Childrens books for future designers and planners

Mo Willems’ depiction of Trixie going “boneless”

I have two kids, ages almost 6 and 3, and while they love reading books, I enjoy reading their books as much if not more than they do.  I love the nostalgia and silliness of Dr. Seuss and Roald Dahl and the clever stories and terms that Mo Willems churns. The way my kids respond to books has shown me the power within their pages. One book can spark a new interest that lasts days, months – even years. One book can lead to the insistence that we read tens more on the same topic.

So naturally, I try to select books on topics that are also interesting to me (after all, I’m equally invested in reading these). This prompted an unofficial research project on children’s books about the built environment. With the exception of the immense stock of books about construction, trucks, trains and planes, there are relatively few stories about the professions and interests of the designers and planners or about the shape and functions of cities, buildings, communities, neighborhoods and parks themselves.

However disappointed I was by the brevity of my list, books like Iggy Peck, Architect by Andrea Beaty and The Little House by Virginia Burton have been inducted into our nightly favorites. (You can find my assuredly incomplete list of children’s books on landscape, architecture, planning and otherwise urban-related topics at the end of this post.)

A story about a talented little boy who builds architecture out of everything from chalk to dirty diapers.

What is curious about this short list is that designers and planners love to publish books – but often these books are more effective as marketing tools for their services than as revenue generators from their royalties. Michael Crosbie, FAIA, who is currently the associate dean, architecture department chair, and associate professor at the University of Hartford and also edits Faith & Form magazine, has written more than 20 books on architecture. Five of these are specifically for children. Michael wrote a series of children’s book published by Wiley in 1993: Architecture Counts, Architecture Colors, Architecture Shapes, and Architecture Animals; in 2000 he wrote Arches to Zigzags which was published by Abrams. “The Wiley books have sold more than 120,000 copies, and continue to sell well nearly 20 years after publication, so they have by far been the most popular books I’ve ever written,” Michael says.

A little boy nurtures a few weeds on an old elevated railway. The weeds eventually take over the whole city.

Watching my kids get excited by their books reminds me that I “discovered” the design and planning professions well after I established my career. Perhaps if I had read The Curious Garden by Peter Brown when I was five years old, I may have studied landscape architecture instead. From loosely polling my landscape, architecture, planner, urban designer friends, I’ve noticed that most of them chose their profession because they had a parent, uncle, aunt or family friend that was in a related profession. If this is how young people are still being recruited into studying design and planning, it’s no wonder why these fields suffer from a lack of diversity.

This is a missed opportunity! A children’s book that can be found in a public library can transcend races, genders, economic classes and cultures. What’s the literary legacy you’d prefer, a silly picture book about a personal learning experience that inspired a little girl to pursue your vocation or the coffee table monograph that you’ll give to your clients?

Children’s Books Relating to Design or Planning of the Built Environment

(Did I leave one of your favorites off? Please comment with title and author and I’ll add it.)

  1. 13 Buildings Children Should Know (Hardcover) (2009)
    by Annette Roeder
    ISBN-10: 3791341715

    Building Big (Paperback) (2004)
    by David Macaulay
    ISBN-10: 0618465278

    Great Building Stories of the Past (Hardcover) (2002)
    by Peter Kent (Author)
    ISBN-10: 0195218469

    The Picture History of Great Buildings (Hardcover) (2008)
    by Gillian Clements (Author)
    ISBN-10: 1845074882

  2. I did not author this list, but kept since I first discovered it since the late 1990s.


    BookPage, 1992
    In fifth grade my architect husband had an assignment to draw a floor plan of his family’s house. He cites this project as the beginning of his certainty about career choice. I have always wondered at the mystery of his drawings and how he can dream and create in three dimensions. My son has always shared his father’s passion and the number of children’s books to support a love of design and building have grown steadily in the last several years. They even begin with books for a very young child. In Building a House, Byron Barton, an author-illustrator who specializes in simplicity, takes a young child through every phase of construction from bare hill to moving in. As with most of his books, the bright primary-colored art has background easily separated from foreground and clear details that make it easy for a young construction enthusiast to identify materials and tools. Ages 2-5. (Mulberry Books, $4.95) ISBN 0-688-09356-6

    For a child who is still young, but wants a more complete picture of the process, non-fiction-pro Gail Gibbons creates How A House is Built. She begins with an architect’s role and on a cheerful double-spread introduces all the people (male and female) that will be necessary to the completion of the project. Gibbons then details out all the work with words and illustrations that vary in perspectives, interior and exterior work, but all with an ebulence that will match the excitement of an interested. Ages 4-6. (Holiday House, $13.95) ISBN 0-8234-0841-8

    I nearly flunked geometry and have a hard time imagining what pictured architecture feels like. Castles: A 3-Dimensional Exploration by Gillian Osband and Robert Andrew is the kind of book that can get you beyond words and images and into experiencing. As giant structures pop-up from the pages, history, medieval life and architectural development all come to life. Ages 5-10. (Orchard, $15.95) ISBN 0-531-05949-9

    Kids generally have self as focus and therefore two books that relate architecture to themselves are helpful for understanding concepts. ForrestWilson’s What It Feels Like To Be A Building describes the functions of various constructions to analagous human conditions in both text and illustration. He presents, for example, a compressed human figure to describe how it feels to be a column “squashed” between ground and building. Concepts grow increasingly more complex throughout the book. This book is fun to act out which is what Mr. Wilson does in his workshops with kids. Ages 5-10. (Preservation Press, $10.95) ISBN 0-89133-147-6

    Older children interested in architectural artistry will enjoy Round Buildings, Square Buildings, & Buildings That Wiggle Like a Fish by Philip M. Isaacson. The magnificent color photographs are taken from all perspectives and reveal not only well-known architectural monuments of the world, but lesser recognized structures as well. With a humanistic approach, Isaacson captures the magic of the harmony of a building gives a sense of how buildings go together and effect people through light and the feelings they create. Ages 7-adult. (Knopf, $14.95) ISBN 0-394-89382-4

    When children are older they begin to want more specifics. Architects Make Zigzags: Looking at Architecture from A to Z with drawings by Roxie Munro is an alphabetic look at many details that put the art in architecutre. The writing is as clear and direct as Munro’s black and white drawings. The details are representative of a wide variety of styles (everything from brackets to quoins) and geographic locations of well-known buildings (everywhere from Michigan to Lousiana). Ages 6-11. (National Historic Trust for Historic Preservation, $9.95)

    David Macaulay is an author-illustrator whose name has become synomomous with animated presentation of architecture for children that adults enjoy as well. His books are filled with detailed black and white drawings that bring alive architectural history of specific buildings, reveal tools, methods, and workmanship which led to achievements, and describe step-by-step the process and workings of buildings. His award-winning books include Cathedral Ages 7 to adult. (Houghton Mifflin, $7.95) ISBN 0-395-31668-5

    McCauley’s tongue and cheek Motel of the Mysteries was published about the time the King Tut exhibit was making its rounds. In this fictional piece, a modern day motel is unearthed in the next century with a mock seriousness that is truely Tut-mania inspired.

    The magic of architecture is the stuff for stories too and has been for as long as building has existed. Mary Stolz imagines the vision of the man who created the Great Sphinx in Zekmet: The Stone Carver. When Khafre, the Pharoh charges his vizier with the creation of a monument that will outlive his greatness, the vizier is perplexed, until the peasant Zekmet promises to design just such a monument. Zekmet, himself, stunned by the task, goes into the desert to draw inspiration from the gods. It is there that he sees a magnificent lion that leads him to design the monumental structure we know today. Illustrations by Egyptologist Deborah Lattimore are a tribute to the Egyptian colors, forms and symbols. Ages 5-8. (HBJ, $13.95) ISBN 0-15-299961-2

    For Reviva Schermbrucker’s hero in Charlie’s House, designing is a way out of the poverty of his corrugated iron and scrap home in Guguletu. Charlie Mogotsi escapes a world of leaking roofs and cement floors by dreaming and building a house of mud and scraps that would afford him and his family comfort and privacy. Niki Daly’s paintings are largely monochromatic, except for the vivid splashes of colors that accent the brillance of Charlie’s fantasies and the warmth of his home. Ages 4-8. (Viking, $13.95) ISBN0-670-84024-6

    Rizzoli is a publisher that is known for its excellence in publishing fine architectural books. Now they enter the children’s book field with four new books by noted architects John Hejduk, Charles Moore, Stanley Tigerman and Robert A.M. Stern. Stern’s The House that Bob Built is modeled after the famous classic rhyme and shows a small bear touring through a beautifully designed home that is full of light and grace and the careful detailing that has made Stern’s architecture popular. The book also reflects the differences of living spaces within one home and how they function to support the family that lives within its walls. This book is guaranteed to make you dream about spaces you’d love to live in. Ages 4-adult) (Rizzoli, ) ISBN 0-8478-1369-x

    Charles Moore, famous world-wide for his architecture of fantasy and imaginations finds a perfect vehicle in his illustrations for Beauty and the Beast. Never has the Beast lived in such a splendid dream-like palace. Ages 6-adult. (Rizzoli, )ISBN 0-8478-1368-1

    Just to interject a note to humble us all, the greatest designers in the world are animal architects. If you weren’t convinced of this before, you will be after reading Bruce Brooks’ Nature By Design. I must confess that I am not a non-fiction buff and find that a true story must be special to draw me into its mystery. Bruce Brooks’ style is what works for me. His is the first personal non-fiction book I’ve ever read. He begins by describing how he became captured by his subject and then proceeds to capture the reader with his multi-facet viewpoints. He expresses how he, like other humans, has been awe-struck by animal creations, but he urges that we allow ourselves to enter the animal’s own view of reality. In truth, this may produce in humans a whole new kind of awe when we imagine how it must feel for a spider to spin out its own building material and then to spring from strand to strand. Brooks knows how to communicate wonder whether it be in image, alnalogy or empathetic experiencing. Ages 7-12. (Farrar, $13.95) ISBN 0-374-30334-7
    ©Susie Wilde 1998

  3. One more list that I compiled for my book, Becoming an Architect, 2nd ed. (Wiley, 2010). There is some overlap with your list above.

    Selected Books on Architecture for Children

    Architects Make Zigzags: Looking at Architecture A to Z by Diane Maddox (ISBN: 047114357X)
    Discover America’s Famous Architects by Patricia Browne Glenn (ISBN: 0471143545)
    Draw 50 Buildings and Other Structures by Lee J. Ames (ISBN: 0385417772)
    Frank Lloyd Wright for Kids: His Life and Ideas by Kathleen Thorne-Thomsen (ISBN: 155652207X)
    Houses and Homes by Ann Morris (ISBN: 0688135781)
    Housebuilding for Children by Les Walker (ISBN: 0879513322)
    How a House Is Built by Gail Gibbons (ISBN: 0823412326)
    Iggy Peck, Architect by Andrea Beaty & illustrated by David Roberts (ISBN: 081091106X)
    Math in the Real World of Architecture by Shirley Cook (ISBN: 0865303428)
    Round Buildings, Square Buildings, and Buildings That Wiggle. by Phillip M. Isaacson (ISBN: 0394893824)
    The Architecture Pack by Ron Van Der Meer (ISBN: 0679431004)
    Under Every Roof by Patricia Brown Glenn (ISBN: 0471144282)

  4. Kylie Ridler said:

    McFig & McFly : a tale of jealousy, revenge, and death (with a happy ending) – Drescher, Henrik.
    Sky High – Zullo, Germano.
    A day with the animal builders – Rentta, Sharon
    Imagine a city – Hurst, Elise

    Thank you for sharing your work.

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