just with the president and Mrs. Carter, I was conversing with them—just me and them, talking.

{Eat the Book}: In If I Had A Hammer, actress Jamie Lee Curtis says, “Someone once told me, ‘Civilization flourishes when great men and women plant trees under the shade of which they will never stand.” What does this mean to you? How do you see this played out in The Carpenter’s Gift ?

David Rubel: I think the essence of that quote is selflessness. I took enough philosophy courses in college to be well drilled in the age-old question of whether anything exists beyond our own individual minds. Maybe nothing does, and life as we know it is an illusion—but that always struck me as a rather impractical perspective. Just as I choose to believe in free will, I also choose to believe that there is a right and a wrong. For me, doing right includes doing right by others.

I agree with the premise that civilization couldn’t succeed if all people were simply out for themselves all the time. A few people always will be, it’s true, but what holds societies together are the rest of us, who try as they can to be compassionate and to consider the needs of others. The ultimate example of such behavior would be to do something for someone else even when the action provides no benefit to oneself. Parents do this for their kids all the time, but evolutionary biologists tell us that such behavior is just our DNA wanting to propagate itself. Doing something for future people we don’t know, on the other hand, has nothing to do with our personal DNA. That’s why its moral behavior of the highest order.

{Eat the Book}: Even though he loves the tree, when Henry’s given the chance to donate his beloved tree to Rockefeller Center—and finds out that the tree will eventually be milled and its lumber used to build a home for a family in need—he says, “I’ve been given so much. I want to give something back.” How did this true tradition of using the Rockefeller Tree in Habitat homes get started?


David Rubel: Back in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, Habitat for Humanity became very involved in rebuilding the city’s housing stock, so much of which had been destroyed, especially in the less well-to-do neighborhoods. The folks at NBC got involved, too, and it was decided that Habitat volunteers (including anchors and correspondents from The Today Show) would construct walls on Rockefeller Plaza for shipment down to the Gulf Coast. Tishman Speyer, the owners of Rockefeller Center, also pitched in; and everyone was so happy with the result that they began to think about how they could keep the positive momentum going. The aha! moment came when someone thought of using lumber milled from the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree to construct a new Habitat home. Since 2007, Tishman Speyer has generously donated the most famous Christmas tree in the world to a local Habitat affiliate so that it can help a family in need build a new home.

 

[What did they do with the parts of the tree that couldn’t be used as lumber? Watch this:]

{Eat the Book}: This book fits perfectly with the chooseKIND theme that is based on RJ Palacio’s book Wonder.  Helping Habitat for Humanity is a great way for kids to chooseKIND. But middle school students are too young to build houses with Habitat. How can they get involved and help?

David Rubel: It’s true that young people have to be creative in finding ways to get involved, but there are still lots of opportunities, and more being invented every day. At the build site where I volunteer, lunch is sometimes provided by a local Girl Scout troop, which makes sandwiches and cookies. My local affiliate also has a ReStore (a Habitat storefront that sells donated building supplies), at which my tweenage daughter has volunteered. Last Thanksgiving, some youth groups folded origami stars like the one Henry folds out of newspaper and distributed them to senior citizens through Meals on Wheels. (You can find the directions on the Habitat web site here.) So there are lots of ways to help out and raise awareness. It just takes a little ingenuity to find a way that works for the youngsters involved.

{Eat the Book}: Mr. Rubel, thank you for creating such a beautiful, inspiring book and for visiting my blog to share some of the backstory and your insights into The Carpenter’s Gift.

Please visit the Habitat for Humanity site which has a special page dedicated to The Carpenter’s Gift.

I’m honored to work with great, responsive teachers like Dana Taylor. I shared the book with her, which inspired her to get involved with Habitat for Humanity.  She just sent me this great picture of her (on the left) and her friend from their Habitat day the other weekend. Inspiring! Isn’t this what we want from our students?

STOP! If you’ve read through this post without stopping to view the videos, please go back. You’re missing out. These videos are moving and worthwhile.

Have you seen the other posts on this blog tour?

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012: TheChildrensBookReview.com

Thursday, November 22nd, 2012CrackingtheCover.com

Friday, November 23rd, 2012The Book Maven’s Haven

Saturday, November 24th, 2012BookingMama.com

TODAY: {Eat the Book}

And don’t forget to follow along over the next three days:

Monday, November 26th, 2012Maestra Amanda’s Boohkshelf

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012: HeiseReads.com

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

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