Youngsters Read the City: Books for Little Urbanists

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So many children’s books feature barnyard animals or single-family houses with big lawns and people riding in cars – all rather remote concepts for a New York child. And while nearly every museum in the city has a handful of classic New York-themed children’s titles for sale, they’re almost always the same three or four books. While the classic Eloise is fun and the graphic NYC ABC is a delight, the children’s Gotham bookshelf has much more depth. Here’s a list of sometimes overlooked titles with engaging art that celebrate the city, for those of us who don’t live in The Plaza.

These ten volumes are among the favorites in our apartment and nearly sing off the page when read aloud. They are perfect for city kids, honoring their imagination with pictures and notions that look like their world. And they are great for slipping some pro-city propaganda to your suburban niece or nephew.

Uptown by Bryan Collier, Henry Holt & Co., 2004

Collier’s moody collage art illustrates the poem-like narration of a little boy who rhapsodizes with pride about his Harlem neighborhood: “Uptown is basketball at the Rucker. Uptown is a Van Der Zee photograph …Uptown is the Apollo Theater.” As the boy tours the neighborhood, Collier’s textured, detailed collages create a warm, dense backdrop of sidewalks, storefronts and brownstone stoops.

Apt. 3 by Ezra Jack Keats, Puffin, 1999

Jack Keats is deservedly beloved for his 1962 classic “Snowy Day.” His other books are just as great. In “Apt 3,” two school-aged brothers who live on the upper floors of an apartment building hear a magical sound in the hallway. Curious, they follow the music down a shadow-laden stairway to Apt. 3 where they meet a blind jazzman. It’s a lovely lesson about the mystery and potential beauty behind the closed doors of a neighbor.

Dreams by Ezra Jack Keats, Puffin, 2000

Another beautiful Keats story, “Dreams” is sparsely written and illustrated with understated sketches. A little boy and girl with adjoining upper story windows play in the orangey evening light. Soon mothers’ voices can be heard throughout the building, sending everyone to bed and snapping off each light. But the boy can’t sleep. He leans on his window sill, watching the sleeping neighborhood. When a dog menaces a neighbor’s cat, the little boy drops a paper toy. Its tumbling casts a massive shadow that scares off the dog. When morning comes, the apartment building wakes but the hero slumbers on, his window radiating a beautiful swirl of dreamy colors.

Black Cat by Christopher Myers, Scholastic Press, 1999

In this rhythmic, poetic story, a slinky black cat roams across fire escapes and vacant lots, along basketball courts and under parked cars. The cat is clearly a stray, but it sees the city as its playground and is proudly free. Myers illustrations are stylish fabric, newspaper and print collages.

Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold, Dragonfly Books, 1996

The work of African-American quilt artist Faith Ringgold is exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum, displaying a contemporary approach to the folk art story quilts of the antebellum south that told family stories and mapped journeys on the Underground Railroad. “Tar Beach” is narrated by a little girl during the Depression who spends summer nights on the roof of her building near the George Washington Bridge. As her parents and neighbors eat dinner and play cards on a folding table, the girl takes flight, floating over the bridge her steelworker father built, the meeting hall of the union that excludes him because he is Native American and African-American and, for good measure, the ice cream factory.

Madlenka by Peter Sis, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000

This simple story about a girl who takes a walk around the neighborhood to tell everyone that her tooth is loose is worth opening for the artwork. The illustrations are all done with a fanciful kaleidoscopic perspective. We see the earth, the United States, New York City, then a block in SoHo, finally Madlenka’s apartment building and the little girl’s face in the window. Madlenka runs down the sidewalk from storekeeper to storekeeper announcing her loose tooth. Each merchant is from a different country and greets Madlenka warmly in his own language and accent. Each page reveals the storekeepers’ memories – the French baker says “Bonjour Madeleine,” as the Eiffel Tower spins on the page behind him. The simple story is perfect for a three- or four-year-old who probably makes similar trips around the world on neighborhood shopping trips. The line drawings and shifting perspectives make “Madlenka” a book a young reader can pore over for hours.

Subway by Anastasia Suen, illustrated by Karen Katz, Viking Juvenile 2004

Tired of board books about animals your child only sees at the butcher shop? My child took his first subway ride at two weeks, so the sights and sounds of the train have always been part of this life. This board book illustrated by the stellar Karen Katz imitates the rollicking, rhythmic and rushing sounds of a trip on the train.

Down in the Subway by Miriam Cohen, illustrated by Melanie Hope Greenberg, Star Bright Books 2003

Cohen’s book is a similar celebration of the subway. A little girl sits bored on the train until she notices a Caribbean woman with a big straw bag. The woman winks, then saves the passengers from a sticky, slow ride by pulling a cool island breeze, the clear blue sea, a picnic lunch, a Calypso singer and finally a whole Caribbean town out of the magic bag. The story is all sing-song rhythm and simple happiness, a great way to pass the time on a long ride and a great way to transform the mundane into magic.

No Jumping on the Bed by Tedd Arnold, Puffin, 1996

This story illustrates just why it is that kids should jump on the bed. The main character little boy jumps one time too many before bedtime and his bed crashes down through the floor, startling the downstairs neighbor. The bed crashes all the way down the apartment line, interrupting a fancy dinner party, surprising an old woman drinking tea and introducing the jumping boy to everyone in the building. It’s a great lesson on shared space and a nice gift for that heavy-footed kid upstairs from you.

Old MacDonald Had an Apartment House by Judi and Ron Barrett, Atheneum, 1998

Originally published in 1969, I’m surprised this book isn’t for sale at every farmers market. It’s definitely ideal for the community gardening, food justice, “localvore” crowd. Old MacDonald is a super in an apartment building who gets the gardening bug after planting a few tomatoes in front of the building. When a tenant vacates an apartment, MacDonald trucks in dirt and turns that unit into a farm. Before long MacDonald’s green thumb transforms the entire building, with carrots on the ceiling, sweet potatoes on the floor, cabbages in the carpet, and bean stalks winding through the pipes. Kids will laugh and adult readers might start thinking about putting some plants on the windowsill, the fire escape, the roof…

– Eileen Markey

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