One-Minute Book Reviews

November 2, 2007

Lynn Curlee Puts His Own Spin on the World’s Tallest Buildings in ‘Skyscraper,’ a Picture Book for 8-to-12-Year-Olds

Skyscraper. By Lynn Curlee. Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, 40 pp., $17.99. Ages 8-12.

By Janice Harayda

Lately I’ve been looking into some of the potential candidates for the Newbery and Caldecott medals that the American Library Association will hand out in January. As usual, it’s been both inspiring and disheartening.

Some publishers are clearly putting enormous care into turning out wonderful children’s books. At the same time, they are continuing to pander nakedly to the all-important school and library markets, sometimes undermining the accuracy or credibility of an otherwise worthy book.

A recent casualty is Lynn Curlee’s Skyscraper, a beautifully produced social history of the world’s tallest buildings, which has an elegant Art Deco design and color palette. This book might seem to have little in common with Brian Selznick’s novel in words and pictures, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. But like Selznick, Curlee has created a book for 8-to-12-year-olds that plays successfully with form. Skyscraper is a picture book with chapters (though they aren’t identified as such but are introduced by quotations from famous architects such as I.M. Pei and Robert Venturi).

A typical spread consists of a right-hand page with a color illustration of a skyscraper and a left-hand page with at least 250 words of text, more than in many chapter books. It’s a fresh treatment of its subject that brims with interesting material. Did you know that the Flatiron Building on Fifth Avenue, “the first great New York skyscraper,” looks like “the prow of a ship steaming up the avenue”?

But Skyscraper also shows how egregiously publishers can pander to the prevailing ideologies at many schools and libraries. Curlee writes that up to 3,400 people worked on the construction of the Empire State Building at the same time: “A number of these men were Native Americans, who had a reputation for working fearlessly at great heights.”

That might have been fine if the book had also mentioned a few of the other ethnic groups who worked on the first skyscrapers in far greater numbers than Native Americas, such as the Italian stonemasons who learned their trade in their homeland before applying their skills in America. It doesn’t. And through such omissions, this book insults the many Italian and other immigants who risked their lives to create the glorious skylines of Chicago, New York and other cities early in the 20th century. The message it sends to their young descendants is clear: “Your ancestors’ contributions aren’t as interesting or important as those of Native Americans.” But why would the Mohawks’ famous skywalking be less interesting to 9-year-olds than work on the great stone gargoyles that adorn so many skyscrapers?

It gets worse when Curlee describes the events of Sept. 11, 2001. On that day, he says, “a band of radical terrorists hijacked commercial airliners and attacked the United States, using the comandeered aircraft as lethal guided missiles.” That “radical terrorists” is absurd on two counts. First, the word “radical” tells you nothing — in a sense, every terrorist act is “radical.” And in the case of Sept. 11, the terrorists were the opposite of the usual definition of a “radical” — they were Islamic fundamentalists or reactionaries. Why doesn’t Skyscraper say this? Apparently because to do so might have offended some Muslims and made the book a tougher sell to schools and libraries. Instead we have a book that could leave some children with the idea that the attacks on the World Trade Center were carried out by, say, a remnant of the radical Weather Underground of the 1960s.

Obviously children’s picture books need to present their material at an appropriate level for their readers and omit some of the nuances of books for adults. But many children’s authors have shown that this doesn’t have to involve spinning history in a way that slights or denies the role — good or bad — that different ethnic groups have played in it, whether they are Italian stonemasons or Islamic fundamentalists. Those authors are the ones who deserve awards from librarians and others.

Best line: One of the strengths of Skyscraper is that it looks beyond architecture and situates buildings in a human context, as in this passage: “Immense buildings cause controversy because they do not belong just to their owners. Once they are built, everyone must live with them. They totally transform the neighborhoods in which they are raised. Since they consume enormous amounts of energy and cause congestion, there are very real questions about their worth. Who should make the decisions about building structures that affect everyone? Just how do skyscrapers benefit society? How do skyscrapers contribute or detract from the conditions of life in a city? What form should our cities take? How densely should huge buildings be packed together? How big is too big?”

Worst line: Curlee’s account of Sept. 11, quoted in the review.

Published: March 2007

Furthermore: Curlee won a Sibert Honor Award for his Brooklyn Bridge. He also wrote Ballpark: The Story of America’s Baseball Fields and other books for children.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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