Writ Small

House by Mouse, Iggy Peck, and the architect in children’s books.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that so many architecturally-trained people tell me they had a favorite book, as a very young child — a slender and amply illustrated volume — about buildings or houses or architects. Certainly other writers have noted the same phenomenon. Could it be that these future-architects were moved toward the discipline by this treasured book? I think my own childhood favorite, which was indeed about an architect, set in place certain hopes and ideals about the profession, some of which were later dashed, but others of which have endured. Like all children’s books, it has a particular slant and emphasis, a narrative which was alluring but highly simplified, not the whole story. And when I look back now, with the benefit (or curse) of a formal architectural training, the things I found appealing as a child seem now somewhat appalling.

My favorite was called House by Mouse. It was about a mouse architect who designed houses for other animals, each according to their needs and desires. The text was unremarkable, but the images were something special, captivatingly intricate and evocative. So many hours I spent, in trance-like absorption, poring over those pages — fanciful images of a brown trout’s underwater Atlantis of coral and seaweed and a molehill with a spiral stair and genteel bay-windowed drawing room. Even now I find I’m a little wary of writing here about House by Mouse: will I spoil it for myself? The pleasure of a childhood memory is an evanescent thing; it can evaporate quickly under pressure of intellectual scrutiny. Nevertheless I think that this book in particular, and children’s books about architecture and architects in general, open some larger questions about the profession, and how it is conceived and represented in culture more broadly.

What follows is not a comprehensive list of children’s books about architects (although that would be a great project for another day). I won’t, for example, discuss non-fiction books, even if there are plenty of them about architects. One might thrill, for instance, to the three dimensional wonders of Anton Radevsky’s The Architecture Pop-Up Book, or while away happy hours with Bruce LaFontaine’s Famous Buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright coloring book, but that’s not my plan here. Likewise one might learn about construction with Lester Walker’s Housebuilding for Children or, peculiarly, take a dog’s-eye view on a canonical modernist classic in Cara Armstrong’s Moxie: The Dachshund of Fallingwater, or read about shells and lairs in the innumerable non-fiction books about Animal Architects. But all of those are stories for another day. On this occasion I am interested in animal (and human) architects of the fictional kind. My claim is not to make a full survey but rather to skitter around a crowded field and to attempt a loose and incomplete taxonomy of types, before returning to a discussion of my own onetime favorite.

Each of us can be carbon-dated by the vintage of our childhood delights, and later by those of our own children. So one friend fondly recollects The Little House, by Virginia Lee Burton (first published in 1942) and another mentions The Big Orange Splot, by Daniel Manus Pinkwater (published in 1977). Yet another friend sighs as she tells me how often she has waded through the puns of her son’s favorite, Roberto, the Insect Architect, by Nina Laden (which appeared in 2000), and my own boy has received no fewer than three copies of Iggy Peck, Architect, by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts (published in 2007). This award-winner is as good a place as any to start — it’s a joy of a book, its rhyming verses rollicking along in accompaniment to funny and stylish illustrations: early on we read how “Young Iggy Peck is an architect / and has been since he was two, / when he built a great tower — in only an hour — / with nothing but nappies and glue.” As expected, the plot is simple: young Ignacious Peck shows an early propensity for construction, which is encouraged by his groovy and adoring parents, but not by his second-grade teacher, who (following a childhood skyscraper mishap) has a prejudice against buildings. Forbidden to build, Iggy falls into despond; but ultimately he saves the day with his design skills.

I think we can take Iggy Peck, Architect to exemplify a popular category of children’s books — stories which celebrate self-expression. Another good example of this type is If I Built a House, by Chris van Dusen: a boy’s wildly inventive design for a fun-filled house complete with trampolines in the living room. It is generally supposed that self-expression is an innate creativity or talent bursting to get out from an early age, and leaving aside the genderedness of historic notions of genius, the power of this mythology is very strong: we want to believe that creativity is an elemental, generative force which cannot be stopped but only channelled into more or less productive forms. And indeed, architecture is the perfect vehicle through which to promote such beliefs in children’s literature; as a profession it seems to have the ideal moral combination: the originality and expressivity of the artist, crossed with the engineer-builder’s practicality and commitment to the common good. It is worth noting that young Iggy comes to the rescue with the design not of a building but rather a bridge — a construction that would seem to benefit less from imagination and more from structural science, and thus might, ahem, be more likely to spring from the mind of an engineer. Nevertheless, in many children’s books, it is the architect who seems licensed to claim all the good of both art and engineering; and this is certainly part of the appeal of the genre.

Despite the occasional nod to adult architectural culture — the opening pages are on squared graph paper and later there is an apparent reference to a David Hockney painting — Iggy Peck, Architect is refreshingly free of meta-textual irony; it is clearly, genuinely a book for children. Which brings me to another category: the book that seems targeted not just to children but also — perhaps mainly — to their architect-parents. So let’s take down from the shelf Steven Guarnaccia’s The Three Little Pigs: An Architectural Tale, where the eponymous pigs are modelled on Philip Johnson, Frank Gehry, and Frank Lloyd Wright, each with their own house — of glass, scraps, and stone, respectively. You can guess which holds up best to the huffing and puffing of the big bad wolf. With its trainspotting references to the history of design and architecture, this is precisely the sort of primer which allows educated parents to feel pleased with their own refinement and cultural capital, at the same time as they pass the canon on to their children.

Another category of children’s book is less about architects and more about buildings, or actually, the drawings that make up construction documentation, with their encoded visual language of signs and symbols. Writers and illustrators of children’s books have long recognized the appeal of the sectional view, although in their parlance it is more likely to be described as a “cross-section,” a “cutaway” or an “exploded view.” There is in fact something magical in the sectional view — in its power to reveal hidden workings, private rooms, everything apparent all at once. Richard Scarry used sections to great effect in books such as Busytown and The Best Word Book Ever. David Macauley’s many books also come to mind, as does Stephen Biesty’s Incredible Cross-Sections, which features elaborate and highly detailed drawings of diverse large and habitable things (a castle, an ocean liner, a cathedral, a jumbo jet, a space shuttle) all with an emphasis on their hidden workings. But in Biesty’s book the drama is all about the tiny occupants: the submariners squashed into their U-Boat galley, the medieval archers firing through slits in the castle wall. In this sense these volumes are more about the inhabitation of buildings than about the buildings themselves. Of course, scale drawings and models are already marked as “childish” — it’s only a small step from an architectural model to a doll’s house. Sharing the fascination of the miniaturized, they invite you to imagine yourself in there, moving through the little spaces, occupying that tiny world. The enjoyment is connected to role-play and fantasy, of course, but also to the more profound satisfaction of inhabitation. In my own childhood experience, it was this fundamental idea of buildings as spaces for narrative, as environs encompassing the full range of human comedy and tragedy, that was the first real power and appeal of architecture.

All of which brings me to the major category of my brief taxonomy; for when you go looking, you realize that there is a huge, even dominant genre in children’s literature: stories about houses, about the choice of a house, the quality of homeliness, and the very concept of home. We might call it the “no place like home” category: Christopher Wormell’s Blue Rabbit and Friends, Robin Muller’s Badger’s New House, Eric Carle’s A House for Hermit Crab, The Best Place by Susan Meddaugh, and The Frog House by Mark Taylor and Barbara Garrison, amongst many other examples. The very first of the Grug books, by Ted Prior, recounts Grug’s search for and construction of a home — before the myriad other activities he completes in subsequent books (goes fishing, plays soccer, learns to dance, builds a boat, etc etc). The making of a home is clearly an originary activity. In this category of books you will find every imaginable plot line, but throughout there is an overarching moral theme: that every creature has an ideal home specific to its needs, no more and no less; that this home embodies all that is safe and good in the world; and that when it is renounced (perhaps in the false hope of something better) or lost (perhaps because appropriated by some other creature) then an epic journey must ensue to secure it back; and in this journey the house/home is both the destination and the reward. Little wonder, then, that books about creatures who can help to make, find or furnish this ideal home are a significant sub-genre; and here is where the architects come in.

In children’s literature, fictional animal builders or architects appear in guises more or less humorous and more or less anthropomorphized. These include several mice — partly because mouse makes a convenient rhyme with house, of course, but perhaps also because mice, with their dexterous paws, might notionally have the facility for drawing, or for the manipulation of (ha!) a mouse; in contrast, you don’t see so many, say, antelope architects: it’s those pesky hooves. In addition to House by Mouse there is The House that Mouse Built (Maggie Rudy, Pam Abrams and Bruce Wolf), and apart from Roberto, the Insect Architect (already mentioned), there is also Christopher Wren the Avian Architect (Tina Skinner and Lou Lou).

In this genre there is also much anthropomorphizing of houses, if not at the level of thoughts and feelings, then at least at the level of moral and affective qualities, e.g., a good house or a bad one, a happy house or a sad one. Often this is an extension of the human qualities and characteristics of the inhabitants, where the house becomes an expression of self and identity for those who live there. And in extreme cases the occupant even becomes the house, as when Barbapapa (described delightfully by Wikipedia as “a generally papaya-shaped, pink shapeshifting blob-like creature who stumbles upon the human world and tries to fit in”) forms himself into an adobe-like domed dwelling to shelter the family. On a more psychological level, The Big Orange Splot is an example of house as self-expression, with its refrain that “Our street is us and we are it. Our street is where we like to be, and it looks like all our dreams.” In its call to non-conformity and self expression in the appearance of an individual’s home amongst other houses, this book is also interesting for its conception of home in the context of community. What we might call the “where we live” category can thus extend beyond the confines of the house itself to include the space of the city.

In this context Jeannie Baker’s 2004 book Home (released in Australia as Belonging), the companion to her much acclaimed earlier Window (1991), is another interesting case. Through its wordless, mixed-media collages, Window eloquently mourns the loss of native bushland and animal habitat due to encroaching suburbia. In this sense it exemplifies the prominent streak of city-phobia that runs through children’s books on house and home. (To be sure, Baker has said she “always felt rather uncomfortable about Window being a negative statement,” and so Belonging turns to a more hopeful message, and to the advocacy of social sustainability through urban renewal.) An earlier, more extreme example of anti-urbanity is Virginia Lee Burton’s aforementioned The Little House — where a cottage in a bucolic setting is gradually surrounded by the dark, dirty corruptions of a sprawling city. A happy ending is achieved only through the drastic measure of moving the little house out of the now-enveloping city and back to an isolated hilltop in some still pristine countryside. Despite some exceptions to the literary anti-city trend — a good example is Catherine and Laurence Anholt’s Harry’s Home — in the world of children’s books the ideal home is a Thoreauvian one where the inhabitant exists in harmony with nature, watching the seasons pass in a timeless landscape. There is even a book about Thoreau building his own house: D.B Johnson’s Henry Builds a Cabin. But it’s one thing to anthropomorphize an animal, and another to naturalize the work of human architects as instinctive and evolutionary, akin to the nests and burrows of their animal cousins. It makes me uneasy when the analogy runs this other way. Children’s books about architects make plain the ideological divides in the discipline, between architecture as either nature or culture, or rather, as either naturalized culture or encultured nature.

I am indebted to my colleague Lee Stickells, who teaches architecture at the University of Sydney, for reminding me of Jeannie Baker’s books. In his reading, Baker’s later book Belonging is less a straightforwardly upbeat story about re-greening and reclaiming the city, and more an ambivalent take on the effects of gentrification. Perhaps it doesn’t hurt that he lives around the corner from the street that was purportedly the book’s model. But Lee has a larger point to make about the ways in which architecture and architects appear in children’s books — he finds it sad that “the understanding of architectural practice in the general population is ‘stuck’ at the children’s book level.” Other professions, he argues, seem to inspire a larger diversity of narratives, while “architectural practice, and architects, seem to have some very limited characterizations.” I think he has a point.

As a child I never had my own copy of House by Mouse. I borrowed it — on almost continuous loan — from the public library. Later my sister tried to procure one for me as a surprise present, and as she eventually told me, in those years she encountered numerous lost souls like herself, wandering the Internet looking for this or that long-lost book, many mourning a childhood copy that had been loaned but never returned. Although well out-of-print by now, House by Mouse can still be found in some second-hand online bookshops, although it’s not cheap. (It’s listed on Alibris starting at $100.) My sister eventually realized that the same book had been released in the U.S. with a different title (Need a House? Call Ms. Mouse!), found a copy, bought it, and presented it to me, triumphant.

This U.S. version has the same authors as the version I knew in Australia — George Mendoza is the writer and Doris Smith the illustrator. Peculiarly, though, it has an entirely different text, and perhaps for this reason was reviewed rather brutally in The New York Times, in November 1981, with reviewer Doris Orgel judging that “the text, about ‘world famous decorator’ Ms. Mouse and her clients, has no merit. It’s really just a gimmick, arch and slapdash, with unfunny jokes aimed at grown-ups.” But, she continues, “children won’t mind” — the merit of the book lies in its illustrations. The text in the Australian version was much more straightforward, with simple description and no jokes. Interestingly, the gender of several of the animals changed between the two versions; in the American version, the bear became male and the pig became female — a much closer match, it seems to me, to gender stereotypes. (But that’s another story. I also don’t recall registering, as a child, the significance of the mouse architect being female, although one never knows the subconscious influence of such things.)

From House by Mouse, illustrations by Doris Smith, story by George Mendoza.

The things I liked about House by Mouse were many. It was partly the inventiveness of the houses: imagine a squirrel’s treehouse accessed via a basket drawn up by rope! Imagine a molehill with a croquet lawn! But it was also the idea of occupying such unusual spaces — this is the much the same delight I feel today when I see real buildings being adaptively and cleverly re-used. In House by Mouse I favored the underground (and underwater) dwellings, to a lesser extent the suspended and treetop ones, and those that I liked least were conventional dwellings. The pig’s mansion, for example, was not appealing at all and I distinctly remember skipping that page with a kind of contempt for this “normal” house, with its boringly vertical walls and windows, neo-classical colonnade and manicured grounds. The mouse architect’s own house was more engaging. Though a fairly modest, split-level Sea Ranch-esque timber number, it did feature the mouse architect’s various places of work: the study with its plan drawers, rolls of paper and paintbrushes; the drawing board located in its special niche under a skylight on the mezzanine. Each room seemed perfectly fit for its intended activities, perfectly orderly and predictable, seemingly a recipe for the “good life,” in every sense of the word. And then there was the large round “picture window,” a gesture which to my young eye was the equivalent to hanging out a sign saying: This is Architecture.

At the end of House by Mouse, the architect is shown in her own favorite leisure environment, which proves to be not a conventional house, but instead a temporary campsite in the forest. It is this sense of inhabitation — inhabitation as living inventively — that runs powerfully through the book. Most of my pleasure lay thus in the sense that through the alchemical magic of the mouse-protagonist’s creativity, each dwelling was not only completely original, but also perfectly and absolutely suited to its occupant, in defiance of orthodoxy. All of the houses were individualized to each animal, not only to bodily needs but also to desires — one might say that each house represents not just a life but also a lifestyle. And since the animals all had highly diverse habits and habitat needs, this individualization stood in for the possible diversity of the human clients that a human architect might design for.

Most of the dwellings in House by Mouse were really leisure pavilions, animal versions of a folly or holiday house. The spider’s web-wired recording studio/performance stage was all techno-bohemian fantasy; meanwhile the otter relaxed on its boathouse and the owl surveyed the world from its study/planetarium at the top of a tower. But the houses I loved the most showed evidence of industriousness: the rabbit’s stock of vegetables carefully stored for the winter, the caterpillar’s orderly rows of plants flourishing under grow-lights in the attic of a home in a suspended, hollowed-out pear. In such ways did House by Mouse offer up the intermingled pleasures of organization, predictability and abundance that together make up domestic serenity and security.

To this point the book’s sectional perspective drawings were perfectly pitched: they offered an illicit view into private domestic space, in the context of a larger landscape: not only could you see the furnished interior of the bear’s cave, but also the rest of the mountainside — the beehives, the cypress trees, the dinky letterbox — all at the same time. There was something enormously satisfying about seeing a dwelling in a continuum with the wider world, viewing the interior and the exterior site all at once. Not all of the illustrations were sectional — for instance, the frog’s lilypad pavilions and the cat’s Japanese courtyard house were seen in simple aerial perspective — and so these were my less favorite drawings, since it was much harder to project yourself imaginatively into those spaces.

From House by Mouse, illustrations by Doris Smith, story by George Mendoza.

The role of the architect-mouse seemed thus to make habitat, and this is why, in my conception, it was so essential that she focussed on houses. The bubble would have burst had she worked on public buildings, let alone generic, speculative commercial work. I found it endlessly satisfying that the mouse had such happy clients, some of whom she visited in the illustrations (often intrepidly — for instance, donning a diving bell to visit the trout’s undersea palace). These post-occupancy expeditions and evaluations seemed universally joyful and full of gratefulness. In short, I liked the idea of the architect as service provider, solving complex problems through brilliant, unique solutions, all the while ministering to the diverse needs of her satisfied constituents.

And this brings me to the reservations I have as an adult, trained in architecture, looking back at the values encapsulated in House by Mouse. It is still pleasing to see the architect as inventive service-provider, still pleasing to see happy clients, with no evidence of defects lists or rancorous contractual disputes. And it is still pleasing to think of buildings as places where tranquil lives can be played out, in perfect harmony with the character and predilections of the occupants. But what troubles me now is those for whom architectural services are almost always provided — the raw privilege represented by the bespoke pleasure palaces that the mouse designs. Who signs up to be an architect just to make houses for rich people? Perhaps it’s ridiculous that my adult class-consciousness should spoil the pleasure of a childhood world where there were no such things as class, or race, or gender, or any status division between the haves and have-nots. But back then I simply didn’t realize — couldn’t realize — how closely architecture cleaves to wealth and power elites. So for me this has become the unexpected question opened up by children’s books: what could or should be the role of the architect in society?

I have here identified several categories of children’s books about architecture and architects — books that celebrate architects as paragons of creativity; that function as primers on design history; that explore drawings and documentation; that explore the concept of home. There are yet more categories of such children’s books, and I hesitate to press any definite conclusions. But nonetheless I think we can see a real connection between the profession of architecture and the child’s world of imagination, invention and inhabitation. Architects truly do dream new worlds into being — and I’m not thinking just about visionary or paper architecture, the “unbuildable” futurist speculations that make up such a well-loved type through the history of the discipline. Even the smallest architectural design proposes to make an intervention in the known world, it dares to change things as they are, and to venture how they might be. It envisions a possible future, sometimes a fantastic one, and then sets out to make it manifest. If that’s not a rich subject for children’s books, I don’t know what is. But such books should also make us question what we want architecture and architects to be. Not just in fairytales, but in real life.

Naomi Stead, “Writ Small,” Places Journal, December 2012. Accessed 08 Feb 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/121211

Comments are closed. If you would like to share your thoughts about this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.

Past Discussions View
  • 12.15.2012 at 00:59

    ohhh This is really amazing. thx for post!

  • 12.17.2012 at 07:44

    Mine was The Mice Who Lived in a Shoe by Rodney Pepe, which doesn't seem to have been too widely read or much desired now, which is a pity - pick up a copy for 1 penny.


    This book is, essentially about some slum-dwelling mice who live in an old boot. The main architectural points discussed in this book are things like 'When it rained they got wet. When the sun shone, they got hot and when the cat came and put his paw in...' The mice solve these problems by a co-operative design and self build project. Oddly enough, these are exactly the kind of projects I like best now. Coincidence? I think not.

  • 12.17.2012 at 15:07

    This is a fantastic article. Love the idea of tracing the roots of the designer psyche to what seem to be ordinary childhood objects and activities.

    One vivid and lasting memory I have as a child was the non-verbal, purely diagrammatic narratives of LEGO instruction manuals. There was a clear and universal quality to the progression of those assembly diagrams that embedded itself into my thought process and remains to this day an inspiration for clarity in sequential communication. The idea that a series of additive drawings can illustrate the story of a self-manufactured toy is beautiful, and is the perfect example of an effective teaching approach using combined visual and haptic knowledge.

  • 09.25.2013 at 11:20

    Frankie's Bau Wau Haus
    Written by Melanie Brown & Anthony Lawlor
    Illustrated by Elaine Arnold
    Rizzoli, 1995

  • 10.02.2013 at 08:37

    When I was a kid, I loved "Andrew Henry's Meadow," about a boy who designs different houses for all the neighborhood kids who run away: