David Macaulay roundup


I thought I’d break this blogging fast with a nice roundup, featuring books by the prolific, award-winning author-illustrator David Macaulay!

I discovered David Macaulay back in college, when my illustration teacher showed us the Caldecott-winning Cathedral (which I read along with Pillars of the Earth), and I filed him away in my mental book wishlist. Years later, I lucked out on Black and White and Cathedral while trawling through bargain bins, and I’ve been fascinated by his work ever since.

Lately I’ve been really lucky, as Flipper friend (and hatter extraordinaire) Marie got me a couple David Macaulay books for our annual FFP Kris Kringle, and I’ve scored some more titles during my frequent bookstore raids, so I’ve got a little collection going. On top of the two titles already in my collection, I’ve now got: the storybooks Baaa, Shortcut, and Angelo, and the architecture books Mill, Pyramid, Unbuilding, and Mosque.

This is, as you can probably tell, a fangirl post, because I love David Macaulay’s mindboggling, intricate art. It’s mostly pen and ink, but all the more amazing because they’re not simple drawings. Reminiscent of the etchings of Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Macaulay’s illustrations are so wonderfully detailed that there’s so much to discover with each turn of the page — you can get lost inside the books for hours, and you’re bound to notice something with each reading. Even if you don’t read the text, the illustrations tell a story of their own, and you can even make up your own story along the way!


Shortcut (1995) presents a series of brief stories (in 10 “chapters”), all seemingly unrelated: a man and his horse going to town to sell melons, a girl whose pet pig goes missing, a professor taking an unexpected journey in a hot air balloon, a rogue train taking the wrong line on the tracks, a driver in a hurry to get to the market, and a man floating away on a rowboat. The disparate stories gradually converge as the story progresses, and the individual tales all tie up quite neatly in the end.

Like Black and White, Shortcut is a PoMo (postmodern) picture book — my favorite kind! — and the humorous (crazy!!!) turn of events in the book is quite entertaining. Whether you’re a five-year old or a fifty-year old, the non-linear narrative presents a whole lot of possibilities, sure to reel the reader right into the (un)story, and provide many hours of creative storytelling or debate. This was also the first time I’d seen Macaulay do full color, and the illustration style he used in this book — I’m guessing gouache, with colored pencil shading and brushpen outlines — reminds me of the illustrations I loved growing up (Learning with the Letts, and Usborne books!).

Angelo (2002) features an unusual friendship between an old man and a pigeon. Angelo is the master plasterer working on an old cathedral, where he finds an injured pigeon up on the ledge. He nurses her back to health, and starts taking her with him to work, and even to the countryside for her recuperation. The bird (whom Angelo calls Sylvia) soon recovers and flies away, but she continues to watch over Angelo’s work, and even starts visiting him later on, and she starts sticking around to keep Angelo company. Angelo finishes work at the church, and age catches up with him, but he leaves a gift for his feathered friend before he passes from this world.

This book is a straight narrative, but I actually enjoyed it even more than Shortcut. Angelo is not your typical storybook fare, but it’s surprisingly endearing, both funny and heartrending in turn, but very very subtle. I found my breath catching in my chest, and tears smarting towards the end, and very few picture books (and I’ve read a LOT) have had that same effect on me. Macaulay’s illustration style for this book underscores its theme — he uses a more muted palette and brown outlines (instead of his usual black) in this book, lending it a softer feel. The book showcases a different facet to Macaulay’s work, his intricate art enriched by a wealth of emotion.


One of Macaulay’s earlier works, Baaa (1985) goes down SpecFic lane with a sentient animal story. In Baaa, all the humans are suddenly, mysteriously, wiped off the face of the earth, and a flock of sheep take over an abandoned town. They start out muddling through what the humans left behind: raiding the fridge, going to the supermarket, watching television. They learn to be more like people, and soon wear clothes, get jobs, and in all aspects function like a human society. Eventually, though, they are plagued by the same problems as humans: corruption, population growth, food shortage, consumerism, crime, and so on, until they face the same fate as humanity.

Part strident commentary and part cautionary tale, this book was definitely a surprise. I don’t think I’ve ever read a dystopian / post-apocalyptic picture book before! The stark black and white images are both unnerving and thought-provoking, echoing the message the book wishes to convey.

Architecture books

David Macaulay’s writing deserves mention as well. The storybooks are quite entertaining, but I do think Macaulay’s genius lies in his architectural series. Geared towards independent readers and older, they’re chock-full of information, and literally take the reader through a visual journey of the process of construction of each edifice. The books tell the stories of people in that period of time and social context, weaving in the history of civilizations with the structural details of architecture, and I imagine the painstaking research that must have gone into each book.

Mill (1983) is set in 19th century Rhode Island, in the fictional town of Wicksbridge, where a spinning mill becomes the center of economic and social activity during the early stages of the American textile industry, and the advent of the Industrial Revolution in America. The book takes us through the advancement of technology in the textile industry, from the construction of the mills to their day to day operation.

While not my favorite in the series, Mill manages to make cotton-spinning look like rocket science — I mean, I don’t think I could get more enthused about the topic than this! Also, I like how along with community life coping with the changing technology, the book also shows changing world views — like how the owners opted to have the mill weave the fabric on-site rather than using cheap cloth made from cotton picked by slaves. I also like how the book goes on to tell us what happens after: the gradual fall of the Northern textile industry over the next hundred years.

Pyramid (1982) takes us to Egypt in 2040 BC, where the Pharaoh was preparing for the end of his life with a pyramid that would stand along the west bank of the Nile. Employing the “ramp” construction method (one of the many theories on how the pyramids were built), the book goes through the process from the foundation to the capstone, the rooms across the various levels of the pyramid, and even the burial arrangements for the pharaoh.

I’ve always been an Egyptology fan, perhaps because we studied it extensively in high school Afro-Asian history and literature classes. I wish our school library had this book back then — I remember we had to do an academic paper on the Egyptian belief in afterlife, and our only resources were encyclopedias and jurassic internet (It took, eons to even load a page!). Plus, I think everyone has, at one point, wondered how these ginormous pointy things were built, and the book provides one of the most plausible theories, as well as a good introduction to one of the most important concepts of ancient Egyptian religion.

(1980) starts off with the history of the iconic Empire State Building, all 1050 feet of it built with the intention of being the (then) tallest building in the world. But this book isn’t exactly about how the Empire State Building was constructed; it actually poses a hypothetical situation: in 1989, an Arabian prince decides to purchase the iconic Empire State Building to make it the new headquarters of the Greater Riyadh Institute of Petroleum. The Prince actually takes on the gargantuan task of dismantling the building and transporting the pieces back to his homeland, although his grand plan doesn’t exactly pan out the way he expected.

I was actually surprised to find out it’s one of his less popular works; the idea is fanciful. I find the “unbuilding” concept of this book to be fascinating, seeing as the rest of his books are about how all these landmark structures are constructed. I love the imagination that must go into dreaming up that scenario, and taking a wild idea and just hitting it out of the ballpark — from how the prince “bribed” the citizens of New York with a steady supply of petroleum (and other equally crazy schemes), down to the step-by-step disassembly of the Empire State Building all the way to its transportation from New York to Riyadh.

Finally, Mosque (2003) is set in 16th century Turkey, where the aristocrat Admiral Suha Mehmet Pasa is financing a new mosque. The book follows the formula of the other books in the series, taking the reader through the blueprints, the artisans at work, the symbolisms in the design of the monument, and the process of construction. Macaulay also reveals various functions of the mosque, the beliefs of the worshippers, and the practices that go on within the walls.

Published post-9/11, Mosque was created to help readers have a better understanding of Islam, and I think Macaulay pulls it off successfully, without being patronizing or heavy-handed. While not as technically detailed as his other architecture books, Mosque takes down some of the mystique surrounding this distinctive place of worship, and does well in fleshing out followers of the Islam faith. Also, the illustrations for this book are colored this time — still pen and ink, but colored with a subtle palette of watercolor wash, tempering the architectural lines. Comparing the books, I think I actually prefer David Macaulay in black and white, but the soft colors he uses in this book go well with the book’s objective.

David Macaulay has an extensive body of work, with around two dozen books. I only have eight so far, and it’s taken me years to find them all, but it’s such an enjoyable collection that I don’t really mind. Oldies, but real goodies, these books will definitely stay in my library — permanently!

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