Stephen Biesty is amazed. The readers who like his "incredible cross sections" books the most "just can't get enough detail," he says.
This is quite astounding because Mr. Biesty (pronounced bee-YES-tee) might well be called "Mr. Detail." It is hard to imagine anyone making the detailed drawings he does.
Each of his pictures is packed with so many little things he has noticed, so many tiny pieces of information, events, and people (sometimes hundreds of them) that you can spend ages looking at them and still miss something. That's what makes his books so fascinating. And so popular: Millions of copies have been sold.
Biesty receives fan letters from all over the world. The writers tell him how much they enjoy his drawings. They ask him questions. And they suggest other things he might draw - though it's difficult to think of something he might draw that he hasn't drawn already. His latest book is "Stephen Biesty's Incredible Everything," and "everything" seems to be just about the right word for it.
This is a "how things are made" book. It has drawings of a Formula 1 racing car, a dinosaur skeleton, a picture showing how a chocolate bar is made, as well as nails and gunpowder, wigs and cathedrals, athletic shoes, bricks, soap, and pipe organs, coins, armor, suspension bridges, Boeing 777s, milk, matches, doughnuts, plywood, compact discs, and more.
It takes your breath away.
Three weeks per drawing
Biesty works at home in a typical English village. He has the patience and dedication of a medieval scribe illuminating manuscripts. Each drawing can take three weeks or more to finish. He makes one book a year. He is the master of the cross section.
It is not a new idea, to draw things with chunks taken out of their outsides so that you can see their insides. Biesty remembers seeing these sorts of drawings in a British comic book called The Eagle. Famous illustrator Lesley Ashwell Wood drew them. "I liked them because they were very bright and colorful," Biesty told me over lunch, "and very well drawn."
In his own drawings, Biesty does not always make his colors realistic. The idea is to use contrasting colors so that you can see the details clearly. And, his cross sections are much more complex than the simple sections Mr. Wood drew. For example, Biesty slices up an ocean liner as if it were a loaf of bread. Then he pulls out the thick slices so that you can see what is in each section. "Like a chest of drawers," he says.
Biesty also has made a book called "Incredible Explosions." Here, some of the cross sections look more like "explosions" - as if all the different parts of a traction engine or a space station have opened up and headed off in all directions at once. He calls this "deconstructing" things.
History has long been one of Biesty's main interests. Two of his books are historical. One is all about a medieval castle. Each page illustrates a different aspect of the castle and the lives of the people who lived in it. Another book is about an 18th-century man-of-war, or sail-powered battleship. He says that the children who write to him particularly like these historical books, and love things like ancient Egypt. (Note: The everyday details of life in the past - especially when combined with Biesty's sense of humor - may not always be to everyone's taste.)
Packed with details
Biesty and Richard Platt (who writes the text) put in lots of humorous touches and unusual facts you probably wouldn't find anywhere else. For instance, did you know that when a milk-truck driver arrives to collect milk from the farm, he smells the milk before pumping it up from the chilling tank? (To make sure it's not spoiled.) And do you know why doughnuts have holes? (So they can soak up more of the delicious oil in which they're fried.) Or that to make a compact disc they must first create a "father," then "mothers," and then "sons"?
Biesty's next book (due in September) is called "Incredible Body." You're going to have to be horribly interested in "insides" to enjoy that one, I suspect. I much prefer seeing what goes on inside coal mines or oil rigs.
I asked Biesty if he makes models first and then draws them. No. Everything is in his head! Even whole cities! And - most amazing - he never uses a ruler! Every line he draws is freehand. He uses nothing but paper, pen and ink, and watercolor paints. "All very simple, low-tech stuff," he points out.
But imagine the research he must do for even one of the illustrations! Today, since his books have become bestsellers, special researchers from his publisher provide him with information for his drawings. To make one of these books requires a team of editors and designers, the art director, the writer, the publisher, and, of course, Biesty.
He is a very modest man. But the fact is that without his truly "incredible" drawings, no team of experts could ever produce books like these. It is right that his name is in the title of all of them.
All were written by Richard Platt; all but one were published by DK Publishing.
Stephen Biesty's INCREDIBLE Cross-Sections
* The first of the Biesty books became a bestseller. Published by Alfred A. Knopf.
Stephen Biesty's Cross-Sections Man-of-War
* The ship is based on Adm. Horatio Nelson's 18th-century flagship, HMS Victory. (A 1994 CD-ROM, "Stowaway," based on this book, incorporates a game.)
Stephen Biesty's Cross-Sections Castle
* The reader is transported to a medieval castle under siege. (This was the basis of a 1996 CD-ROM, "Castle Explorer.")
Stephen Biesty's Incredible Pop-Up Cross-Sections
* More sections, with pull-tabs and more.
Stephen Biesty's Incredible Explosions
* An "exploded view" of something shows all its pieces separately but in the right sequence and relationship. Biesty "explodes" everything from a steam tractor to the Grand Canyon.
Stephen Biesty's Incredible Everything
* A visual mini-encyclopedia shows how skyscrapers, mummies, photocopies, and more are made.