Monday, November 12, 2012

Book Review: Three Children’s Books

Draw Me a House: A Book of Colouring in, Ideas and Architectural Inspiration by Thibaud Herem
Cicada Books, 2012
Paperback, 240 pages

A green home for Sophie and Henry by Andreas Ernstberger
DETAIL kids, 2012
Hardcover, 48 pages

Sky High by Germano Zullo, illustrated by Albertine
Chronicle Books, 2012
Hardcover, 48 pages

Raising a child means opening oneself up to the literature that caters to developing brains and bodies. There is a heck of a lot out there, especially if we take television, movies, and interactive education as well as books into account. Regardless, very little of this output touches directly upon the impact of design on the built environment. Amander Walter discovered two dozen books fitting into that mold (later expanded by three times)—two of which I've reviewed here—but that is a pretty dismal number when seen in the context of how many children's books are produced even in a given year. Architecture and related disciplines are ripe subjects for many more kid's books, especially in relation to the impact of building and cities on our futures. Here are but three books that might point the way forward.

Draw Me a House is a book that prompts kids to understand architectural form and function through drawing. It is somewhere between a coloring book and sketchbook because many of its pages are filled with drawings but a lot of them are blank, usually accompanied by provocations like, "Draw a green roof on this house," or "Draw a magnificent dog palace for this pampered pup." Thibaud Herem's hand drawings have just the right amount of detail (not too much to leave room for imagination, but enough to lend understanding of the different drawing types) and a good ink thickness for coloring.

My four-year-old daughter is a bit young for grasping its ideas, but I look forward to her using it someday as intended. My only quibble is that at 240 pages the book might have been better as a spiral binding, due to the two-page spreads where kids are encouraged to create a single drawing (the connect-the-dots Sydney Opera House is one example), which is hard to do in the fold without breaking the glued binding. Otherwise it's a great introduction to kids of various ages to draw what they see in the buildings around them, and to create new things from their imagination.

A green home for Sophie and Henry bills itself as "a short story about energy, carbon dioxide and architecture." It tells the story of Sophie, Henry and their dog, Sam, as they learn about energy, carbon dioxide, and how to build a green home. I'd guess the book is intended for kids of at least eight or ten years old, both in terms of the subject matter and the way the story is told. The writing is informative if a bit dry, but the drawings are wonderful, telling the story through long lines, patches of gray, and splashes of yellow. I love, for example, how a drawing of the earth (akin to the cover) illustrates the sun's rays hitting the oceans and sea creatures that over time turned into oil and gas, which is piped out of the ground into a flying airplane flown by Henry and Sam—just one story told on that spread. At each point of the story the information is clear and carefully drawn, aiding in understanding a simple yet profound message—the impact of too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and what to do about it. This sort of children's book should have been around when I was a kid, but nevertheless I'm glad it's here now for my daughter and the rest of her generation.

Sky High is a fantastical account of two neighbors that keep building their houses higher and higher, as if in a race with each other and the laws of nature—gravity, mainly. Flipping a page reveals a little bit more that has been added to the houses, each facing the other across the spread. Each element looks like it should exist by itself, rather than as part of a supertall tower. Therefore toward the end of the book each tower is completely absurd, both in its form and the construction required to keep building higher. The little bit of text that is keyed to the drawings is often humorous, such as the ever-changing "highest paid architects in the world" and the long description needed to direct the pizza delivery person from the ground to nearly 4,000 feet in the air.

The book's end is surely a commentary on humankind's current preoccupation with building taller, even as the neighbor's creations are as far removed from them formally as is possible. But it's a book that can be enjoyed outside of any connection to real-world parallels, particularly due to Albertine's whimsical illustrations. The tall-format of the book, reminiscent of a menu at a fancy restaurant, is a nice touch, making it something special that will stand out on a child's bookshelf.