Books — A City Through Time

 

by Lisa Parsons     news@hippopress.com

Read along as city grows from 550 BC to present day

A City Through Time, illustrated by Steve Noon, written by Philip Steele, DK Publishing, 2004, 32 pages.

This book is so cool!

You know that feeling you get (unless you don’t, in which case never mind) when you look at the pictures on the outside of the Playmobil set box or the photos in a Christmas catalog? Or you watch a commercial for Tonka trucks? It all looks so vivid, so realistic, yet somehow even more crisp and bright than reality, and it’s all small and manageable and yours?

This book is like that.

Each double-page spread is a comprehensive cartoon of a city or an important building, with cutaways to show people inside. This hypothetical city is somewhere on the Mediterranean coast and the first illustration shows it as a Greek colony in 550 BC, with a gymnasium, a temple, a wealthy merchant’s house, a quarry and an olive grove. Each spot of interest is neatly, unobtrusively labeled. There are perfect little cartoon people dressed in togas, casting little cartoon shadows on the dusty cartoon packed-earth roadways. One cartoon guy is forging metal; you can see tiny cartoon pans hanging on the wall of his shop. A cartoon shepherd prods his tiny cartoon sheep. A cartoon philosopher holds forth for an audience of four attentive cartoon people.

If you didn’t know better, you’d think you could reach in and pose these figurines.

You’d also think they really are talking philosophy and herding wooly sheep.

You can spend a good ten minutes poring over this one illustration and learn a lot about life in ancient Greece. Then you turn the page for a close-up of the temple. Parts of the building are labeled and captions explain the cast of characters.

Turn the page again to see the same city in 120 AD. It’s viewed from the same vantage point, so you can scrutinize it to figure out what’s standing where the temple used to be, and so on. Watch how the roadways and waterfronts have evolved. Check out the tiny thermopolium (snack bar). See inside the public baths – examine the tiny plumbing and the tiny man on the tiny toilet (“Instead of toilet paper, people use sponges on sticks, which they wash clean after use.”)

The book takes us onward to medieval times, then to 1650, then 1880 and then 2005, where you can still see vestiges of the ancient city layout.

This is the kind of children’s book that makes you glad you have a child so that you have an excuse to own it.

And it is yet another example that leaves me wondering why so many of the best children’s books seem to come from Britain. Its illustrator, Steve Noon, lives in Cardiff, Wales, and its writer, Philip Steele, lives in North Wales. Other titles in the same series are A Street Through Time, A Farm Through Time, Story of the Nile and Story of the Titanic.

 
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