When you delve into David Macaulay’s extraordinary and encyclopedic ode to engineering, The New Way Things Work (1998), you are awed by the way he zeroes in on an object and explains, in words and pictures, how it is put together. Macaulay’s full-page pen and ink and watercolor illustrations makes comprehensible the inner functionings of hundreds of machines, from practical stuff (a zipper, a can opener, a pen) to indispensable imponderables (cars, computers, and toilets). There’s lots of comic relief from the woolly mammoth that traipses through the pages, observing or interacting with each gorgeously detailed machine.
In his nonfiction picture books, Macaulay has parsed the architecture and functions of a number of monumental structures including Castle, Cathedral, Pyramid, and Mosque. Then there’s the tongue-in-cheek satire of The Motel of the Mysteries, where archeologists in the year 4022 uncover an intact 20th century American motel room and misinterpret the functions of each artifact they find. Personally, I’m forever grateful to him for one of my very favorite Caldecott books to use with children, Black and White.
In his latest nonfiction masterpiece, Macaulay takes on the human body, a subject that sounds manageable enough, but once he gets under the skin (literally and figuratively), there’s a whole universe to discover. Until I read The Way We Work, I pretty much took my body for granted—breathing, swallowing, and eating with little thought about what was going on inside me. In the Introduction, he states, “Everyone’s journey begins as a single cell that contains everything we will need to get the ball rolling. If all goes well, that single cell will multiply into a population reaching tens of trillions . . . What follows is ultimately the story of the superb interdependence of all the systems that make up the human body. This, in essence, is the way we work.”
Macaulay spent years researching, studying, and drawing the human body, sitting in on numerous anatomy classes, dissections, and surgeries. Handsome, intricate, and often whimsical illustrations, diagrams, and cross-sections with micro-focused details absorb and astonish the reader with every page turn, though the complex text will be a challenge, even for adults sometimes. (Note that his co-writer, Richard Walker, also wrote the text of the entertaining and informative Dr. Frankenstein’s Human Body Book, which covers the same material, but on a simpler level.) That won’t deter readers who will use the illustrations to help make sense of the technical descriptions. Guaranteed, you’ll become more conscious of your inner workings, thinking about the blood circulating to and from your heart, the 150 million microscopic alveoli or air bags in your lungs, and the wave of peristalsis that gets food down your esophagus and to your stomach in six seconds flat, “even if you choose to eat upside down.”
Reviewed by JF.
Themes: BODY, HUMAN. SCIENCE AND SCIENTISTS.
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Houghton Mifflin/Walter Lorraine Books, 2008
Suggested Ages: 10 and Up