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A Master of Detail and Whimsy

By Kirsten ConoverStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 28, 1997

David Macaulay's studio is a curious place. Look around and you see toy soldiers, a rubber chicken, a fully-rigged model sailing ship, a small windmill that really works, and a full-scale model of a human skeleton. It seems more like a play room than an artist's workplace.

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I shouldn't have been surprised.

Mr. Macaulay's award-winning picture books are just like his studio: There are so many things to see, and there are surprises at every turn.

His new book, "Rome Antics," is no exception. It follows the journey of a homing pigeon all over Rome, Italy. The bird flies under the Arch of Constantine, over the Colosseum, into the Pantheon, and around the entire city on a mission to deliver a message. Rome is Macaulay's favorite city, he says. It's where the past mixes with the present and architectural wonders are plentiful.

"I don't speak Italian very well, but I always feel at home in Rome," he says as he leans back from his drawing board. "One of the most striking things about Rome is that every time you turn the corner, you don't know what you're going to see."

You get that same feeling when you read "Rome Antics." Turn a page, and you might see a lizard on a window sill, a whole page that's upside-down, a Roman soldier at an outdoor cafe.

What was he like as a kid? I ask him.

He looks out the window as he recalls his home in Burton-on-Trent in England.

"I was curious," he says. "I was encouraged to be curious. My parents supported my desire to explore. They took us to interesting places, such as castles and ruins. I spent a lot of time outside, playing in the woods - I'd just be gone for the day. My parents were both makers of things." His father made things of wood, and his mother could sew, knit, and cook. "She would draw and paint from time to time," he adds. "I marveled at this ability."

He remembers being allowed to play in the sitting room, an "off limits" room usually reserved for guests. There, he would run toy soldiers on "cable cars" that he made with empty spools and thread. "It was an amazing childhood, actually - it was safe, and if you had an imagination you had every opportunity to develop it."

When he was in third grade, Macaulay made a painting of a fire engine that earned the praise of his teacher. "That was the first time I had gotten any real feedback from anyone outside the family," he says.

Many years later, after his family moved to the United States, his curiosity led him to the Rhode Island School of Design, where he studied architecture - the art of designing buildings. It was a wonderful way to learn problem-solving, he says. "You learn how to take complicated things apart and put them back together," he says. That skill would be very useful later in his life.

But by his fourth year of college, he knew he didn't want to be an architect. "I really wanted to do something that was more personal," he says. So he tried a few different things. He taught art at a junior high school and worked in an interior design firm. He also started doing freelance illustrations.

Then, in 1972, he came up with an idea for a children's book he called "Etienne and the Gargoyles of Gaston." It was a story about how gargoyles come to life in a half-finished cathedral in old times.

An editor's timely suggestion

But when he showed sketches of the book to his editors, one of them said, "It looks to me that you want to tell us about the cathedral. Why don't you do that? Could that be the story?"

So, Macaulay went back to the drawing board.

Well, actually, he went to France.

There, he made drawings and took notes, and vol! his new book became a "visual how-to" of a Gothic cathedral.

"Cathedral" was his very first book.