Review of “Cities in Layers: Six Famous Cities through Time” by Philip Steele

Because so many kids have to learn from home these days, they could hardly do better than by acquiring this fascinating book jam-packed with information about cities, and how six of them in particular integrate their pasts into the present.

The author and illustrator together introduce us to Rome, Istanbul (formerly called Constantinople), Paris, Beijing, London, and New York City in various ways, allowing readers to develop different perspectives of them. A basic timeline situates all of them in history, and then the cities are explored individually. We learn who lived in them, what important historical events took place in them, the architecture that was and is common to them, and how the main sights of the cities changed or stayed the same over time. This latter feature is especially fun, because each city is shown on several pages, but set in a different time. For example, we first see, in the double-page spreads, Rome today, Rome in 1580, and finally Rome in 203 CE. Remarkably, a lot hasn’t changed! Although the Colosseum is depicted as filled with tourists in 2020, as opposed to a gladiator and lion in 203, it’s still around!

Rome, 203 CE

As part of the key that identifies significant buildings at the bottom of each city picture, you are provided with facts about the structures. For example, in the New York City of 1886, you read that the Statue of Liberty just opened in October of that year, and that it was a gift from France. In 1931 the statue is still there, but now the focus is on Ellis Island, where, from 1892 to 1954, over 12 million new immigrants arrived. The caption for New York City today tells you that Ellis Island is now a museum, and that you can climb the Statue of Liberty up to the crown. None of the three time periods shows the Twin Towers, but the current picture features One World Trade Center, explaining that it replaced the twin Towers after their destruction in 2001. Thus, even when important structures aren’t included in the pictures, you still learn about them in the text.

London, 1863

The book concludes with a brief discussion of what future cities might be like, and about important factors, like climate change, that might transform them.

Illustrator Andrés Lozano packs his bright colorful pictures of buildings with detail, and portrays recognizable characters from history with a whimsical, comic-book style.

Some historical city inhabitants by Lozano

Evaluation: One of the most enjoyable parts of visiting older cities is to see the old juxtaposed with the new. I always found it jarring in Alexandria, Virginia, for example, to see Christ Church, the parish home of George Washington, right next to a Ross Dress for Less. But you learn from such sights: What is important to this city? How does it choose to integrate the old and the new? In Rome we stayed on a square facing the ancient Roman ruins of four temples, around which were arrayed modern hotels, shops, and restaurants. How fun it was to step out of the door and travel into the past! And of course in Paris you can see the striking juxtaposition of the original structures of the Louvre, formerly a royal residence, now with the addition of a glass pyramid designed by I.M. Pei in the exterior courtyard.

A view of the Louvre Museum and its iconic pyramid.Photo: Getty Images

Thus in older cities, you can enjoy modern conveniences and updates without losing a sense of the history all around you. The effect can be quite dramatic visually, but is even more striking intellectually, as you can literally see the evolution of the city before your eyes, and gain an understanding of its development. You also get a sense of the role design guidelines have played in the city’s past, and whether city officials have endeavored to sustain the character of the city even while allowing for change in form and function. How much do new structures pay homage to the style and footprint of historical buildings? When are buildings renovated as opposed to restored? Do the architectural styles in a city reflect the availability of the materials used to build them? How much attention is paid to development at the level of the skyline, so important to the profile of a city?

There is so much to learn in this one book. It is geared to readers age 8-12, but I believe its appeal will extend both below and above that age range. For the many parents grappling with home schooling, this book is ideal. Not only is it educational and entertaining in and of itself, but will doubtless spur readers to find out more about cities and the architecture that defines them. And since my immediate reaction after finishing the book was “I want more!” perhaps some students will even feel inspired to construct similar keys to their own cities.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Candlewick Press, 2020

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5 Responses to Review of “Cities in Layers: Six Famous Cities through Time” by Philip Steele

  1. WHOA this is really cool! Those pictures are gorgeous! Okay, I am going to see if my library has this, and if not I probably need to order it for my nephew. How absolutely cool, wow!

  2. I love those illustrations! I want to buy this book so I can tear out the pages and hang them on my wall.

  3. Mae Sander says:

    Thanks for the really interesting review. I have been to 4 of those cities, but I think I would learn from reading the book, and it sounds really good for kids.

    be well… mae at

  4. Mystica says:

    Think this is a fascinating book for anyone with a love of history. I think we would all learn something from it.

  5. stacybuckeye says:

    Exactly what I need in my homeschool planning right now!

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