by Mary Brigid Barrett

It is rare to find books which equally engage young people and adults. David Macaulay’s books do just that and you will find them shelved in both the children and adult sections of your local library. Trained as an architect, Macaulay’s clear prose, illuminating illustrations, playful wit, and striking book design, inform and entertain, explaining everything from the machinations of a can opener to the construction of great medieval cathedrals. He has also created a number of illustrated stories, some whimsical, some satirical, full of strong, energized drawings. David is the recipient of numerous national and international book awards. Television programs based on his books appear regularly on PBS.

Besides being a multiple Caldecott Honor and Caldecott Award winning illustrator, you are also a dad. What do you think makes a great picture book for kids?

A great picture book for kids is any picture book that keeps drawing them in, any book they return to over and over on their own. It may not have a particularly well written or imaginative story or contain what I might think of as distinguished art. Much to my dismay, a great picture book for kids is often quite different from a great picture book.

As a parent, when you walk into a library or bookstore, what do you look for when choosing a book for your child?

If I’m choosing a book for one of my kids I look for one that I think might be a great book for children as well as a great book (in my adult, professional and totally biased opinion). Reading with my children is among my very favorite activities. And it never gets better than when we are both enjoying the same book even if for completely different reasons.

Most people understand the word “literacy” and all that it implies. What is “visual literacy”, and do you think our kids need to be visually literate as well as word literate?

Like any kind of literacy, visual literacy is a kind of shared vocabulary that links people to each other and to the world around them. Instead of words, visual literacy has to do with two- and three-dimensional images from different places and times, real as well as invented. The greater our visual vocabularies, the easier it is to communicate with precision and passion, to “illustrate” what we are trying to say, and to better understand what someone else is trying to say to us.

Many parents and teachers do not believe they are gifted artistically. Do you have any suggestions for “non-artistic” parents and teachers that can help them promote visual literacy with the kids they live and work with?

Being artistic is only one way of using and developing one’s visual literacy. You don’t have to be able to draw or paint to be moved by a painting or a photograph or a scene from a movie. You just have to be paying attention and thinking about why you are moved by what you’ve seen. Talking to your kids about why you feel the way you do about something you’ve seen or encouraging them to explain their feelings about a picture or some other kind of image is about the most useful thing any parent can do for a child. This is how we connect the stuff we see around us with the way we feel and the way we live together. The greater our vocabularies, both verbal and visual, the more likely it is we’ll be able to express ourselves in the most comfortable or appropriate way.

Is there anything that parents can do to foster creativity and artistic expression in their in children? Did your parents do anything to encourage you?

Look for opportunities to encourage creativity. Don’t be afraid or too lazy to make suggestions about how a child might spend some of their time away from the TV. I was particularly lucky in that we didn’t have a television for the first seven or eight years of my life. My love of playing outside and of making things inside were well established by the time that seductive box arrived. I was also very fortunate to have parents who were capable of making things (from clothing to shelves) many of the things we happened to need but could not necessarily afford. Growing up in a small house without a basement meant that things were being made right before our eyes. There was no way of escaping process and therefore of learning that things don’t just appear. They are designed and created by people who have learned how to take a problem and solve it through a logical, careful, and therefore understandable process.

Although a great deal of your work is in the nonfiction or informational book category, would you be comfortable with the label “storyteller”?

On a good day, I like to think of myself as a storyteller. Since it is one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried to do. I don’t actually have that many good days.

Your storybooks and informational books are laced with humor in both the words and pictures. Is the humor a natural expression of your personality? Or is it done purposely and if so, why?

Humor is both a natural expression of my personality, and I use it purposely in my work. Since all my work reflects and grows naturally out of my life, whether the result is fiction or nonfiction, humor will automatically find its way into my books. I don’t know how to engage in the creative process any other way than by simply being myself.

Your art, your writing style, your humor are imbued with a deep intelligence. You continually question the status quo. You challenge. Is your work too sophisticated for young people?

Let’s ask them.

You can find David Macaulay’s books at your local library. His books include:

The Way We Work
Black and White
Building Big
Motel Of Mysteries
The New Way Things Work

Learn more about David Macaulay and his books on his website.