Thursday, October 4, 2012

Cross-section books and why boys love them

Cross section books have been around for some time, but there is no doubt that the illustrative masters of this genre for children are Stephen Biesty and David Macauley.  Biesty has worked as a freelance illustrator since 1985, creating information books for adults and children. He lives in a small Somerset village with his wife and son.

His first major success came in the 1990s with his best-selling 'Incredible Cross-Sections' (published by Dorling Kindersley). This book has sold over 3.5 million copies and has been published in 16 languages. He has won a number of awards for his work including the 'The New York Times Best Illustrated Book Award' in 1993, and 'The UK Literacy Association Children's Book Award' in 2004 and again in 2012 for his latest book 'Into the Unknown'.

Another wonderful exponent of this genre is David Macaulay. His books include  'The Way Things Work', 'Castle' and 'The Way We Work', are other excellent examples in this genre. He is a British-born American author and illustrator. Now a resident of Norwich, Vermont, United States, he was educated at the Rhode Island School of Design.

His numerous awards include the Caldecott Medal, won for his book 'Black and White' in 1991, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for 'The Way Things Work' in 1989, and the MacArthur Fellows Program award in 2006.

Why do children love these books?

I want to illustrate why these books work using Stephen Biesty's most recent book 'Into the Unknown' (2011). The text was written by Stewart Ross and was published by Walker Books. It is one of my favourite books of this type. The book is a wonderful collection of stories and cross sections of 14 'Amazing Journeys'. The journeys include the epic travels of Marco Polo down the Silk Road to China in 1271-1274, David Livingstone exploring the Zambesi in 1858-1864, Captain Cook mapping Australia and the Pacific in 1768-1771, Umberto Nobile flying over the North Pole in 1928, Jacques Piccard's travels to the top of the Stratosphere by balloon in 1932 and then by submarine to a depth of almost 11,000 metres in the ocean in 1960. It is suited to boys (and some girls) aged 7-14 years.

As a child I loved books with cross-sections, maps and detailed diagrams or drawings - bodies, buildings, vehicles, the Earths' crust, mummies and so on.

There is something about a good cross section or diagram that got my brain whirring as a child and still does. And the same thing seems to happen for many boys.  Why? I think there are a bunch of reasons:

Cross sections teach you things - A cross section of a mountaineer's clothing and equipment offers an immediate sense that climbing Mount Everest must be VERY cold, heightening the sense of this amazing achievement. Seeing Biesty's drawings of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on their first ascent of Mount Everest in 1953 helps to make concrete the reality of their experience.

Cross sections and diagrams offer a better sense of size, quantity and significance - You can read about the famous crossing of the Indian Ocean by Chinese Admiral Zheng He in 1405-1407, but understanding the shear scale of his 'Treasure Fleet' becomes a jaw dropper when Biesty's fold out drawing of the largest fleet ever sailed by a single commander is revealed. Seeing 62 nine-masted treasure ships, 47 eight-masted horse ships, 48 seven-masted supply ships, 60 five-masted cannon carrying warships, 40 patrol boats and 20 water tankers helps you to visualize the shear scale and wonder of this phenomenon.

Cross sections stir the imagination - They encourage children to come up with their own ideas and to represent the learning that has been stimulated in new ways. After reading this book with one of my grandchildren aged nine, he raced off to find some cardboard to make up his own board game of the Hillary & Norgay ascent of Everest. We then had to play it and 'relive' the journey through the game. It had many novel elements. For example, if you failed to land on the spot where you received a critical rope, you were doomed not to make the descent safely. Spontaneous child-initiated activities of this type enrich the experience of the book, stimulate the imagination and reinforce learning.

Cross section books encourage boys (in particular) to revisit - A good cross section book will be looked at time and time again, and each time it will fire the imagination and increase the desire to learn once again. Even at my age, I never tire of revisiting diagrammatic representations of Apollo 11 and the first moon landing. The experience of growing up during the space race and seeing the Apollo 11 landing live on television, was one of life's great memories, and it floods back with new richness with Biesty's images.

Cross section books also help you to enrich and enliven previous learning & experience - My grandson and I had the chance to see and crawl through an exact replica of Captain Cook's famous ship the 'Endeavour' when he was six. As we looked at Biesty's cross section of the book yesterday we recalled where we had climbed, how low the roof had been and speculated about the exact location of the Captain's cabin.

 Summing up

Books that incorporate diagrams, cross-sections and maps have special interest for boys as readers and learners. They encourage them to read and use visual material to reinforce and enrich learning as well as stimulating their imagination and creativity.


Short video introduction to David Macaulay's work and the process he goes through to produce his works.

You might also like to read my previous post 'Making Reading Exciting for Boys'.

1 comment:

trish donovan said...

Hi Trevor,
Thank you for this post. I have several cross section books by Stephen Biesty and Leo Hartas that I found in op shops. I loved them as a kid too. Your thoughts have reminded me to get them of the shelf to share with my children.