Every year, just before December sets in, I ask the publishers who are kind enough to send review copies to me for books about Christmas, Chanukah, and Kwanza so I can inform readers about some of the best new books that are out there. This year The Carpenter’s Gift came from Random House and touched me in a way that few books have. David Rubel’s story isn’t just about Christmas, it’s also about generosity and hope. The book is about family and also brings up social issues like poverty, which is an issue many of students are confronting daily.
When my father was a child growing up in the New York City Public School system there was a quote on a banner in one of his schools that said “We live in deeds, not years.” (Author of the quote is unknown.) The quote stuck with him and as a result he adopted this quote as a motto to guide the way he lives his life. As a child my father shared this quote with me; constantly encouraging me to live in a way that would help other people, not just myself. The Carpenter’s Gift reflects this motto. Once you read the story from start to finish you will understand how the book will inspire children to give and do more to other people in their community and in the world.
From a writing standpoint, Rubel’s book is beautifully written. One of the most poignant things he did was to create a circular ending that is sure to become a go-to mentor text in classrooms. Rarely do circular endings work as well as the one in The Carpenter’s Gift, which is why I highly recommend adding this book to your basket of mentor texts when you teach endings to your students.
I had a few questions for Rubel, which he was kind enough to answer. His answers are thorough and thoughtful. I hope you’ll read through them. They certainly allow you to get inside his head and understand his writing process in greater detail. It’s my hope that you will use his answers to my questions alongside this book if you decide to use it as a mentor text in your classroom.
SAS: Where did the idea for The Carpenter’s Gift come from?
DR: After writing If I Had a Hammer: Stories of Building Homes and Hope with Habitat for Humanity in 2009, I traveled to Thailand for the annual Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project. This was my first volunteer experience with Habitat; and even though I knew what to expect from the research I had done, there is still a big difference between listening to a description of a rollercoaster ride and taking the plunge oneself. My experience in Thailand turned out to be just as thrilling as advertised, and it awoke in me feelings that I knew would be difficult to express in another work of nonfiction.
A few days after my return, I sat with my children as they watched the annual lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree on television. I already knew from my research that for several years Tishman Speyer, the owners of Rockefeller Center, had been donating lumber from the tree to build Habitat homes. Thinking about this remarkable gift, I realized that it could serve as the perfect touchstone for a different kind of story about the emotions that involvement with Habitat evokes.
When I interviewed President Carter for If I Had a Hammer, he told me something that has stuck with me ever since. It has to do with the chasm that exists between those who enjoy the blessings of a prosperous life and those who do not. The gap is so wide, the president said, that no single person can cross it on his own. Only with the help of a bridge, such as the one provided by Habitat, can people with resources and those without come together and connect with one another in a mutually redeeming way.
President Carter’s insight was my inspiration for The Carpenter’s Gift, which is fundamentally a story about giving and receiving. Some material resources change hands in the story, but even more important are the emotions that pass between the characters. As Tom Gerdy, a Habitat volunteer from Lynchburg, Virginia, once told me, “I’ve had plenty of people walk away from one of our events and tell me that they feel guilty because their hope was to give to somebody else and instead they got more than they gave. For twenty years now, I’ve been trying to give more than I receive, but I haven’t been able to accomplish it, either.” I wrote The Carpenter’s Gift so that everyone can understand what Tom means.
SAS: I love the circular ending… can you tell our readers more about how did that (i.e., the boy becoming a man and allowing the tree to be cut down at placed in Rock Center) so their students can try this type of ending with their own writing?
DR: Being a writer is like driving a bus. The readers are your passengers, and you want them to feel comfortable. Specifically, you want them to feel as though you are in complete control so that they can relax and enjoy the ride.
One way to do this is to show them that you know how to use all of the bus’s controls. In the case of writing, the basic controls are spelling, grammar, and sentence structure. If you haven’t mastered these, readers will feel nervous from the start.
What makes a person an especially good writer is the ability to use more complicated controls, such as plot and characterization. In my opinion, there are few things more satisfying to a reader than having a plot come full circle. This sort of resolution isn’t common in the day-to-day life, because the real world is a terrifically complicated place. However, in fiction, it can happen all the time, because the writer controls the reality.
In writing The Carpenter’s Gift, I had three primary goals: I wanted to tell a history-based story about the first Rockefeller Christmas tree, I wanted to emphasize the connection between giving and receiving, and I wanted to bring the historical story into the present. To accomplish these goals, I decided to have the boy, Henry, and his special tree grow up together. The math was pretty simple: I knew that it took about 70–80 years for a Norway spruce to reach maturity. Therefore, a pinecone planted in 1931 would reach maturity just about now, and a boy who was in elementary school in 1931 would be in his late eighties now.
But I still had to figure out what would happen in the present day to make the end of the story satisfying. The easy part was to have Henry’s tree chosen as the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. But the part of which I’m most proud is the scene in which Henry passes on the hammer to the young girl. In this way, Henry “pays forward” what Frank and the construction workers so generously gave to him and his family.
SAS: How do you think this story, which begins during the Depression, will resonate with children who are living through tough economic times right now? What do you want children to take away from this book?
DR: There was no way I could write The Carpenter’s Gift without thinking about the current tough times, and I expect that few people will be able to read the book without feeling that resonance. The parallels between what’s happening today and the Great Depression, especially the terrible unemployment, are simply too great to be ignored.
While writing The Carpenter’s Gift, I often thought about the old movie It’s a Wonderful Life, which also recalls the Depression. In that movie, the main character, George Bailey, spends most of his life helping other people build affordable homes. Often, this comes at the expense of his own dreams and ambitions. At a moment of crisis, he begins to doubt whether he has made the right choices for himself and his family. Happily, his neighbors rally to his aid in his time of need, and he remembers why he made thise choices in the first place: because giving of himself made him feel so good inside.
I’m hoping that readers of The Carpenter’s Gift will take away from the book the same feeling that George Bailey experienced at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life. I don’t think there is any better way to feel.
SAS: Tell us more about your writing process. (e.g., How do you work on a book? When do you write?)
DR: I write different books in different ways. When I’m writing nonfiction, I begin with several months or years of research. I want to know as much as I can before I begin writing, so that I can plan out the book and know what I want to communicate. While doing this research, I take careful notes using Word documents, usually one per chapter. That way, when I begin to write, I have all the information I need at my fingertips.
However, even after I begin writing, there is always more research to do. In this second phase of research, I am usually looking up much more specific information. For example, during my initial research on a book about, say, the civil rights movement, I would read Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and think about its historical significance. When I come to write that chapter and I’m thinking about how to describe the speech, I may research what King wore that day or how he got to the Lincoln Memorial, where he made the speech. These details can make reading about the speech more interesting because they help readers imagine themselves at that specfic moment in time.
Writing The Carpenter’s Gift, on the other hand, was a very different kind of experience for me. Although I did some research into the history of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree (including a visit to the Rockefeller Center Archives), mostly I wrote and rewrote and rewrote.
Because picture books don’t allow for very much text, I had to make sure that each word I used had a purpose. That meant honing, honing, and more honing. At the same time, I wanted to make sure that I communicated to the emotional core of the book. The biggest mistake that a writer can make is to assume that readers will understand what’s inside his head, even if he doesn’t go to the trouble of translating what’s inside his head into clear, understandable language. You show me an excuse like “You know what I mean,” and I’ll show you a lazy writer.
SAS: What are you working on now? Any new books in the pipeline?
DR: I’m actually working on a sequel to The Carpenter’s Gift, although sequel isn’t exactly the right word. It’s an overlapping tale that focuses on Frank, who is probably my favorite character in The Carpenter’s Gift. Creating a new life history for him has been the most fun part.
SAS: Tell us about your most recent work with Habitat for Humanity?
DR: I’ve actually stayed in touch with many of the people I interviewed for If I Had a Hammer, so I have no shortage of volunteer opportunities. Just last weekend, I spent two days on a “blitz build” in southern New Jersey with the Habitat Road Trip Crazies. This is a group of volunteers, led by Tom Gerdy, that travels around the Mid-Atlantic states, helping small Habitat affiliates generate activity and enthusiasm in their communities. Tom brings with him not only some serious construction expertise but also about 40–50 enthusiastic “crazies,” whose zeal for the work is infectious. When we started on Saturday, there was only a concrete foundation. When we left on Sunday, there was a house with a roof, siding, and even a front porch.
I should mention also that my wife, who is an editor and helps me with my work, was so inspired by our trip to Thailand that she joined the board of directors of our local Habitat affiliate. She took on the task of volunteer coordinator, and I help her manage that responsibility. The best part, though, is volunteering on the job sites. Although I do enjoy the construction work, what I like even more is the camaraderie and the opportunity to labor alongside like-minded people for a cause in which we all believe. That’s how the best homes and communities are built.
- A special thank you to Random House for sponsoring a giveaway of one copy of The Carpenter’s Gift to one of our readers.
- To win a copy of the book please leave a comment about this post, in the comments section of this post by Sunday, December 11th, 2011 at 11:59 p.m. EST. A random drawing will take place on Tuesday, December 13th, and the winner’s name will be announced in a blog post later that day.
- Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address and have my contact at Random House send the book out to you. Please note: Your e-mail address will not be published online.