How to Build a House by Dana Reinhardt

Harper needs to get away from home for a while, to escape her heartbreak over her father’s divorce from her stepmother and her confusion about her relationship with Gabriel, who is not her boyfriend but is definitely more than her friend.  She signs up for the Homes from the Heart Summer Program for Teens and leaves her native California behind to help build a home for a Tennessee family who lost theirs in a tornado.

Dana Reinhardt does so many things right in this book that it would take a very long time to list them all, so I’ll just hit the highlights.  As always, her teen voice is spot-on: Harper sounds like a real teen, not a grown-up’s idea of how a teen sounds.  Her characterizations, as always, are excellent, too; the family for whom Harper is building a house, all of the other kids who work with her to build the house, and Harper’s own family are fully realized.  This is a remarkable feat, especially considering that the book comes in at only 227 pages.  The most unique thing about How to Build a House, however, is its structure.

Reinhardt has named each chapter after one of the steps in building a house, and within each chapter we get glimpses of how Harper’s life was at “Home” and how things are different “Here.”  Throughout the story, the step in home-building correlates with Harper’s experiences and memories.  It could come across as contrived, but it doesn’t.  It is, instead, just right.

I would recommend this book to just about anyone.  Dana Reinhardt is one of my favorite authors for young adults today, and How to Build a House follows in the tradition of excellence she began with A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life and continued with Harmless.

Book: How to Build a House
Author: Dana Reinhardt
Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books
Original Publication Date: May 2008
Pages: 227
Age Range: Young Adult
Source of Book: ARC sent by author
Related Posts: My Interview with Dana Reinhardt, My Review of A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life, My Review of Harmless
Buy it: IndieBoundPowell’s

A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life

Simone’s family is perfect.  Her father is a political cartoonist, her mother is an ACLU attorney, her brother is a high school freshman with great hair, and she’s a math whiz.  Sure, she has dark hair, olive skin, and almond-shaped eyes while the rest of the family is blonde all over.  But they’re still a family.  And that’s what matters, right?

Simone’s known since early in her life that she’s adopted.  She doesn’t know anything about her biological family, though, and what’s more, she’s never been curious about it.  In spite of her lack of curiosity, Simone’s about to learn a lot more about her origins than she ever expected.

The central story in Dana Reinhardt’s debut novel A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life deals with Simone’s discovery of her birth mother’s heritage, and the struggle she goes through to reconcile her Hasidic Jew history with her Atheist upbringing.  Rivka, Simone’s birth mother, emerges as a force in Simone’s life that changes her perspective on everything in some way or another.  Side stories include Simone’s best friend dealing with her recently changed body and subsequent, eventually unpleasant, sexual awakening, as well as a potential romance for Simone with a fellow staff member on the school paper.

Brief Chapter has a lot of great things going on.  I’m reluctant to single one out as its best, so I’ll just list some.  First, Simone’s voice is wonderful.  Simone has a wry sense of humor, and is a deep thinker but not at all pretentious.  Second is the delightful normalness of Simone’s family.  They are not without flaws, but they aren’t ravaged by tragedy or creepily perfect.  Third is the way the book handles the normal and important subject matter of young adult life – self-discovery, rapid change, understanding love and sex, crises of faith – while tying these themes into a larger story about the definition of family.

I would recommend Brief Chapter to just about any reader high-school aged or up.  It has broad appeal, and is especially good for readers interested in adoption and interfaith issues.

Book: A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life (Affiliate Link)
Author: Dana Reinhardt 
Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books
Original Publication Date: 2006
Pages: 240
Age Range: Young Adult
Source of Book:
Other Blog Reviews: Tea Cozy, bookshelves of doom, interactivereader, Bildungsroman, Young Adult (& Kids) Books Central,
Extras: My Interview with Dana Reinhardt, Interview at Interactive Reader, Interview at Bildungsroman

Summer Blog Blast Tour: Dana Reinhardt

The Summer Blog Blast Tour begins here at

 with Dana Reinhardt.

Dana is the author of two novels for young adults: A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life and Harmless.  

In Brief Chapter, Simone, the adopted child of an ACLU attorney and a political cartoonist, meets her birth mother, Rivka, for the first time.  The things she learns in her encounters with Rivka challenge her concepts of belief and family.

In Harmless, three girls are caught at a party when they shouldn’t be.  Their lie to explain their whereabouts balloons, resulting in the arrest of an innocent man and their town and school rallying around them.  Emma, Anna, and Mariah learn that a lie that may seem harmless can do a lot of damage.

I’ll have reviews of these two books later this week.  

And now, the interview!

You mention in your bio on your website that you worked as a reader for a young adult line at a mass-market paperback house. How has this experience influenced your writing career?
That was a long time ago… so much has happened in my professional life since then, but it did teach me very clearly what a good book was not.  

In A Brief Chapter In My Impossible Life, Simone’s mother is a lawyer for the ACLU and Simone helps her with her work. Did your law school experience help you with writing these parts of the book? How?

My background in law probably had a much bigger influence on my writing than working for the publishing house did. For one thing, it helped me hone in on what I issues I felt passionate about. But also, building a legal case is nothing more than compelling story telling. You arrange the facts in the way that sets forth your argument and generates sympathy for your side of things. Whether it’s a judge, jury or a reader, your task us the same– make that person care about your characters and feel invested in the outcome.
Simone’s birth mother, Rivka, was a Hasidic Jew. Brief Chapter contains a lot of information about Hasidism and Judaism more generally. Did you have to do any research for this part of the book? How did you gain knowledge about these faith traditions?
Well, I’m Jewish so I had a basic knowledge of Judaism going in. My husband is a rabbi school drop out, so what I didn’t know, he often did. We have a library filled with books on every conceivable Jewish topic from history to religion. But still, there were things beyond his expertise and beyond what I could find in our library, and for that I turned to friends or friends of friends to answer more specific questions of life among the Hasidim. I was also lucky to have a copy editor who is an Orthodox Jew.
In Brief Chapter, Simone is an adopted child and struggles to reconcile her love of her adoptive family with her feelings about her birth family.  How did you prepare to write about this struggle?
I don’t think I did anything to prepare for this part of the story other than to fully know and understand my characters by the time they came to confront these emotional landmines, and with this knowledge, I sort of sat back and let them work through these challenges in a way that seemed natural to who they are. I know that sounds terribly hokey, but it’s true nonetheless.
 Harmless is told by three narrators, with their perspectives alternating. How did you plan the story? Did you know early on which narrator would reveal each part of the story?
I didn’t plan out who would reveal what part of the story, I just let them take turns talking and kept the narrative moving forward rather than having them go back and give their exact version of the events someone else had described. I think different perspectives on the truth can be revealed in ways other than repeating different versions of the exact same events. I had ideas going in about what role each girl would play in the lie, and how each would deal with the pressure of keeping secrets, and none of these ideas panned out. They each went in directions I hadn’t anticipated.
The main characters in Harmless attend a small, private day school. Why did you choose this setting instead of a public school or larger private school?
I wanted to tell a story about good kids doing something bad. I wanted the main characters to be the kinds of kids people tend to assume are immune to making such enormous mistakes. I wanted to show that kids in private day schools don’t have all the answers.
I also wanted these girls to feel they had a lot at stake in perpetuating lies, and sometimes a smaller, more insulated environment creates a sort of pressure cooker where it’s easy to lose perspective on what really matters.
What is your favorite genre of books to read? How has that influenced your writing?
I don’t have a favorite genre, I just like books that are well written and have a good story and say something honest. I like books that are complicated and unexpected. I like to feel like the characters are alive while I’m lost in the story.  I aim to do all these things when I write.
I’m not saying I accomplish these things, I’m just saying this is what I aim for.

Thanks for joining me, Dana!  

Eager for more?  You can find Dana at Interactive Reader on Wednesday and at Bildungsroman on Friday.