By Jaime Showmaker
I've written before and spoken often on the Storyformed podcast of how my oldest son has been bitten by the architecture bug. Before he could even talk well, he was often attempting to build copies of famous buildings and landmarks using blocks, various toys, and even things like toast or marshmallows. I have tripped over Lego castles, books stacked like pyramids, and cathedrals made out of cups more times than I can count. After using various media to build his little landmarks, it wasn’t long before he came to me and said, “Mommy, how did they really build that?” Fortunately, award-winning illustrator David Macaulay has published an exquisite series of picture books that accurately answer his question and fit the bill perfectly!
Macaulay is a Caldecott medal winner with a background in architecture, and he showcases his talent and extensive knowledge through outstanding pen and ink drawings in his architecture-themed books. The first book that we acquired, and the first one that Macaulay published, was Cathedral: The Story of Its Construction. It chronicles the building of a fictional medieval cathedral in France, from its conception to completion. It wasn’t long before we also collected Castle, which traces the planning and construction of a fictional castle in 13th Century Wales, and City: A Story of Roman Planning and Construction, which explains how a typical Roman city was designed and built. We also own and love Pyramid, where Macaulay unravels the mystery of how the ancient Egyptian pyramids could have been constructed. Mill and Mosque are on our wish list. All of these books are similar in style and are outstanding for so many reasons.
Each of Macaulay’s architecture books is exquisitely illustrated with black and white pen and ink drawings. The detail that he captures is extraordinary! He uses cross-hatching and other artistic techniques to produce an almost 3D effect in the architectural elements. The intricate pictures are realistic and often humorous (like a stereotypical culprit in the castle dungeon and a detailed drawing of a medieval toilet). Each page contains these large-scale illustrations, and my boys and I enjoy examining the drawings and trying to find details that we missed in earlier observations, like oxen in the field or a dog begging for table scraps. Although the book does contain text, the illustrations are so thorough and detailed, you can easily follow the progression of the story from the pictures alone. Macaulay has won several awards for these books, including a Caldecott honor, and it is easy to see why! (Note: In recent years, Macaulay has released revised editions of Cathedral, Castle, and Mosque that contain color illustrations!)
Architectural and Technical Detail
Macaulay has an architecture degree and he showcases his knowledge with illustrations that almost resemble blueprints. Through his drawings, he thoroughly explains advanced architectural concepts at a level that even children can comprehend. From digging foundations and flying buttresses, to vaulted ceilings and archways, each architectural element is explained and the process is drawn in detail. He explains technology, such as ancient measurement techniques and physics concepts such as levers and pulleys. My son’s actual scientific knowledge of the field of architecture is extensive and accurate based on Macaulay’s attention to detail and realism in this area. Although these books are technically picture books for children, I have also received a thorough education in architecture from the four books that we own.
Not only are these books beautiful to look at, they are filled with a detailed history of the various time periods that are covered. Although the narrative is fiction, it could be classified as historical fiction because of the accuracy of the accounts. Castle, for example, details such history as medieval military strategy and the societal customs of landlords. Pyramid describes life in ancient Egypt, including beliefs about the Pharaohs and the afterlife; and City has a similar treatment for ancient Rome. In all of the books, tradesmen, artisans, and historical tools are described in detail. The books detail how much human effort and ingenuity were required to build the various structures, which represent the actual castles, cathedrals, and pyramids still standing today. There is a glossary at the end of each book that explains the terms and names covered in the text. The narrative is short (the highlight of these books are, of course, the illustrations), but the text is informative, advanced, and entertaining.
One of my favorite aspects of these books is how they give a detailed account of the problems that the builders of the various structures faced, and how they solved those problems. From technological limitations to geographical obstacles, the fictional characters encounter multiple engineering challenges. Macaulay explains these challenges, as well as the innovation that was required to overcome them. My son is learning how to anticipate problems when building his own structures, and compensate and innovate when he encounters problems in his mini building projects!
We absolutely LOVE these books and highly, highly recommend them--not just for budding architects like my little guy, but for every child! They are beautiful, educational, and entertaining, and definitely worth the investment for a home library.