I have a problem.
And it isn’t going away.
It’s alright – I don’t particularly wish to be cured, but I do need to talk about it…
I’m not quite sure how it started. Perhaps it was when I realised that I’ve lived in my present home longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere else before (6 years this summer).
Perhaps it was when I first stumbled on this collection of “then and now” photos from cities around the world.
Or maybe it all started with Die Straße: Eine Bilderreise durch 100 Jahre (The Street: A visual journey through 100 years) by Christa Holtei and Gerda Raidt. Little did I know how one single book purchase would lead me so wildly astray.
Die Straße is a beautiful outsized picture book, predominantly filled with wordless spreads showing the interior of the same building looking over the same streets somewhere in Germany every 10-15 years throughout the 20th century. There is no narrative and there are hundreds of narratives. You see the rise of the National Socialist Party, the aftermath of the bombing of the city, the peace movement protesting in the 1970s, up to a modern scene which included recognisable IKEA furniture! Whilst the book is worth getting for the illustrations alone, the second half of the book includes an illustrated commentary (in German) on how different aspects of life have changed over the 20th century, including children’s toys and school, occupations and work, transport and communication. Absorbing, fascinating, thoughtprovoking – a must-have in any German or History department at school, but also very much worth having if you have ever built a lego or playmobil city with your kids and are looking for a gorgeous, slightly different book to talk with them about history.
I then saw A Street Through Time, illustrated by Steve Noon and written by Anne Millard in my local bookshop and my fingers started doing that itchy thing. My eyes started doing that gulping-down-in-delight thing. Yep, it started with one book, but now it was two.
A Street Through Time takes one view of a river and hill somewhere in England and shows how it (could have) developed over 12,000 years. The first double page spread shows stone age hunters, ending with the same view in the late 20th/early 21st century. Each scene is accompanied by a paragraph on notable aspects of that period of history, and the illustrations are framed by a short text pointing out specific objects/people to look out for (such as the flint worker in the Stone Age period, or the jumbo jet in the final illustration). Hidden somewhere on every page is Henry Hyde, a time traveller and in searching for Henry kids and adults alike will stumble across lots of other fascinating details. Like Die Straße, A Street Through Time is a book you can return to time and time again to discover new details, unravel new stories and do what books so well – be utterly transported to other times and places.
They say a trickle can often turn into a flood in full flow. In my case it was more like one brick soon turned into a building frenzy. Next I discovered Popville by Anouck Boisrobert and Louis Rigaud. I pretend I buy books for my kids, but really, when I find books like this one, I have to admit I want to keep them all for myself.
Watch the video to see the magic of this book literally unfold and build up before your eyes!
Entirely wordless this book is stunning in its elegance and apparent simplicity. It’s a work of art, and although not detailed in the same way as A Street Through Time and Die Straße it’s a gorgeously creative addition to any collection of books looking at how cities and landscapes can change over time.
So. Three books in and then things really got out of control. Brown packages (oh so discreet) have been arriving for several weeks now, filled with books that really have some sort of magical control over me. There’s been The House by Roberto Innocenti and J Patrick Lewis (set in Italy), Whale Port by Mark Foster and Gerald Foster (set in North America), My Place by Nadia Wheatley and Donna Rawlins (set in Australia), and The Changing Countryside by Jorg Muller (set in Switzerland).
What these books all have in common is that they show how a landscape changes over time, with a particular focus on urban settings, either towns/cities developing through history, or rural landscapes changing into urban ones. All of them pack history, social commentary, architectural design and fashion into a series of generally very detailed illustrations. Always present, sometimes explicit, sometimes only implied, there are also questions about the interaction between humans and the landscape around them, between people – strangers and family – and how their relationships develop over time.
These are books you’ll want to look at time and time again, always returning to find new details. I’m sure they will make you look afresh at your own home, street, and town and wonder how it has changed over the years. Each of these books is worth the cover price and more in my opinion. Treat yourself to them but be aware of the health warning I’m applying to them: You too may develop the same incurable problem I have!
Apart from simply luxuriating in these books, holding them in my lap, watching time unfurl before me, I’ve also been busy making a small urban playset for the girls. Using fimo I’ve been making tiny houses for them to make their own landscapes with (inspired by one of my favourite toys when I was a child – a wooden set of buildings, not unlike this one).
As a homage to these books about urbanisation, I made my first ever film using the fimo mini-houses. It’s a little rough around the edges (for example, there is no sound) but I hope you’ll enjoy it:
There are quite a few more books I have my eye on (purely from a medicinal point of view, you understand, to help me manage my addiction…):
Huge thanks to Angela Soutar, Perry Nodelman, Claudia M. Reder, Sarah Blake Johnson, Jennifer Groff, Greg Leitich Smith, Claudia Pearson, Tina Hanlon, Virginia Lowe, DAJ, Waller Hastings, Barbara Fisher, Gutter Bookshop Dublin, Hege Elkenes Randen, Holly Thompson, Tarie Sabido, Jan Tappan, Kathy Piehl (especially for sending me a copy of her article “Changing the Human Landscape in Picture Books”, The New Advocate, Vol.4 No. 4, Fall 1991), Maria Cristina Thomson, Jane Stemp Wickenden and all the folk on Rutgers Child Lit list and the Jiscmail list for Children’s Literature for helping me find such great books.
Many of the books I’ve mentioned today would probably be found in the nonfiction section of the library, so I’m linking up with Nonfiction Monday. This week’s host is Apple with Many Seeds. Do click on through to see what other books are included in this week’s celebration of children’s nonfiction books.