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Motel of the Mysteries


What books from your childhood still have a hold on you as an adult? Do you think of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie every time something in your life snowballs out of control? Did the Berenstain vs. Berenstein revelation blow your mind? Do you automatically put on a Grover voice when you think of There’s a Monster at the End of this Book? Are you also freaking out over The Wrinkle in Time big screen adaptation coming soon to a theater near you? (If you answered yes to any of these I bet I know how old you are.)

I must have read Motel of the Mysteries  100 times as a child, and I have revisited this book more times than I can think of as an adult, always dismayed to find it still out of print. David Macaulay, the creative genius behind those cool architectural picture books like Cathedral, Castle, and The Way Things Work, wrote and illustrated this book that I can’t resist reading every time I come across it. It’s brilliant! Written in 1979, it remains, in my mind at least, the best way to introduce scientific thinking and concepts of archaeology to children. Frankly, the illustrations and humor are so wonderful I would consider the book just as engaging for adults.

Archaeologists in the year 4022 discover what they interpret to be an elaborate burial site for royalty. The reader is in on the joke of course–the “ancient burial site” is clearly a 20th century motel: the Motel “Toot n C’mon” (Go ahead, read that aloud). I am certain this book gave me my perverse love of puns. The ceremonial headdress in the image above is a toilet seat, complete with the “sanitized for your protection” strip written in an indecipherable ancient language spoken in the land of “Usa” that the future archaeologists have apparently yet to decode.

The book is a feast of irony and a lesson in misinterpretation. Readers might find themselves examining all of the common disposable goods that surround us and that we take for granted. Think about someone excavating your basement thousands of years from now! The stuff we keep and the stuff we throw away is all evidence we will leave behind for future civilizations to discover and use to parse out how we lived our daily lives. The mountains of plastic trash we leave behind will undoubtedly have a lot to say about our culture.

Please, PLEASE won’t somebody issue a reprint or create an updated version of this book? The cultural references in the book are becoming a tad dated for 21st children but the approach still resonates. We do own a copy at Richmond Public Library so I urge you to get your hands on this clever and beautifully illustrated book–you really are never too old for David Macaulay’s books.

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