Urban Landscapes – picture books about changes over time

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.

Excerpt from an illustration in Die Straße - 1911. Image copyright - Gerda Raidt
Excerpt from an illustration in Die Straße - 1933. Image copyright - Gerda Raidt

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.

Excerpt of illustrations from A Street Through Time in the 1600s (left) and early 1800s (right). Image copyright: Steve Noon

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).

The House - 1905. Image copyright: J. Patrick Lewis
The House - 1905. Image copyright: J. Patrick Lewis
Whaleport - illustration for 1770. Image copyright: Gerald Foster
Whaleport - illustration for 1880. Image copyright: Gerald Foster

My Place - 1988. Image copyright: Donna Rawlins
My Place - 1918. Image copyright: Donna Rawlins
The Changing Countryside - 1953. Image copyright: Jorg Muller
The Changing Countryside - 1969. Image copyright: Jorg Muller

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…):

  • Peter Kent’s city across time by Peter Kent
  • Window by Jeannie Baker
  • Belonging by Jeannie Baker
  • The Story of an English village by John S Goodall
  • The story of a castle by John S Goodall
  • Great days of a country house by John S Goodall
  • The story of a farm by John S Goodall
  • A City Through Time by Philip Steele and Steve Noon
  • After the War by Bob Kerr
  • The House that Jack built by Gavin Bishop
  • The Little House by Virgina Lee Burton
  • Then and Now by Heather Amery
  • Out of the Way! Out of the Way! by Uma Krishnaswami
  • Who Came Down That Road? by George Ella Lyon, illustrated by Peter Catalanotto.
  • Changing City by Jorg Muller
  • On This Spot: An Expedition Back Through Time by Susan Goodman, illustrated by Lee Christiansen
  • Adam and Paradise Island by Charles Keeping
  • The Rabbits by John Marsden, illustrated by Shaun Tan

  • 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.

    42 Responses

    1. Christine Mosler

      Love these! We have A Street Through Time which I bought ‘for my big kids’a while ago,I see one or two more here which may ‘need’ to be bought! Your animation is fab!
      Christine Mosler recently posted..Silent Sunday

      • Zoe

        Hello Christine, ahh… if you’re a pop up book fan then you must get Popville – so beautiful and clever. If illustration is really your thing, then perhaps I’d go for The House – just SO GORGEOUS. If you want to learn lot so new things and be fascinated by a small bit of history then go for Whale Port – it’s packed with astonishing details (and quite a bit of new vocabulary for me! – all specialist stuff to do with fishing and whaling).

    2. Polly

      Filmmaker! another string to your bow. Coveting Popville and Die Strasse- could one still appreciate the latter without a word of German (it looks so)? Do you know classic ‘The Little House’ by Virginia Lee Burton? Rather an anti-urbanisation tale but beautifully told.
      Polly recently posted..Mary Plain diversions

      • Zoe

        Hi Polly, I haven’t managed yet to get a copy of The Little House, though it is on my list of books to get in this post. I’ve heard lots of interesting things about it, so good to have you confirm that. Yes, Die Strasse is great even without any German in my opinion – yes, the pages at the back won’t be accessible (where there is commentary on different topics), but the illustrations in the first half of the book stand on their own.

    3. sophie

      Dear Zoe,

      These books (“Die Straße” and “A Street Through Time”) are great. I had never seen the collection in which “A Street Through Time” is and I have found many like it at the library (thanks libraries) about a city, egypt, a harbour… They are really fantastic. You asked me if I knew such french books and I did not really know any but I have seen one at the library (again) and it’s “Comment c’était avant” by Dupuy and Berberian (usually know for their comics, in France). It’s a bit like “Die Straße” but in Paris, and I think It’s not as good.
      I should try Popville on Armel now he is older: I think this type of books is sometimes better for adults and not for small children at all. Armel is working on houses at school, and it could be just the right moment.

      • Zoe

        Ruth, thanks for reminding me of the Macaulay books – we have the castle one. I’m interested to hear your 4 yo is enjoy them – I would have said they were aimed at late primary school kids (at least the version I have is pretty text rich), and the black and white illustrations don’t look so jazzy compared to the illustration diet many kids are used to nowadays, though I think they are very “solid” books.

    4. Ali B

      I LOVE A Street Through Time! I’m a big fan of Dorling KIndersley’s books; I think the quality of the illustrations is consistently high, and I love cross sections! I used them a lot as a teacher. I’ll certainly look out for the other ones, and your animation was fab!
      Ali B recently posted..A Face Like Glass- Frances Hardinge

      • Zoe

        Couldn’t agree with you more Ali, DK books are consistently high quality I think. We really like their photo-based reference books.

    5. Stacey

      What a fun collection. I love that they are all new titles for me- I haven’t caught this bug- yet 🙂 And I’m super impressed with your film! Bravo!!
      Stacey recently posted..Taking My Own Medicine

      • Zoe

        Hi Stacey, quite a few of the titles are N American so they should be easy for you to get hold of. Glad you liked the film1

      • Zoe

        Oh great Choxbox – that looks interesting indeed. One to add to the list!

    6. sandhya

      Lovely! We have a similar book on Beijing. Right from prehistory to today’s city. A picture book with lots of little details and notes on the margins.

      As I was reading the post, I was suddenly reminded of Daphne du Maurier’s ‘House on the Strand’. It contains a lot of time travel by the protagonist between present day and the early 1100s. It is a very eerie book that gets under your skin, and stays with you for a long time. Nothing to do with children’s literature, of course, but couldn’t help mention it. The end really gets to you. I couldn’t shake off the unease for a long time. A wonderfully written book. There is another book by her called ‘Castle Dor’ which is equally irresistible.
      sandhya recently posted..Happy Birthday, A !

      • Zoe

        ooh Sandhya, can you let me know the details of the Beijing book please? I’d really love to see it. I haven’t read House on the Strand, but you make me want to!

    7. Mrs Brown

      Popville is such a quietly beautiful book. It reminds a bit of that lovely book by Andy Warhol: Ten Lizes – one of the best children’s books I’ve seen about creating art – another title that’s a mini work of art in its own rite. Thanks!
      Mrs Brown recently posted..Little Mouse’s Big Secret by Éric Battut

    8. choxbox

      The Beijing book is one of a series – we have that one as well one on Rome. They are Usborne books I think – am I right Sandhya? Will dig the books out and snd you details if I can too.

      • Zoe

        yes please Choxbox, the only relevant-ish Usborne book i can find is See inside famous buildings….

      • Zoe

        Hi Fred, I LOVE the clip you link to! Off now to watch all the other clips…

    9. Myra from GatheringBooks

      Oooh! I likey-like this post! I have a copy of “My Place” but I haven’t read through it yet. Now, you make me want to go home and find it in my sagging bookshelves and READ it, finally! Haha. As I was reading through this post, I was reminded of the question you asked about twitter quite awhile back, this has something to do with that, right? And yes, Jeannie Baker’s Window and Home/Belonging come to mind. 🙂 I just love wordless picture books. 🙂
      Myra from GatheringBooks recently posted..March AWB Reviews

      • Zoe

        Hi Myra, yes you’re right… this post is a part summation of all my tweeting and researching some weeks back. I like My Place as it goes “backwards” rather than forwards in time. Most “changing over time” books seem to go from older times to newer times, but not so with My Place.

    10. Sam

      I haven’t read any of these books but they look stunning, particularly Die Strabe (apologies for the lack of German letter!). Your video is impressive too – must look into that. Thanks for bringing some unusual but lovely titles to our attention.
      Sam recently posted..Technophobes: us?

    11. Jen

      Oh this is awesome! I have been waiting for this post and it surpassed my hopes!

      So glad you have an expensive addiction too. 😉 More than half of my kids books are for me!
      Jen recently posted..Plant a Little Seed

    12. Tammy Flanders

      Wow! Thanks for such a great list. You included many titles I’m familiar with but included several that are new to me. I’m going to look for Popville and Die Strabe for the Doucette Library collection.
      Thanks for such a great posting for this week’s Nonfiction Monday Event.
      Apples with Many Seeds

    13. choxbox

      Here you are, dug them out. All by Richard Platt:
      London Through Time
      Pompeii Through Time
      Beijing through Time

      All three of these are totally awesome. You can spend hours gaping at the little details.

      And yet another is Peter Kent’s A City Across Time. Also a fantastic book, the details are truly, well, detailed.

    14. choxbox

      The Rome one is by usborne I think – cannot find it, it has got lost in the black hole of ur bookshelves.

      Also Zoe, your post has set me thinking – there are no such books on Indian cities. Given the mad pace of change I think we can do A City Across Ten Years or some such for Bangalore and it will be a really fat one!
      The only one close enough is by Tulika Books – called Out of the Way! Out of the Way!

    15. Rainbow Prams

      I’ve had to share this as it has sparked off thoughts too! I’m now starting to think of doing a similar little project! Thanks x

    16. Kerry Aradhya

      Hi, Zoe. What a fascinating post! My husband grew up in India, and even before we were married I remember him telling me how much it had changed every time he went back. How neat to find so many picture books that show changes and potential changes over time! (By the way, I also “pretend” to buy picture books for my kids sometimes and then struggle over which bookshelf they should go on–mine or theirs 🙂
      Kerry Aradhya recently posted..Read & Romp Roundup — May 2012

    17. Angela

      ‘The House that Jack built ‘ – a chronicling of pre-colonial to modern day in New Zealand – was republished in larger format in 2012 and looks even more impressive.

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