Critical Context

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.