Monday 6 June 2016

WHAT LIES WITHIN: Cross sections and cutaways in picture books • Jonathan Emmett

Two types of pictures that were guaranteed to hold my attention as a child were cross sections and cutaways. These revealing illustrations offered readers a god-like omniscience allowing them to peek at things that were usually hidden and imparting an understanding of how individual parts or spaces fitted together to form a more complex whole.

If you’re not clear on what the difference is, a cross section is a drawing which shows the view revealed by an imaginary straight line slice through an object, while a cutaway is a drawing in which some external parts have been removed (or ‘cut away’) to reveal the interior. Many of the drawings featured in “cross section” books are actually cutaways.

One illustrator who did a great deal to popularise cutaways was Leslie Ashwell Wood. Although perhaps best know for the hundreds of cutaways he created for the Eagle comic in the 1950s and 60s, Wood also produced a series of Inside Information books including this one featuring cutaways of space craft, which I spent many hours poring over as a child.

Inside Information on Space Travel was part of a series of twelve
Inside Information cutaway books illustrated by Leslie Ashwell Wood 

There was a quite a craze for cross sections and cutaway books in the 1990s*, perhaps most notably the Incredible Cross Section series illustrated by Stephen Biesty.

Stephen Biesty’s intricately detailed exploded cutaway through the Colosseum from
Rome in Spectacular Cross-Section with text by Andrew Solway.  

While Biesty’s drawings revealed the hidden intricacies of the real world, past and present, other illustrators began to produce equally detailed cross sections and cutaways based on the fictional worlds of films and TV shows. In 1998 Dorling Kindersley published Star Wars: Incredible Cross-Sections, illustrated by Hans Jensen and Richard Chasemore and written by David West Reynolds. 


Hans Jenssen’s Millennium Falcon cutaway from Star Wars: Incredible Cross-Sections. 

Since then everything from the Thunderbirds' rescue craft to Wallace and Gromit’s motorbike and sidecar has been laid bare in cutaway or cross section form.

An amusing variation on the genre is Alan Snow’s How Things Really Work series which purports to show the mechanical interior workings of familiar creatures.

 A cross section though a Stegosaurus from Alan Snow’s How Dinosuars Really Work

Although some of the books featured above contain fictional content, none of them are story books, so I thought I’d finish off by looking at some picture books that incorporate cross-sections and cutaways into a narrative.

Now that you know what a fan I am, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that cross sections and cutaways occasionally pop up in the picture books I've written, such as this wonderfully detailed crocodile-submarine gatefold that Steve Cox created for The Treasure of Captain Claw.

Captain Claw's crocodile-like submarine (click here to see a larger version).

Chris Riddell’s cutaway drawing for Pirate Diary, written by Richard Platt, allows readers to explore the ship on which the story is set … 

… as does this Noah’s Ark cross section (made from plasticine!) by Barbara Reid for her picture book Two By Two.

But no post about cross sections and cutaways in picture books would be complete without a mention of the two Full Moon books – Full Moon Soup and Full Moon Afloat – by Alistair Graham. These are both wordless picture books in which the story is told in a sequence of twelve comically detailed cross sections populated by a cast of increasingly weird and wonderful characters. In Full Moon Soup the eponymous magical potion results in a Fawlty-Towers-like hotel going from this at the start of the book … 

… to this by the end. 

I hope you've enjoyed this 'slice' of some of my favourite picture book cross sections and cutaways. If you have any favourites of your own, I’d love to hear about them in the comments box below.

* Fellow Picture Book Den author Moira Butterfield wrote the text for several of them!

The submarine cross section featured above is taken from The Treasure of Captain Claw, by Jonathan Emmett and Steve Cox and published by Orchard Books.

Find out more about Jonathan and his books at his Scribble Street web site or his blogYou can also follow Jonathan on Facebook and Twitter @scribblestreet.

See all of Jonathan's posts for Picture Book Den.


Moira Butterfield said...

Yup, I wrote a few! I used to get given the DK machine ones and my engineer Dad and uncle used to help me. We were a great writing team! The artists used to get paid really well, and rightly so. The cross-sections were lots of work but now those non-fiction budgets have sadly disappeared. I love cross-sections/cutaways in picture books though. Such a lot to pore over. How satisfying! Full Moon looks fantastic. I think lots of children love sitting poring over detail. I know I was one of those children. I loved intricate doll's houses and those funny busy pictures at the beginning and end of Beano Annuals.

Jonathan Emmett said...

Glad to hear the illustrators were well paid. Some of those DK illustrations must have taken weeks to do.

It's funny that you mention dolls houses. I've been exchanging tweets about cross sections on twitter and had just said that their appeal is very similar to dolls houses.

Patricia Toht said...

Really interesting post, Jonathan! Cross-sections are fascinating - you disappear into them, wanting to see every little nook. I need to check out the Full Moon books.

Michelle Robinson said...

Delicious. Books with illustrations this detailed offer so much value. Years of fun!

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Great -I've spent hours poring over such books with my children, especially ones where you're looking into someone's house or shop... Thanks.

Hoets said...

Hello. I need some help hunting down an epic and fantastic book. And I cannot for the life of me remember the name...

It was reminiscent of the Where's Wally type of book, but more beautifully drawn (in my opinion). It was similar in some ways to David Macauley's Way Things Work book, in that it had little people inside large structures. It was not a search book exactly, more like a maze book. It had lot's of tiny people, but inside machines and little factories. I remember one chapter had a red space station where asteroids were carved into stars (carved rocks painted yellow..).
Another chapter was of a bobble hat factory.
Another was a cake factory. Some paths led to dead ends, or dud cakes/stars/bobble hats etc.

The artwork was lovingly drawn with all sorts of things going on around, and yet calmer than similar book. It felt like it must have been from the mid-90s. Can any of you remember it at all? Wah,it was a fantastic book. I can picture the artwork, but I have been Google-image searching, looking around amazon, and Pinteresting with no luck.

Nora said...

Hello Hoets, I'm looking for a similar book, with lots of cross sectioned houses, where one of the mazes is a burglar, trying to make it through a house without bumping into the family, or reaching a 'dead end' with a blocked door.

I haven't had any luck so far, but will update if I find the title, author, or subgenre title!

Does this sound familiar to anyone else?

Yosko said...

Wow! I have to thank you for this article.

I have been looking for Full Moon Soup for *two decades* based on my childhood memories (I used to read it at the library when I was 7-10)! I couldn't find the title or the author.

I just stumbled across this article by chance, I was just looking for sectional view of ships...