Building a Book
Artist Jim LaMarche welcomes Habitat World into his studio as he brings the story of The Carpenter’s Gift to life.
Jim LaMarche sits inside his second-floor studio in downtown Santa Cruz, California. Through the open windows that line one end of the narrow space, the sounds of a sunny Monday morning filter into the room, but conversation inside has drifted back to the artist’s Midwestern boyhood.
As he leafs through a stack of nearly completed illustrations for The Carpenter’s Gift and reflects on his work, LaMarche’s talk frequently takes these kinds of trips — growing up in central Wisconsin, serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA member in North Dakota, working as a carpenter in east Palo Alto when he was getting his art career off the ground, driving along Santa Cruz’s West Cliff Drive and filing away for future use one perfect image of three boys leaping over a hedge.
This ability to draw on his personal real-world connections is important to LaMarche’s work. He doesn’t simply draw what he imagines based on the outline of someone else’s story. He draws what he knows, the places and people that have somehow struck a chord with him along the way. His is an art of experience.
It’s a wonderful approach to a story that speaks from the very heart of Habitat for Humanity. The Carpenter’s Gift is full of so many of the things that inform the organization’s work around the world — families, new friends, the simple wish for a decent home, quiet generosity, magic moments.
Written by David Rubel in collaboration with Habitat and illustrated by LaMarche, The Carpenter’s Gift builds all of this — and more — into the celebratory, enduring tale of a boy named Henry who dreams of having a better place to live and then grows up to help make that happen for others.
Hear from the artist himself as he puts the finishing brushstrokes on The Carpenter’s Gift.
1/ The Colors of The Carpenter’s Gift
I was born in Wisconsin. Small town, knew everybody. Wonderful place to grow up, really. It was safe. For a nature boy like me, it was perfect.
My father was a biologist, so he and my mother both loved being outdoors. So yeah, whenever I was a kid, even when it was really cold, I still wanted to be outside. We lived right on the edge of this small town.
I think there is a lot of that place in my work. There’s something really beautiful to me — and I remember it as a kid — seeing the snow and the shadows of the snow and the color of the bare trees. A whole wood line of oaks and elms and the occasional fir. And there’s this color that is there. It’s this lavender gray. And then there would be this startling blue in the snow. To me, it’s beautiful. I think that sense of color has stayed with me.
2/ The Value of Service
I graduated from college in ’74. It was just at the end of Vietnam, so I’d seen people from my town come and go — and some of them not come back.
You know, I just went through college comfortably while other people didn’t. So I felt some obligation to give back something. I thought, “There’s plenty enough to do in this country,” so I started looking at VISTA. And they came up with Bismarck, North Dakota, at United Tribes of North Dakota. They were working on a Native American curriculum program for high schools and junior highs, and they plugged me in. It was a great place. It was a great year, probably one of the best years of my life.
My wife was also a volunteer. I met her, and of course obviously that changed everything. You know, I’ve been spending most of my adult life now working for my family. I want The Carpenter’s Gift to connect. I love this Habitat for Humanity connection, I really do. I mean, I may join VISTA again at some point in my life, but it’d be nice if the book made a connection this way.
3/ Building and Books
I love to see things built. I love to see ideas go all the way to a solid thing that I can hold in my hand. I worked in east Palo Alto for a carpenter when I first moved West. I was pretty untrained, but I learned a few things. I built the table where I draw with two-by-fours and a handsaw. I have a couple of beautiful drafting tables, but that fits me like a glove. I will never use another table as long as I live.
The parallel between building and what I do in children’s books, it’s as close as it gets. It’s like being the designer/architect/builder/contractor. You start with your concept, on a napkin like so many good ideas start, and you follow it through all the way through the construction of this thing.
You start with these little thumbnail sketches, rough ideas. You block it out — it’s almost like building these little rooms. And then you move to a final set of blueprints, a final book that you use as your guide. You start construction, and you build this thing. The parallels are just amazing to me.
The first time I read, I really do see a lot. I get a sense of what does this book look like, how does this book feel, who are the characters. I take a pencil and start breaking the manuscript down into what looks like a book size. And then I just start with a big pad of paper and thousands — literally thousands — of little sketches. I get a sense of what I want and just draw, draw, draw. Ideas, right out of my head. And that’s where most of the creativity really happens.
4/ Finding the Faces
Professional models wouldn’t know what to do, wouldn’t look right. I want people. So where do you find people? Well, you find people in your life around you. It’s in everything I’ve done. I have three sons; they are all in my books.
My wife Toni works at an elementary school. I saw this little boy at a carnival, at a festival they were having. He really just turned out to be perfect for Henry. His mother is from New York, and they have a connection with the Rockefeller Center tree like I think most people do there.
One thing I love about this story is you see the boy from the beginning of his life to the end of his life. The intergenerational thing that’s happening, I like that a lot. That’s very appealing to me, that “you are all of these things.” That if you’re lucky enough, you’ll get to be a person who looks at his life with a certain sort of happiness. Believe it or not, I used myself as a model for older Henry.
The man — the carpenter, the original worker at Rockefeller Center who helps the family — he lives across the street from me. I’ve known him for so long, but I had to look at him with fresh eyes to say, “Oh, he is right. He is the right kind of face that I want.”
5/ Research, Research, Research
The Carpenter’s Gift reminded me of a mural at Coit Tower in San Francisco. It’s an incredible mural, and it has a real time and place. It was a New Deal project.
I thought about that era, and I wanted to have a sense of that feeling because I didn’t want the book to look contemporary, but I didn’t want it to be this sepia-toned, romanticized look back at the past. I wanted it real.
For the characters, it’s 1931, it’s Depression. The family is living in a shack. The cabin had to be the right cabin. I found one in this little state park north of here on the beach; it was used as a cowboy cabin during the ranch days up here. So I went and gathered information. How the door closed, how the wood was done, how the light comes through the cracks of the boards, through the walls.
The truck had to be the right truck. It’s 1931, the dad is borrowing a truck, and he borrows a truck that is not in great shape, so it can’t be a newer truck, it’s got to be older. So I looked online and looked at photos, and then I remembered up in San Francisco, there’s a maritime museum. There’s an old ferry that used to shuttle people back and forth before the Golden Gate Bridge, and now it’s become a museum. And I remember there were trucks! I got the green light to walk through there, but they weren’t quite right. But I did get to see the relative size of these trucks and look at the steering wheel and what it was made out of, and the interiors and information that I needed.
I went back online and found a company that makes these little replicas, and I thought, “That’ll work.” So I ordered a bunch of them, and they’re right over here. I literally would hold one like this and get a good angle.
There’s a picture of the house under construction. It’s when the neighbors and the Rockefeller workers show up and they’re building the house. I’ve got a bit of an aerial view. I think that’s the architectural part of me that wants children to see what I’m building here. I tried to do the framing relatively accurately, how framing would be done. You know, little things like they’re laying floorboards diagonally against the floor joists.
Then I look for things to add to it. I went to an old flea market, and I found the right hat and I found the right leather coat and I found all this stuff.
6/ Putting It All on Paper
I have a stack of photos this high. Photos like that thick of the boy that I used as a model.
My wife and I went to Boulder, Colorado, where my son lives and set up all the preliminary shots that I needed. I used a camera and set them up in clothes. We kind of go through this drama playacting thing, and it all works.
I have a copy machine over there which I do a lot of my design work on. I cut and paste and move around. I use acrylic paints — very thin, the colored pencil will still take on it and I can still build over that for more opacity. Layer on layer on layer until I get exactly what I want. The under-sketch shows. The next layer of washes of color shows. Everything shows.
When you look at a piece of art, you see an element of time, the entirety of how long it takes to make it.
7/ Memories and Moments
I think, like everybody, you store away snips of images and moments.
You see things that you can’t forget. One day, I was driving home and I saw three boys running. They were sort of running parallel with me, and they kind of veered off the sidewalk and cut through a yard. They all jumped over this hedge. It was just like horses leaping — one, two, three. I don’t know what it was. That was an image that I thought was just perfect. A perfect moment. You have to store that somewhere.
When you see a moment that is a very human moment, you recognize it as universal. It connects with people. If I could do anything well, that would be my wish, that I could connect on that level. I want a book that doesn’t look like a technique, a style so much as just getting to those really important truths that I think we all know — heartbreak and parenting and family.
It’s not about me as the illustrator. It’s about the story. Each little book is a beginning world and the end of the world within itself. It’s a poem. It doesn’t have to be any more than that, I think.
An excerpt from The Carpenter’s Gift
For the rest of the afternoon, Henry and his father sold trees to passersby. By the end of the day, they had earned enough money to make the trip a success.
“We should be getting home by now,” Henry’s father said as the sun set behind a tall building.
“What about the rest of the trees?” Henry asked.
“I thought we’d give them to Frank and the other fellows.”
Henry nodded in agreement. The best presents are the ones you don’t expect, he thought.
Because it was Christmas Eve, the workers were having a little party. Frank and the others took the tallest of the trees that Henry and his father had given them and decorated it with whatever they could cobble together: paper garlands, cranberries threaded onto string, and even a few shiny tin cans. Henry added an ornament of his own, made of newspaper that he folded into a star.
In the background, he could hear his father talking with Frank about grown-up things: the hard times for Henry’s family, the shack in which they lived. But Henry didn’t want to think about those things. He just wanted to look at the most marvelous Christmas tree he had ever seen.
It had been the best day that Henry could remember, and he didn’t want it to end. He stood before the decorated tree, enchanted. The streetlamps had just come on, and the tin cans glittered in their light. If ever there was a magic moment, Henry thought, this is it.
He decided to make a special Christmas wish. He wished that one day his family would live in a nice, warm house.
Excerpt and illustrations from The Carpenter’s Gift by David Rubel, excerpt copyright ©2011 by David Rubel and illustrations copyright ©2011 by Jim LaMarche. Reprinted by permission of Random House Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House Inc.
Behind the Scenes of The Carpenter’s Gift
Artist Jim LaMarche opens up his studio, sharing his thoughts and original illustrations for the new children’s book.
Visit habitat.org/thecarpentersgift to see LaMarche at work on his illustrations and to learn more about the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and Habitat, the book, and a special commemorative bookplate.