By telling the story of an imaginary city rather than chronicling the history of a real one, Macaulay has freed himself from the constraints of historical truth. This freedom has two advantages. First, it enables him to make Verbonia more typical than any particular Roman city and thereby to make his story of the construction more comprehensive. Second, it allows him to ignore the historical details of “who,” “where,” “when,” and “why” and concentrate on what truly interests him, namely, how these cities were built. In telling the story of Verbonia’s construction, Macaulay does not limit himself to the phases of construction but presents each individual step in detail. When he writes, for example, that Verbonia was laid out like a chessboard, he explains the use of a groma, a forerunner of modern surveying instruments, with which the builders made sure that the streets met at right angles and walls were raised perpendicular to the ground. When he relates the building of the permanent bridge, he shows in several cross-sections how the builders were able to anchor the bridge piers underwater. When he describes the vaulting of the city gates, he demonstrates in a series of diagrams how wedge-shaped stones were cut with such precision as to form an arch and how this arch was kept aloft until the keystone could be inserted.
While Macaulay’s thorough research of these construction processes is impressive in its own right, his real...
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City is the second book in Macaulay’s architectural series that began with Cathedral: The Story of Its Construction (1973) and includes, among others, Pyramid (1975) and Castle (1977). Almost all the books in this series have won prestigious awards in the United States and elsewhere, and several have been animated and adapted for television. Although Macaulay has written and illustrated a number of storybooks as well, most notably the Caldecott winner Black and White (1990), it is his architectural series that first established him in children’s book publishing worldwide.
Moreover, the series marks a turning point in the history of children’s picture books. The immediate success of Cathedral and City showed children’s book publishers that black-and-white illustrations in picture books were not the risk that they had generally been deemed, an insight soon reinforced by the award-winning and commercially successful picture books by Chris Van Allsburg. More important, however, the success of the entire series helped prepare the way for a new generation of visually appealing information books on subjects previously believed to be too sophisticated for young readers. Examples of this new type of nonfiction book, which emerged in the 1980’s and 1990’s, are the many Eyewitness publications, distinguished for their close-up photography; Stephen Biesty’s Incredible Cross-Sections, showing buildings and vehicles; and Macaulay’s The Way Things Work (1988), subtitled A Visual Guide to the World of Machines.
In an interview for Contemporary Authors (1991), Macaulay explained the origin of his fascination with construction and technology: “I grew up in a time when it was still possible to see cause and effect, see how things worked. . . . It’s not just pressing a button somewhere and magically something else occurs.” In the age of microtechnology, in which visible effects have invisible causes, a book such as City not only enables its readers to comprehend these particular architectural feats but also gives them confidence in their ability to comprehend other forms of technology, for nothing built by humans is beyond human comprehension.