Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Looking Back At A Childhood Adventure

As children we perceive the world through a lens acutely aware of details others might miss but our point of view of life on a larger scale is limited by our resources and experiences.  There have probably been moments in most of our lives when we were unaware of being involved in something destined for the annuals of history.  It is only when we are adults, looking back on the decades of our lives, that we realize with astonishment and a little bit of awe how what was ordinary was built on the extraordinary.

In his most recent book, Crossing on Time: Steam Engines, Fast Ships, and a Journey to the New World (Roaring Brook Press, May 5, 2019) David Macaulay writes and illustrates about innovations, a lifetime dream fulfilled and one family's emigration to the United States.  The evolution of steam engines and their use in transportation is deftly woven into the work of William Francis Gibbs and the building of the SS United States.  Readers are entranced by accomplishments of multiple individuals, inspired by the perseverance of one man and thrilled to discover how these are tied to David Macaulay and his boyhood.

IN THE SPRING OF 1957, my father was offered a job in America. 

This first sentence in the introduction to four chapters starts a blend of three stories.  David Macaulay, his two siblings, and his mother have left their home having sold most of their possessions, to stay with his grandparents.  They are waiting to leave Great Britain to join his father in the United States.  He tells readers how the months seem endless as he waits to see the Empire State Building but upon reflection the ability to take this trip started centuries ago.

Travel, then, across the Atlantic relied solely on wind which tends to be unpredictable.  Ships had to have another source of power.  It was actually a need of miners which prompted the design and building of

the first continuously operating steam machine

near 1710 by Thomas Newcomen.  From the work of this man, improvements were made.  Boats were successfully traveling using steam engines less than 100 years later.  Materials and shapes of ocean liners were changed to adapt to the use of steam engines; as the engines themselves were constantly altering to work more efficiently with less fuel.  These bigger and better ships were vying for cargo and passengers trying to make the voyage from one side of the Atlantic to the other as fast as possible.  By 1910 there was a formal award known as the Blue Riband which owners of vessels coveted.

As a boy, William Francis Gibbs, attended the launch of Saint Louis with his parents and younger brother in Philadelphia along the Delaware River in 1894.  At eight years old William was entranced by the size of the ship and its abilities.  From that day forward, every moment was dedicated to ships, how they were built and how they could be constructed to perform with greater speed and increased safety.  After college William and his brother, Frederic, began to establish their shipbuilding business.  While World War I and World War II delayed William's plans to create a super liner, their company and reputations grew.  But . . . the lure of the Blue Riband motivated United States Lines to engage the services of the Gibbs brothers.  William Francis Gibbs' dream began to be a reality.

In the spring of 1949 (David Macaulay was not yet three-years-old) construction of the SS United States started in Newport News, Virginia.  The intricate details of all the plans and materials and the timing and precision necessary to complete each portion of the ship was a mind-boggling process.  It was literally like putting a three-dimensional puzzle together.  It was not until June 23, 1951 that the ship was officially christened.  It took another twelve months to complete the interior of the ship.  It's first voyage was on July 3, 1952 as the fastest ship to the east and later back home to the west.  It garnered the Blue Riband.

On September 25, 1957 David Macaulay, his mother, sister and brother boarded the SS United States at Southampton, United Kingdom.  Their room, B-105, consisted of double bunk beds and a single porthole.  David looked through that porthole every morning for an initial look at the Empire State Building, the tallest building (then) in the world.  Its picture was in his copy of the Encyclopedia of Science for Boys and Girls, one of three books he was allowed to bring.  His first impression of the building and its presence years later is unforgettable to him to this day.

The manner in which David Macaulay weaves his personal story into the story of William Francis Gibb's career as a builder of ships and the development of steam engines is masterful, simply masterful.  His voice as narrator, taking us back and forth in time, gives us an intimate and human perspective as well as a technical insight into steam engines and ship construction.  His conversational text is supplemented with labels, numbered captions and paragraphs accompanying his illustrations.  He offers us a story but more in-depth information, too.  For this reason, this volume will find a much larger audience.  Here is a passage and a single caption.

By 1949 an army of draftsmen had produced hundreds of plans documenting everything from structural steelwork and rivet placement to galley layouts and paint colors.  Between the bidding process to decide which shipyard would actually build the ship and then construction itself, the number of plans would mushroom into thousands of blueprints.  To help locate each piece of information on all the drawings, the length of the ship had been divided like a loaf of bread into 365 slices called frames.  During construction, frame numbers would be painted on the walls and columns so the workers would know exactly where they were.

The ship had three massive anchors, one housed in the point of the bow, and two on either side.  The anchors were raised and lowered by winches (called windlasses) on the Upper Deck and powered by machinery on the Main Deck below.  Their chains were stored in a chain locker that went all the way down to D Deck.

When you look at the open and matching dust jacket and book case of this title, the size of the SS United States on the front, with David Macaulay and his family standing next to it, is massive.  It gives readers the feeling of something larger than they imagine being revealed.  To the left, on the back, in a more limited color palette, we see a family from the past standing on a shore, a trunk next to them, looking out at the ocean.  Above them in the clouds or in the past are ships moving with only wind in their sails.

The opening and closing endpapers are a rich royal blue.  For the beginning of the introduction David Macaulay features himself reading his copy of Encyclopedia of Science for Boys and Girls lying on his stomach.  With a page turn the introduction continues giving us a bird's eye view of his hometown spanning two pages.  An enlarged map of the trip from Bolton to London to Southampton and to France before crossing the Atlantic is on the title page.

Each turn of page reveals the wonders of David Macaulay's skill as an exceptional illustrator.  His elaborate details, historical accurateness, and keen sense of humor are always present.  These images are to be enjoyed and appreciated.

In many of them his artist's hand is shown, steadying an element.  Sometimes a part of a picture will cross the gutter.  Perspectives are mixed with adept ingenuity.  His cross-sections are exquisite.  Every time you read this book; you will notice something more in the pictures.  His gatefold beginning on page 86 with a daytime view of the SS United States and concluding on page 95 with a nighttime view of the SS United States will have you gasping.  On pages 87 and 94 are eight close-up special spaces on the ship.  The six interior pages are dedicated to the entire length of the ship as a cross-section full of tiny items and labeled properly.  You could look at this for hours.

One of my many, many favorite pictures is for an entirely different image.  It spans two pages.  It is a limited color palette in the morning of the SS United States' arrival in New York with the Macaulay family on board.  The gray canvas (sky) has a hint of pink near the horizon.  The ship (on the left) is moving past a rocky shore seen along the bottom of the picture.  The silhouette of a man wearing a hat and topcoat is between the ship and the shore.  He stands watching the ship.  His vehicle is close to readers, the front of the car covering the entire right side and crossing the gutter.  The car is a Cadillac.  The man is William Francis Gibbs.  He always watched his ship's arrival.

You do not need to be an aficionado of ships, steam engines or the history of either to become totally fascinated with Crossing on Time: Steam Engines, Fast Ships, and a Journey to the New World written and illustrated by David Macaulay.  You will find yourself caught up in the story of their evolution because of the personal connection to William Francis Gibbs and beloved author-illustrator David Macaulay.  We truly are all connected.  At the close of the book is an afterword, timeline, acknowledgments and selected readings accompanied by numerous photographs.  I highly recommend this title for your personal and professional collections.

To learn more about David Macaulay and his other considerable work, please follow the link attached to his name to access his website.  David Macaulay has an account on Twitter.  At the publisher's website you can view interior pages.   I am including these videos for you to enjoy.

UPDATE:  Discovered this May 7, 2019 Q & A with David Macaulay at Publishers Weekly.

Be sure to visit Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to enjoy the selections this week by other participants in the 2019 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.

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