June 16, 2022


Let’s Build a Farm. By Robert Pizzo. Sourcebooks. $7.99.

Let’s Build a School. By Robert Pizzo. Sourcebooks. $7.99.

     The geometric precision of Robert Pizzo’s art, which offers substantial (but age-appropriate) real-world information underpinned by a pleasant whimsicality, continues to delight and inform the very youngest children (and any adults interacting with them) in Let’s Build a Farm and Let’s Build a School – two board books that, when added to the earlier Let’s Build a Highway and Let’s Build a Playground, form a four-book grouping quite unlike others for the earliest pre-reading age group.

     Actually, these books reach well beyond their intended readership (or pre-readership), and do so with such cleverness that adults can be captivated by the material even as it enthralls little ones. No longer need urban and suburban grown-ups wonder how all that hay seen at the side of the road ends up rolled: Pizzo’s stylized, simplified but thoroughly accurate portraits of a baler and the tractor pulling it explain the process very neatly in the Farm book. Similarly, the School book opens with a first-rate representation of an excavator – which really does look like the machinery that the equally stylized humans digging the school’s foundation would use (although the person wearing a white shirt and tie along with a hard hat has got to be a supervisor or government inspector or something like that).

     Pizzo’s “builder books” (called, officially, “Little Builders”) do a first-rate job of instruction precisely because they do not seem to be teaching at all. These are action books, with each set of 24 pages showing the growth of an essentially empty area into a recognizable, useful project. Each left-hand page clearly shows a component of the finished project – in Farm, for example, a post hole digger (for the uprights that are used to make a cow fence), some chicken wire (for the chicken coop), and sheet metal (for the grain silo). Each right-hand page then shows what the pictured object does: the fence being built, three hens in their enclosure, two workers completing the silo construction. Along the way, kids and adults get to see some genuinely interesting machinery that is not normally viewable up close, such as the farm’s sprinkler machine – shown in fascinatingly intricate detail on the left, and in action watering crops (while the farmer watches) on the right.

     The how of engineering and construction is also made quite clear in these books. Thus, in School, bricks are shown on the left while a bricklayer – standing on an appropriate platform – is shown using them to make the building’s wall on the right; and multicolored tile, in its shipping box on the left, is shown on the right being neatly laid to make a floor. This book too features some amazing-looking machinery, such as the telescopic handler used to lift drywall from the ground to the upper story, where a worker is ready to receive it for installation. (Pizzo accurately gives the names of machinery with which even adults may be unfamiliar – in this specific case, he could also have called the machine a reach forklift or, more entertainingly but perhaps less immediately understandably, a zoom boom.)

     Of course, there is no way for Pizzo to detail every aspect of creating a farm or school (or highway or playground), and he is age-appropriately selective in showing specific implements and machines and how they are used. In Farm, for example, what he mentions for making a pig trough is a hammer – scarcely the only item needed, but yes, definitely one element of the construction. He also shows a hive “to keep all the bees,” and this involves one of his most-engaging illustrations, showing an appropriately suited and veiled beekeeper completely surrounded by the flying insects. Similarly, in School, Pizzo shows a completed food station being integrated into a lunchroom where microwaves are visible on the wall and there is a counter along which trays slide; and he shows a basketball hoop for the gymnasium, where the backboard and other elements are already in place. The result of all this is that adults reading these books with kids have a great opportunity to discuss other elements of what is being constructed – in addition to the ones on which Pizzo focuses. That makes these books into “think pieces” as well as illustrated guides to construction projects. This is quite an accomplishment for board books – for any kids’ books, in fact. There is considerable focus today on teaching children the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and math – to prepare them better for an increasingly complex world. Books such as Pizzo’s can help bring that world into recognizable, engaging and involving form for the very youngest kids, providing an excellent foundation for much later forays into the inner workings of farms, schools, highways, playgrounds and (if Pizzo continues the series) plenty of other everyday marvels. Bridge-building, anybody?

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