My daughter, like her mother, LOVES books, and, also like her mother, she loves books about New York. I noticed recently, as I was putting books away after one of the read-a-thons we call “bedtime,” though “booktime” would be more accurate, is that we have a TON of picture books about New York City, and I am guessing that this is typical of many New York households with children. I think that we, as parents, either consciously or unconsciously, want our children to love New York as much as we do and to understand the beauty and richness and complexity that is their hometown. There are countless children’s books, as well as young adult books, that have New York City as their setting or subject, and the list keeps growing. I do not profess to be an expert on the subject, but I am most certainly an expert on what books my New York daughter likes.
One of her all-time favorites is Kay Thompson’s Eloise, a book I never read myself as a child. From a parent’s perspective, Eloise’s story is a sad one. She is left to live with her very loving nanny at the Plaza Hotel while her mother gallivants around the world leading the glamorous life and calls every once in a while to say hello or to send for her daughter to join her in some exotic locale. But Eloise shows us that she is a resourceful and inventive six year old with unlimited imagination and spunk. The Plaza Hotel, that New York landmark that in real life houses her portrait, is Eloise’s plaything and constant companion. She is indeed a “city child,” as she describes herself, mingling with (and sometimes terrorizing) the hotel guests and using its hallways and grand salons as backdrops for her daily dramas. My daughter and I have read Eloise countless times, and, as its subtitle states, it is “a book for precocious grown ups,” thus I enjoy it as much as she does, every single time.
Another classic that graces our shelves is not an obvious New York book. My daughter loves Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen so much that she memorized it word for word. The only way I know she is reciting and not actually reading it is that she looks at the pictures, not the words, when “reading” it aloud. The story appears to be set in Brooklyn, where Sendak grew up, and features an unusual depiction of the Manhattan skyline. From a historical perspective its themes are dark—mustachioed men baking a boy in an oven—but it is also a story about a child dreaming of falling into an imaginary urban landscape where buildings are made from baking ingredients and utensils.
My daughter’s third favorite New York book is a lesser-known, quieter book that has actually moved me to tears. At Night, by Jonathan Bean, is about a girl who cannot sleep until she decides to set up a makeshift bed on her roof. She finally falls asleep once she is able to feel her place in the city:
She lay in her bed
on her house in the city,
in the night,
under the sky.
She thought about the wide world
all around her and smiled.
She looked up,
breathed, closed her eyes…and slept.
This excerpt loses much without the illustrations, but I have choked back tears when reading this aloud, perhaps because I, too, had trouble sleeping as a child when faced with the dark night. To my daughter’s relief, by the time the protagonist falls asleep on the roof, her mother is sitting in a chair watching over her daughter, so she is not sleeping outside alone.
I feel that I must not leave out This is New York, Miroslav Sasek’s classic 1960 book from his series of children’s travel guides to large metropolises around the world. My daughter claims that she finds the book “boring,” as it does not have a story but is a catalog of facts about places in the city, but I have caught her poring over its pages and see her face light up whenever she comes across an illustration of a site she recognizes. Narrative or no narrative, she is drawn to its visual cues—water towers, subway stations, hotdog vendors, and, of course, the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building.
These are four out of oodles of great picture books about or set in New York. Everyone who grew up in New York has his or her favorites. These are my daughters, at least for now. I cannot wait until she is older, when I can introduce her to more complex New York stories such as Stuart Little and The Cricket in Times Square. One of my personal favorites is E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed Up files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler about a sister and brother team who hide out in The Metropolitan Museum of Art and get caught up in a mystery involving a statue.
New York is a fascinating topic for readers, no matter what age. Children who grow up in New York City have a very singular perspective. For a short while, before they realize that the world is wide, they do not know anything else. They think the entire world is like New York until they slowly come to realize that New York is like no other place in the world. Oh, to be in that place again, when the world was my oyster, and that oyster was New York!
Bean, Jonathan. At Night. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007.
Konigsburg, E L, and E L. Konigsburg. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. New York: Atheneum, 1967.
Sasek, M. This Is New York. New York: Macmillan Co, 1960.
Selden, George. The Cricket in Times Square. New York: Ariel Books, 1960.
Sendak, Maurice. In the Night Kitchen. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1970
Thompson, Kay, Hilary Knight, and Marie Brenner. Kay Thompson’s Eloise: The Absolutely Essential Edition. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1999.
White, E B, and Garth Williams. Stuart Little. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.