Aston pays tribute to the creative genius of an Italian immigrant and tile worker who, in the 1920s, begins a unique project on his Watts, Calif., property that takes 34 years to complete. Simon Rodia uses only rebar, cement, broken tiles, shells, and other found items to build towering spires, some almost a hundred feet tall, decorated with mosaic designs. A fictional neighbor girl, Marguerite, provides lyrical first-person narration as she watches the towers take shape throughout her childhood. The subject lends itself perfectly to the collage illustrations. Employing mostly paper, but also bits of pottery, cloth, clay and string, Roth stunningly recreates bold, stylized versions of the towers. This book beautifully illuminates a little-known story of imagination and perseverance that resulted in a national landmark. Ages 5–8. (Aug.)
“[Aston’s] winding, poetic language evokes the strange beauty of the sculptures themselves.”
“[Aston’s] winding, poetic language evokes the strange beauty of the sculptures themselves.” —
The amazing construction in Los Angeles, California known as Watts Towers, or Simon Rodia's Towers, is now a United States National Monument. In the engaging voice of a young neighbor, Aston describes how a small chip of tile became the first piece of it collected by a man called Uncle Sam. Our narrator joins Uncle Sam as he hunts through trash and along the railroad tracks for broken bits. Talking to himself, he mixes mortar to place in wire mesh around poles. Into the wet cement he presses his jeweled pieces. The construction grows, year after year, inspired by his memories of his childhood in Italy. A second, then a third tower rises. Suddenly, after thirty-four years, Uncle Sam gives the deed to his property to a friend and leaves, never to return. He is no longer called foolish and crazy; he is called a man of genius. Roth illustrates this remarkable story with collage, an appropriate medium for a creation of bits and pieces. She has collected a variety of broken tiles, decorated pottery shards, and other "trash" similar to that used in the Towers. The end pages are like photo albums of the details of the complex construction. There are additional informative notes, plus suggestions for creating "your own Watts Tower." Reviewer: Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz
Children's Literature - Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz
Gr 2–5—This stunningly illustrated picture book succeeds on every level. Chronicling the story of Italian immigrant Simon Rodia, the creative genius who built the famed Watts Towers in Los Angeles, the simple yet elegant text brings the man's process to light through the narration of a fictional girl who measures her own life against the construction of the towers. Uncle Sam, as he was known in the neighborhood, worked in a tile factory by day and scavenged for treasure in trash heaps and along the nearby railroad tracks in his spare time. Using scrap tile, broken pottery, bits of glass, seashells, rebar, wire mesh, and cement, Rodia realized his dream through slow but steady work, raising his towers nearly 100 feet high without nails, bolts, or even a ladder. Adding dimension and richness to the story, Roth's splendid multimedia collages both honor and illuminate his work. Combining paper, ceramics, fabric, and photography, the artwork not only reinforces the look of the towers but also the technique of bringing together disparate bits to create a cohesive and beautiful whole. One particularly moving page uses black-and-white photographs of similarly shaped Italian towers as a backdrop, exploring the idea that immigrants bring their culture with them. This is a book that is filled with possibilities; it is an artistic work that could easily serve as a springboard for a multitude of discussions/projects about creativity, artistry, imagination, conservation, repurposing, perseverance, and the influence and importance of immigrants. A worthwhile author's note and instructions to craft a small Watts Tower are appended.—Teri Markson, Los Angeles Public Library
Using his hands, simple tools and found pieces of glass, tile and steel, a reclusive Italian immigrant assembled and built the extraordinary Watts Towers in southern California.
A little girl from the neighborhood tells the story as she watches Uncle Sam, as she calls Simon Rodia, collect chips of tile and make mortar from his secret mixture of sand, cement and water. The work, done in evenings and on weekends, spans more than three decades. That little girl grows up and brings her own children to watch in wonder as the towers soar skyward. Her trusting voice and observant eye make her an endearing narrator. "Uncle Sam was like a spider weaving his web / of steel and cement and lacy shadows." Aston's telling is lyrical and reads aloud beautifully. Roth, working in her signature mixed-media collage, is the perfect choice to illustrate the building process. Bits and pieces of photographs, paper and fabric arranged in colorful panels and full-page spreads dazzle the eye. Step-by-step instructions and photographs for constructing a tower from pipe-cleaners provide an excellent follow-up activity.
It was one man's dream to recreate beautiful buildings remembered from his childhood in Italy as a gift to the community. That dream became a National Landmark for all to treasure, and this book brings it to children everywhere. (author's note)
(Picture book. 4-8)