2008 May Hill Arbuthnot Lecture (Given annually by an individual of distinction in the field of children’s literature.)
TeachingBooks.net Author Profile and Interview
NPR, Weekend Edition Sunday Interview with Liane Hansen
Why the human body? Did you run out of buildings to explain?
It’s not a matter of running out of buildings—that could never really happen—but rather following my curiosity. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more aware of my body. For one thing, there seems to be more of it. How did that happen!? But also things ache a little more and a little longer after running around with my kids, joints are sore, and so on. I realized that I’ve basically taken this remarkable collection of systems for granted pretty much my whole life while I’ve been looking at everything else. Also as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more aware of my own mortality. People around me have been ill, some have died, and then there’s the natural process of watching your parents get older. The other thing that has happened over the past few years is the incredible growth of knowledge about what makes us work, increasingly at a cellular level. These are the kinds of things that got me thinking that I should understand myself, how I physically work, better.
I considered a project on the human body twenty-five years ago, but it never got done because it didn’t seem important enough at the time. What I’ve got now is not only a much improved understanding of how my body works, but for the first time an overdue appreciation of and gratitude for the fact that it has done so without my knowing.
Can you talk about the research you did for this book?
As with any book, the process began with reading, and there is plenty of material out there. Some of it is very complex and written for people who basically already know everything, and some of it really tries to reach the uninformed but curious people like me. I met and spent lots of time with various experts in various fields. I found a wonderful anatomy teacher who not only made room for me in her class but became a tremendous resource as I tried to wade through an overwhelming amount of new information. I attended the labs with the medical students and shared in their enthusiasm for discovering the human body through dissection. I hadn’t a clue where anything really was in the body except for the obvious things like ribs and heart and brain. But once you’ve slid your hand into the chest cavity along the inner surface of the rib cage and felt the spleen in place, you don’t forget where it is. The next logical question is "What does it do?" As a visiting faculty member of the medical school, an opportunity I was given so that I would have access to any operation I wanted to see, I attended a couple of long, painstaking surgeries during which the pancreas and spleen were removed. I watched a knee replacement.
By the time I was done, I had solicited input from a couple of biochemists to get my cellular facts in order, an infectious disease doctor to look over the immune system chapter, a gastroenterologist for the digestive system, and an orthopedic surgeon for additional input on bone stuff.
What was the most surprising thing or things you learned in your research?
I think the most surprising and relieving thing I learned is that even though the body is a highly complicated collection of systems, there are certain basic ways in which all the pieces work once you get down to the cellular level. The ways various substances—for example, nutrients, building material for repairs, and waste produced by cellular work—are transported around the body, the means by which these things enter and leave cells, is all very logical and surprisingly simple. And much of this happens because the entire community of cells that is us is constantly working to maintain a state of balance. Once you start to think of yourself as a vast community of individual cells that meet their individual needs by working together, by communicating with each other, and by taking on specific tasks, you are reminded of your place in the community of fellow humans and the various roles we can take on for the good of that community.
You mention attending surgeries. Did you actually cut open bodies?
Besides carving up a brain, I never actually had to do my own dissection. I could just watch. And there were plenty of specimens available to me in the lab, real things I could hold and feel and draw. This is particularly important because no matter how good the illustrations were in all the books I went through, until you’ve actually seen and held the object you’re trying to explain, you’re at the mercy of someone else’s interpretation.
What is your favorite system?
Once you understand how fully integrated all the systems are it’s hard to pick a favorite. The one I enjoyed drawing most was the digestive system. It became a journey through a sequence of distinctive landscapes all determined by the function of the system at that particular moment. From the turbulence of a chewing mouth and the abyss of the throat to the lunar landscape of the stomach lining to the mountainous terrain of the small intestine, it was a wonderful journey to take (as long as you’re not the broccoli) and draw.
You have said you now understand why doctors specialize. If you were a doctor, what would you specialize in?
Probably cellular research. There is so much still to learn, and as the equipment gets better and better it is possible to watch these otherwise invisible organisms at work.
Do you look at people, and yourself, differently now?
I do pay more attention to my own body and observe those around me. Now that I have pictures in my head of what an area of the body might look like, or how a particular joint might actually work, I’m able to connect what I am doing or what someone else is doing with the internal architecture and engineering that makes it possible.
Any advice for people on how they should treat their bodies?
With curiosity, respect, and admiration.
How do you think this book is different than other books on the human body?
It is different from a lot of what’s out there because I’ve made every effort through the art to put you where the action is. I hope I have given the book a visual liveliness that conveys, as well as static pictures can, the wonder of the human body by linking what things inside us look like with why they look that way.
If I never got biology, will I understand this book?
I think so. I was never a great student in biology because at the time I took it, ninth grade perhaps, I didn’t really care about it. I don’t think I’m very different from my readers in that I can get excited about something if it matters to me and if it is made accessible to me. This project has taken me through cellular biology, regular biology, physiology, physics, and so on. But I never thought about these things as categories, because I was too interested in wanting to better understand myself.
Of all your books, do you have a favorite? Which came the most naturally?
The most recent book, if it works like you hope it will, and especially if it has taken six years to pull together, including two years of seven-day work weeks, should be your favorite … at least initially. I’m hoping this one will be a favorite. If by "most naturally" you mean "easiest," I’d have to say Why the Chicken Crossed the Road or Motel of the Mysteries. But it is also natural and in fact unavoidable for me to throw myself into projects about which I know almost nothing when I start. The Way We Work is a quintessential example of that kind of madness.
What did you like to read when you were young? What do you read now (when you aren’t doing research)?
I read very little for fun, that is to say non-school-related books, before the age of twelve or thirteen. I loved being read to. The Wind in the Willows, Grimm’s fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen, Thomas the Tank Engine, Ned the Lonely Donkey and especially my "Big Book of Science." I mostly read the pictures; otherwise I was too busy playing.
Describe your studio, please.
I’m on the second floor, above my wife’s studio and the garage and guest room. It’s a nice big space with oak floors and high ceilings, just the way we found it when we moved in. It was intended by the previous owner to become a small children’s theater. Fortunately, it’s all on one level, no stage, although there is a proscenium. Great views over the neighbor’s gardens and of the surrounding hills. One of the best things about the space is the big blank wall at one end. When I’m working on a book, I’m constantly put sketches on the wall so I can compare them easily with each other. The wall becomes a huge drawing board, of which there are also two more conventional examples in the studio. I use one and my children have a tendency to use the other if I haven’t buried it under books and tracing paper.
If you weren’t a book creator, what do you think you would be doing?
Teaching all the time. It’s the only other thing I’m passionate about.
Your first book was published in 1973, and book production has changed immensely since then. How have these changes affected your work?
All the changes have meant to me is having the ability to work in any medium and in either black-and-white or color. But I’ve always felt I could basically do the books I wanted without worrying my little head about production. The earlier architecture books could not have been done in color even if I’d wanted it, which I didn’t, because at their size and length they would simply have been too expensive to produce and therefore difficult to sell.
Who or what has been the biggest influence on you professionally? Personally?
After my parents, who have the personal influence award locked up, there are two men tied for the dubious professional as well as considerable personal influence. The first is Walter Lorraine, my editor for the past thirty-five years, and the second is Tom Sgouros, my drawing professor at RISD. Both in their various different ways encouraged me to find and explore this amazing path.