Friday, November 23, 2007

"Oh, How It Lights Up the Night": Sky Boys by Deborah Hopkinson

Through the eyes of a schoolboy, scavenging for stove wood and finding a bonanza of scrap at the corner of Thirty-Fourth and Fifth Avenue, Deborah Hopkinson's 2007 Notable Book Sky Boys (Schwartz & Wade, 2006) begins the story of the Empire State Building from its human perspective, from many angles--the jobless in line, hoping for a chance to work, the rivet crew, catching red-hot steel and driving it home, the surefooted sky monkeys who know hundreds covet their jobs if they falter or fall, and the jubilant workers clinging to the mast at the top for the photo op when the steel work is done.

In poetic prose we hear the story of the construction--huge machines and unbelievably brave men--who put together the outer shell with incredible speed.

"First come the rumbling flatbead trucks
bundles of steel on their backs,
like a gleaming, endless river
surging through
the concrete canyons of Manhattan. . . .,

Before your eyes a steel forest appears.
Two hundred and ten massive columns....

Then it's the sky boys' show....

High overhead they crawl
like spiders on steel,
spinning their giant web in the sky.

Wouldn't you love to be one of them,
the breeze in your face
and your muscles as strong
as the girder you ride?"

Hopkinson provides the statistics and the history of the high steel which would be daunting in any time, but she also tells the story of the Empire State Building as a symbol, a national monument to the courage and hope which built it in the depth of the Great Depression. James Ransome's acrylic oil paintings are equally monumental, full of the solid realism of the period, angled from below looking up, from high on the steel looking down on the rooftops of the city, and with the jaunty strength of the time, looking straight out as if into the future of our own time with their message:

"If we can do this, we can do anything."



  • people interested in this book would profit by picking up "Unbuilding," by Davad Macaulay.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:56 PM  

  • Adults interested in this story would also be interested - and edified - by 'Building the Empire State' (ed. Carol Willis, W.W. Norton & Co). It's a log of the construction by the general contractor, and is superb for its straightforward narration of the design and building process.

    Unlike the political morass of construction in urban surroundings today, this job showed what American builders could do 75 years ago when their ingenuity was turned loose. The whole design and construction process, from concept to tenants in place, took twenty months. By comparison, just the conceptual infighting over the World Trade Center site took longer. We're still waiting for completion.

    Another fascinating aspect of the Empire State construction was the brilliant use of mining technology. Using elevators, and running mini-railroads around each floor to deliver materials to their place of use, this building went up at better than one story per day. It was a triumph of focused management, and workers on the site who knew what they were about. Not to mention the restaurants on site:

    "A high class restaurant operator, with three restaurants in the vicinity was told he could have for the privelege of a very nominal sum per month (enough to pay for light and power), if he would agree to have the Builders construct for him, at restaurant owner's expense, five lunch stands as the progress of the work required them. These lunch stands were built, when needed, on the 3d floor, 9th floor and 24th floor, 47th floor and 64th floor, and were completely equipped by the restaurant owner and remained in these locations throughout the life of the job.

    "It was further agreed that he would serve food of the finest quality the same as in his regular restaurant, but at slightly reduced rates. In this way, good food at economical prices was purchased by the men and they were completely satisfied through the course of the work".

    There were far more interesting items, but this is enough blather already.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:09 PM  

  • Dear Eric and i.s.,

    Yes, Macauley's UNBUILDING is a great "picture book" for older kids which shows the deconstruction of the Empire State Building, a creative way to show how it was built. There are so many good books on this structure that I decided not to do a roundup paragraph, but any of Macauley's books (Castle, Pyramid, etc.), are great for the detail and engineering-minded reader interested in other architectural types.

    Hopkinson does mention the five "fast food" lunch stands and the "rising' restaurant during the construction in her text. The afterword has a lot of information as well on the process of constructing the Empire State Building for a slightly younger reader than Macauley's and other authors' works.

    Thanks for your interest!

    By Blogger GTC, at 3:38 PM  

  • A few months to build this fantastic structure is amazing.

    It takes the Illinois DOT clowns a year to build a small ramp onto a highway.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:35 PM  

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