A Master of Detail and Whimsy

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Now, 25 years later, Macaulay is known all over the world. His books have sold more than 2 million copies in the United States and have been translated into a dozen languages. He has shown young people and adults cities, pyramids, castles, ships, and more. One of his less architecturally minded books is "Black and White," which won the Caldecott Medal, the highest honor a children's picture book can win.

When he creates a book, I ask, does he think about what kids might like, or is it "just you?"

"Oh, it's just me," Macaulay says. "If I stop to think, I'm sure I could give you a list of things kids like, but they're all things I like, which is the only way I could put the list together in the first place." So he's like a big kid, I say to myself. (I'm too shy to say it to Mr. Macaulay.)

When he gets letters from kids, they usually tell him their favorite books. But most of all, they pick up the little things hidden in the drawings - the alligator in "Underground" or King Kong's hand in "Unbuilding."

"That's precisely why I put them there," Macaulay says. "If they're finding those little things, then they're probably also finding the big things." Plus, if you read the books over again, you deserve to be rewarded with new little discoveries, he says. He puts such surprises in places where you won't see them the first time through.

The point of view in his pictures can also be a surprise. A drawing may have you looking straight up the side of a building or straight down from up in the air. Sometimes you may have to turn a book upside down to see things.

Revising 'The Way Things Work'

Macaulay says he has about five projects going on all at once. Today he is working on revisions for his enormously popular book "The Way Things Work," which celebrates its 10th anniversary next year. "There are a few corrections we need to make," he says, "and we also want to add a new section on digital stuff ... and give it more punch."

As for "Rome Antics," he says he doesn't expect people to be so inspired by it that they jet off to Rome, but he hopes the book will encourage young people and adults to explore whatever city they live in or visit.

"Look around you," he suggests. "Don't take anything for granted. Just take an extra moment to appreciate it. Whether it's a high-rise building or a cathedral, it is an incredible engineering feat. It may look complicated, but you are capable of understanding it if somebody simply bothers to explain it to you in a way that not only is clear to you but engages you."

How Macaulay Writes His Books

Each book is different, says David Macaulay, but they all come about in a similar way. First, he gets an idea. Then he does research. The research involves reading and traveling (he even went to Egypt for "Pyramid"). As he researches, he writes and draws in his sketchbooks, trying out ways to present the ideas he's discovering.

"I don't separate the writing from the picturemaking," he says. "You'll say things in your text that could be more efficiently, dramatically, or clearly communicated through a drawing.

"I like to see two things develop simultaneously. What you end up with is a real picture book, where words and pictures feed off each other."

Here are his books, all published by Houghton Mifflin:

Cathedral (1973)

City (1974)

Pyramid (1975)

Underground (1976)

Castle (1977)

Great moments in Architecture (1978)

Motel of the Mysteries (1979)

Unbuilding (1980)

Mill (1983)

BAAA (1985)

Why the Chicken Crossed the Road (1987)

The Way Things Work (1988)

Black and White (1990)

Ship (1993)

Shortcut (1995)

Rome Antics (1997)

Coming in 1998:

The Way Things Work (10th anniversary edition, revised)

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