Non-Fiction Monday: My Pop Up City Atlas by Jonathan Litton and Stephen Waterhouse

posted in: Jonathan Litton, Stephen Waterhouse | 6

pop up atlas 1The adage “Books can take you anywhere” is beautifully exemplified by My Pop-Up City Atlas by Jonathan Litton (@JonathanLitton) and Stephen Waterhouse (@SWIllustrator), a thrilling, whistle-stop tour through 70 cities around the world.

Using pop-ups and a whole host of paper-engineering whizzery to bring to life exotically coloured urban scenes from cities both well known and surprising, this book has given us the dream ticket to travel the globe from the comfort of our sofa and duvets.

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This book is no long, dry list of capital cities. In fact, it places locations together by type, creating interesting juxtapositions and taking you travelling via unexpected routes. For example you could travel London-Athens-Luxor-Xi’an-Dawson City (a historical cities tour), or Vatican City-Mecca-Varanasi-Salt Lake City (a religious cities tour). Perhaps Helsinki-San Fransico-Honolulu-Sydney-Cape Town (a coastal cities tour) is more your cup-of-tea. By grouping cities together by type the book explores answers to a question posed on its opening page, “Why do people live in cities?”, and what could have been a boring list of facts instead becomes a story with options and opportunities.

The 3-D city scapes are great fun, with lots of illustrative details partially hidden underneath and beside so that the views of the city are rich from which ever angle you look. We’ve enjoyed looking for photos which show the same city and seeing how closely the illustrations match real life; indeed I think the publishers, Templar, have missed a trick here in that they could have made this an internet-linked book (a little like many of Usborne’s non-fiction) as the facts and images have definitely left us hungry to find out more, amazed and intrigued by the facts and vistas inside this book’s covers.

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“Further reading” (online or in a suggested bibligraphy) could also have provided background to the various statements throughout the book which are stripped of any (in its broadest sense) political commentary; mention is made of the Aral Sea and how it has shrunk but the causes of this change are not even hinted at. Likewise it is noted that the Dalai Lama used to live in Lhasa without any indication of why this is no longer the case. Some (adult) readers may feel it is better to leave such things out, but I believe facts work best when they are contextualised and linked to a bigger narrative – precisely why I think the themed grouping of cities works so well in this book.

A well produced, engagingly presented, and exciting book, My Pop-Up City Atlas will make young readers curious and no-doubt spark some wanderlust, quite possibly in their parents as well!

There’s an interesting interview with the book’s illustrator, Stephen Waterhouse here, on Illustration Cloud.

After reading My Pop-Up City Atlas we too wanted our own city to pop up at home and decided the best way to go about this was to use building blocks. But to give things a twist we first put our plain wooden blocks in the oven!

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Once warm (about 10 minutes at 160C, starting from a cold oven), we illustrated our blocks with wax crayons, drawing windows, doors and other architectural features.

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The warmth of the wooden blocks made the wax melt ever so slightly, creating a lovely feeling when colouring the blocks, and also an interesting effect with the oily wax melting slightly into the wood. Whilst the blocks were warm, it was easy to work them simply by holding them in a dishcloth. If they cooled too much in the time it took for us to decorate them, we just put them back in the oven for a couple of minutes.

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Once our set of blocks was fully decorated, we laid down roads on the kitchen table, using masking tape…

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And then it was time to start building architectural gems!

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In no time at all an entire customised city had popped up in our kitchen. We used wooden blocks we already had (you quite often see them in charity shops), but I did order some more interesting shaped wooden pieces from Woodworks Craft Supplies (who also supply lovely wooden peg doll blanks).

Whilst decorating our blocks and building our city we listened to:

  • Istanbul (Not Constantinople) by They Might Be Giants (YouTube link)
  • Barcelona by Freddie Mercury (YouTube link)
  • Vienna by Ultravox (YouTube link)
  • London Calling by The Clash (YouTube link)
  • New York, New York by Frank Sinatra (YouTube link)
  • Viva Las Vegas by Elvis Presley (YouTube link)
  • Rotterdam or Anywhere” by The Beautiful South (YouTube link)
  • Jackson by Johnny Cash & June Carter (YouTube link)

  • Other activities which could work well alongside reading My Pop-Up City Atlas include:

  • Building your own city online. Here’s such an activity from the BBC on the Cbeebies website, whilst this site enables you to build a city and practise lots of maths skills at the same time .
  • Taking part in the Future City Competition (US only, unfortunately), a great cross-curriculum hands-on activity by the looks of it.
  • Creating an outdoor play city with bricks (here’s how we did it), creating a linocut city or paper city (here’s how we did it), or reading a range of picture books which focus on urbanisation (here’s my curated list of urban lanscapes over time in picture books).


  • What books and songs about cities do you and your family love?



    Disclosure: I received a free review copy of My Pop-Up City Atlas from the publishers.

    nonfiction.mondayEvery Monday is a celebration of all things non-fiction in the online children’s book world. If you’d like to read more reviews of children’s non-fiction books, do take a look at the dedicated children’s non-fiction blog: http://nonfictionmonday.wordpress.com/

    6 Responses

    1. […] If you want to see how this book influenced our play, or to get more creative ideas about how to bring this book to life at home or in the classroom, with activities and music, please visit Playing by the book. […]

    2. I love pop up books and this looks like a wonderful one. What great activities to go with it for kids. Your daughters architecture looks like it was lots of fun to do, especially since it looks like it was raining outside. Thanks for letting us know about this.
      Alex Baugh recently posted..The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin

    3. Pop-up books are sooooo fabulous! And this one looks over the top! And I love the city that you built! Thanks for sharing!!
      Rhythm recently posted..World Book Day

    4. […] And what activity to go along with a reading of this book? Well, pour out the blocks and build!! Zoe at Playing by the Book has a really cool idea for making your own building blocks. You can check it out HERE. […]

    5. Oh this looks a very exciting book and I love what your kids made
      Becky recently posted..A tight spot: 5 of the best pairs of tights for spring

    6. I especially love your soundtrack for this activity! Great ideas as ever. I never thought of warming the blocks. The end result reminds me a bit of the magical shell city in David Lucas’ Whale book. p.s. The book looks like a winner too.
      Mrs Brown’s Books recently posted..Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain by Edward Ardizzone

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