The works of David Macaulay: Science and engineering illustrated

I was first introduced to the works of David Macaulay by my 3 year old nephew.  He’s in his first year of college now, as it happens, deciding on whether he would like to focus on engineering or design as a career. Like the causality dilemma (“Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”), it’s difficult to tell whether my nephew was influenced by Macaulay’s books, or whether he was attracted to Macaulay’s books because he was inherently drawn to engineering and design.  Regardless, my nephew was enthralled by the drawings at a very early age, and later on entranced by the explanations that Macaulay provided on the logic, engineering, and mechanics behind the structures and machines he featured in his books.

"Cathedral: the story of its construction" by David Macaulay. Retrieved from

“Cathedral: the story of its construction” by David Macaulay.  Lexile 1120  Retrieved from

Cathedral: The story of its construction (1973) is Macaulay’s first publication, and received the Caldecott Honor Book award in 1977.  Over-sized (9″ x 12″) like a common picture book, Cathedral is anything but a common picture book.  It tells the story of the conception and construction of a 13th century Gothic cathedral in France with 79 beautifully illustrated pages detailing the structural design, the people, geography, and other contextual  elements seating the structure in time and place.  Each page, on average, incorporates only one paragraph of text off-set by considerable white space, appealing to emergent readers and advanced readers alike.  With a Lexile of 1120, Cathedral can captivate a broad audience with its easy to understand explanations and commentary, however, I recommend adult-direction for younger readers even though the pictures alone can be a satisfying exploratory experience.

While Cathedral (as with most of Macaulay’s works) focuses primarily on the practical and logical matters of engineering, Macaulay also includes historical context, explaining not just the hows, but the whys as well.  Adding this extra layer gives depth to the information, connecting the scientific concepts to the human experience, and the building of communities.  Macaulay also includes descriptions of the craftsman and the tools that they use, further enhancing the human connection – suggesting the possibility of developing such skills and mastery in the reader.

"The New Way Things Work" (1998) by David Macaulay. Retrieved from

“The New Way Things Work” (1998) by David Macaulay. Lexile 1180  Retrieved from

Since his first publication in 1973, Macaulay has published a new book nearly every year through 2010.  While most of his works are similar to Cathedral, focusing on engineering and mechanics, the topics vary from architecture of the Egyptian Pyramids to the mechanics of a toilet and the civil engineering of a sewage system.  Where Macaulay stays true is in his exceptionally detailed illustrations and his comprehensive (and entertaining) explanations, making his works a go-to for any child eager to understand the workings of the world around them.

"The Way Things Work" (1988) by David Macaulay. Retrieved from

“The Way Things Work” (1988) by David Macaulay.  Lexile 1180  Retrieved from

Included in his works are the titles The Way Things Work (1988) and The New Way Things Work (1998).  While still incorporating masterful illustration, Macaulay created these compendia to  include explanations of fundamental scientific concepts like the mechanics of movement, harnessing the elements (flying, floating, etc), electricity & automation, the digital domain, and the invention of machines.  Again, Macaulay uses illustrations and concise explanations to convey the science behind these swooping concepts, but this time uses the aid of a friendly woolly (pictured above) mammoth as host and chief demonstrator of the ideas.  This friendly character increases the approachability of the concepts for younger readers and those not predisposed to scientific inquiry, making these excellent additions to a the reference section of a school library or classroom.

Building Big logo from Retrieved from

Building Big logo from Retrieved from

Building Big  –  Lexile 1260

ALA Notable Children’s Books 2001

Booklist Editor’s Choice – Books for Youth, Older Readers Category, 2000

New York Times Notable Books – Children’s Books 2000

Parents’ Choice Awards – Nonfiction, 2001

Finally, owing to Macaulay’s in-depth and comprehensive approach to the otherwise daunting (to the lay person) concepts of structural and civil engineering, PBS has created a series of fascinating video broadcasts that apply the principles Macaulay discusses – applying them to actual structures and engineering projects.  Building Big (2000), a companion book to the PBS series of the same name, focuses on planning major civil engineering projects, identifying the design problems, and resolving those problems using practical application of engineering principles and the tools of the trade.  Both the book and the five part PBS series investigates bridges, domes, skyscrapers, dams, and tunnels.  This combination of educational videos, additional educational guides ( including labs and hands on activities), and companion book make this a fantastic selection for a school STEM (or STEAM) program.

NGSS: Meets standards across K – 12 in Engineering & Design Storyline, particularly “Ask questions, observe and gather information about a situation people want to change; identify the problem and its resolution.

CCSS:  Meets standards across broad range of grade levels, including RI.2.1 Ask and answer who, what, when, where, and why and demonstrate understanding of a text; RS/TS7 Integrate quantitative of technical information expressed in words of a text with visual version of that information

AASL: 1.1.3 Develop and refine a range of questions to frame the search for new understanding. 2.1.5 Collaborate with others in the exchange of ideas to come to new understandings, come to conclusions, and problem solve.


Achieve, Inc. (2013). DCI arrangements of the next generation science standards. Retrieved from

American (2011). Crosswalk of the common core standards and the standards for the 21st-century Learner reading standards literacy in science/technology all AASL standards common core crosswalk. Huron St. Retrieved from

H, W. (2000). BUILDING BIG: Home page. Retrieved March 12, 2016, from

Macaulay, D., Macaulay, D., & Houghton Mifflin Company. (1973). Cathedral: The story of its construction. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Macaulay, D. (1988). The way things work. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Macaulay, D., Ardley, N., & Macaulay, D. (1998). The new way things work. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Macaulay, D. (2000). Building big. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Reading is a window to the world. (2007). . Retrieved from



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