In his 1975 Introduction to his book Dandelion Wine Ray Bradbury has this to say about children and the ugliness of the mechanical world. “Trains and boxcars and the smell of coal and fire are not ugly to children. Ugliness is a concept that we happen on later and become self-conscious about.” It’s true that many of us adults forget how fascinating and beautiful large machines are to small humans. Of course there are a few grownups capable of remembering, and if they are authors they might write books about trucks and trains and cars and planes. Yet these books tend to be written for small tykes and too often they are simplistic and sufficient. In my own experience as a children’s librarian I have noticed that what kids really love in such books are details and realism. They like to be told the difference between a stabilizer and a backhoe bucket or a tow cable and a smoke stack. William Low taps into that need, bringing us a book that combines story, technical details, and sheer beauty all in one neat little package. At last children and adults finally can find a middle ground in what they consider “beautiful”.
You want a lift the flap book? Brother, you got it. In Machines Go To Work a riverside town plays host to a wide variety of different mechanical beasts. In the first scene we see a backhoe suspiciously close to some tulips. The text asks, “Is the backhoe digging up the flowers?” Lift the flap and the answer is revealed. “No, it’s digging a hole for new crab-apple trees. The flowers are safe.” The book continues in this manner. Firemen rescue a kitten from a tree, a news helicopter reports on a family of ducks crossing the road, a cement mixer needs a tow, and so on. At the end of the day a huge freight train moves through the town and as we lift the flaps the scene pulls back so that we’re looking down on the town from above. And in the midst of the clicketys and the clacks we can see the tow truck, ship, helicopter, fire truck and backhoe all scattered about the streets, going about their day.
William Low is an author/illustrator who is quite popular here in New York. His books Chinatown and Old Penn Station speak to his familiarity with the city itself. Machines Go To Work is an entirely different beast altogether then. It’s a tale of a small town with an industrial history (or so the cargo ship and the train would have me believe). As such, Low is free to indulge in the natural beauty of the living world coupled alongside the mechanical beauty of vehicles. This may not be clear from the cover, but open the book up and look at the title page. There you see a fire truck, and behind it a view of trees and houses. And behind that? The sea. It’s a bright sunny day, but the truck is driving through shadow in this shot, which allows its lights the chance to shine a little in the semi-darkness. And when I think of all the truck books out there that just throw a vehicle into a scene without considering lighting, mood, shadow, or landscape, I grow increasingly impressed with Mr. Low’s work.
I began this review by saying that this book finds a middle ground between what kids find beautiful and what adults acknowledge as lovely. In no spread is this clearer than when the firefighters rescue a kitten from a small grove of cherry blossom trees. This selection is near the beginning of the book, which I credit to Low’s cleverness. A parent flipping through the book idly might pause and grant the book greater respect if they saw this spread right at the start of the story. Essentially what we see here is a fire truck (the front in a kind of permanent shadow, which is a bit odd but oh well) parked before a riot of pink and white blossoms. The blue sky is only slightly visible in the midst of all this color, and the fact that the brick red fire truck doesn’t clash is impressive. One could stare at this picture for a very long time, entirely separate from the story. If William Low does anything, he makes it so that when children ask for this book to be read over and over again, the parents will be eager to plunge themselves into this gorgeous world once more.
What we adults find mundane, Low turns into a story. Adults would generally find a tale of how a tow truck got a jump from a pickup truck less then entirely thrilling. Some kids, however, would want to know the logistics of this moment in the minutest details. Kids are like that. When they want to learn about something they won’t stop until they’ve sated their own curiosity. Low provides for this. In the back of the book is a two-page spread that shows small incredibly well articulated and detailed machines as seen in the book. Each machine (even the railroad crossing sign, which I liked) has a description as well as arrows and words describing each part. Kids will see where a tow truck’s towline is or a tugboat’s spotlight. Adults could probably use a refresher for this kind of stuff as well.
When I think of William Low’s art, I tend to think of thick paints, visible strokes, and bright clear-cut colors. In Machines Go To Work, Low still has all of that, but he has worked in a delicacy and detailing that catch the eye as well. Taking into account his attention to light and shadow, his sense of small towns and their appearances, and the simultaneous beauty found in mechanics and nature, I think it’s clear that this is more than your average truck title. This picture book is beautiful and will be loved by young and old alike. Even if you’ve never cared two bits about things that go vroom and honk honk, you’re going to like what you find here. A rote subject by a master of the form.
On shelves now.