Today’s list is all about great children’s books set in New York City. The anniversary of 9/11 is quickly approaching and whether or not your children are old enough to understand the import of that event I encourage you to share with them the awesomeness of NYC with these fun children’s picture books set in New York City.
I’m raising my kids in New York City and I love being able to read books to them that reflect their experiences growing up in a diverse urban neighborhood, but these books can be enjoyed by everyone, whether you live in the city, country or suburbs.
There are a lot – I mean A LOT of children’s books set in NYC. I would venture to guess it is the most illustrated city in children’s literature. This book list is by no means comprehensive, and no doubt it is missing a few of your favorite Big Apple titles. I do feel a bit traitor-ish not including every book set in this great city, but how could I? My hope is to introduce some new-to-you books set in New York City, but by all means leave a comment telling me which ones you would have put on the list! (Eloise, anyone?) (Note: book covers and title links are affiliate links.)
Picture Books Set in New York City
Laundry Day is a celebration of the diverse, multicultural population that makes living in New York City such an exciting experience. One day a length of red fabric floats down and lands on a young shoeshine. He looks up to see miles of laundry lines criss-crossing the tenement-lined alleyway. Making his way from apartment to apartment by way of the fire escapes, he encounters the friendly inhabitants from various cultural backgrounds, including a Chinese grandmother, four young Polish girls, a harried Irish mother, an African-American prospector, and others. Each neighbor expresses their admiration for the fabric, using a cultural reference (and new foreign word) but it is not until he reaches the roof, that the shoeshine finds its owner.
The Man Who Walked Between the Towers tells the story of funambulist (there’s your word of the day!) Philippe Petit’s 1974 feat. The dizzying views and magnificent skyline in the illustrations is accompanied by quite a poetic, but spare text. The book ends with an acknowledgement that the towers are no longer standing, but the overall tone of the book is optimistic and a tribute to both the towers and the daring ingenuity of Petit.
What Happens on Wednesdays. I absolutely adore this book and when I met the author (who also wrote Toys Go Out!) at a book fair I expressed sadness that this book was out of print. She said (as any author would), “Tell the publisher!” So that’s what you should do!! But while we wait for it to come back into print, head over to your library and check out this marvelous tale of a young child’s daily Wednesday routine in her Brooklyn neighborhood. I love how both parents are equal partners and illustrator Lauren Castillo (also one of my faves!) hits all the right notes in her details of the nabe’s inhabitants. Even if you couldn’t care less about NYC, you should read this book. Truly. You will love it.
Molly, by Golly!: The Legend of Molly Williams, America’s First Female Firefighter. The NYFD will forever be linked with 9/11 so why not read a book about the very first female firefighter, who just happened to be a heroic cook in a firehouse during the winter of 1818. Molly is a true heroine, placing the lives of others above her own. Lots of historical detail bring this little known figure to life. This book is also on my list of biographies about African-American women.
Herman and Rosie was one of my favorite books of 2013. Herman and Rosie are two musicians, but they are lonely, just waiting to meet someone they can call a friend. There is a lot of delectable detail in the book, both in the descriptions of the characters, and also in the drawings. It’s truly a love story – of the city, of music, of life.
Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Melissa Sweet. NYC was (and is) the location of much social change in the United States and this book tells a valuable story of the history of women workers and the importance of fair labor practices, which still resonates today. Clara comes to NYC dirt poor but full of grit. She works a miserable, backbreaking job at a garment factory. An extraordinary individual, she taught herself to read and led the largest walkout of women workers in U.S. History, despite being beaten and jailed for participating in labor strikes. Also on my list of picture books about women in history.
When Blue Met Egg is also on my list of favorite picture books of 2012. Illustrated with winsome cut paper collage artwork, Ward’s debut picture book is about a little bird who takes good care of a snowball that she believes to be an egg. Parents might feel a bit nostalgic for a time long ago in health class when they were asked to believe an egg was a baby.
City Hawk: The Story of Pale Male. When you think “New York City”, do you think “wildlife”? I thought not. It just so happens that the city is filled with wildlife other than pigeons and rats. Pale Male is a well-known red tailed hawk living at the edge of Central Park. There was even a PBS movie made about him and his mate who took up residence on the balcony of a chic 5th avenue apartment building. Their nest caused quite a kerfuffle, sparking protests and government intervention. There are several books about Pale Male, but start with this one.
Keats’s Neighborhood: An Ezra Jack Keats Treasury. Keats’ most famous book is The Snowy Day, but he wrote many other books about the diverse children that populate the borough of Brooklyn, NY. I’ve always felt Keats’ mixed media collages perfectly capture the vibrancy of urban life and the wide range of experiences that kids growing up on sidewalks and in apartments have. Se also: 21 picture books with diverse characters.
At Night is a small, quiet book about life on the rooftop of a walk-up. It’s a view that I had never experienced before moving to the city, but is such an integral part of urban living. When she has trouble sleeping, a young girl takes her pillow up to her rooftop garden where she enjoys the cool night air and the views of the bridges and lights. This is a great bedtime book.
The Tree is a fascinating science and history book. It follows the the 250 year story of a single elm tree in Madison Square Park, from its beginnings as a seedpod, through its determination to grow during both turbulent and calm years of the city’s history. Each double page spread includes a time line of historical events and the book emphasizes the co-existence of nature and society as both evolve side-by-side.
Chinatown. William Low’s gorgeous saturated illustrations share the vivid experience that is NYC’s Chinatown. Spare text takes us on an intergenerational tour of the lively neighborhood. The narrator imparts the wisdom of his grandmother as he describes Chinatown from a variety of perspectives, such as shop windows, dense apartments, crowded sidewalks, subway entrances, and of course, the New Year celebration.
When You Meet a Bear on Broadway is a quirky tale about being lost and separated from one’s mama. Only the one lost is not the child, but the bear. First the narrator establishes some ground rules as to what to do when you meet a wild animal in the city (always be polite, for example) and then the girl asks the bear a number of questions so they can set out on their way to find his mama. They search through the city until they come to the park, where they discover the perfect way to find a mama (I won’t give it away).
Tell Me a Mitzi is a classic I remember well from my childhood. It consists of three stories. In the first, Mitzi wants to visit grandma but since her parents are asleep, she gets her brother ready all by herself and gets them into a taxi, only to realize she doesn’t know that address. The middle story will be familiar to moms everywhere who have to take care of everyone else when they are sick… until she gets sick herself. In the third story, the children and their father turn a presidential motorcade upside down over a piece of gum. All the stories are charming vignettes of daily life, sweet without being saccharine, and set in the city without screaming “Look at me! I’m an important landmark!”
ABC NYC: A Book About Seeing New York City and 123 NYC: A Counting Book of New York City are wonderful books suitable for toddlers on up. While they are marvelous teaching tools for kids learning their letters and numbers I like them because they encourage the reader to look a little closer at the world around them. All of the locations are identified in the back of the book so whether you live in the city or are just an armchair traveller, you can put the photos in a city-wide context.
Every New York parent has a subway-loving tot. I attribute my kids’ early knowledge of the alphabet and numbers to our regular rides on the subway. Our beloved copy of Subway is worn thin. Every page has several pieces of tape holding it together. As soon as this book was published (2010) I snapped up a copy since I knew my boys would love it. With its snappy rhymes, copious use of the MTA (Metro Transit Authority) icons and the spot on scenarios (what parent hasn’t ridden the the subway just because their kids wanted to?), this is a book every subway-riding kid will want to snuggle up to.
New York in Pajamarama is a seriously awesome book which uses an “Ombro-Cinema” technique to create the illusion of movement. Included with the book is a sheet of acetate imprinted with narrow black lines. When reading the book, kids slide the acetate across the book’s illustrations. The movement of the acetate across patterned lines imbedded in the illustrations makes the book come alive.The nature of this illustrative magic is perfect for creating the dynamic movement of city life with its sparking lights, racing taxis, rustling leaves in Central Park, frantic shoppers and dizzying skyscraper-induced vertigo.
Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale is a book you have likely heard of and perhaps already read to your kids. What you may not know is that the first two Knuffle Bunny books are photographed exclusively in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope, with its characteristic brownstones and wide sidewalks bordering the beautiful Prospect Park.
I wasn’t intending this list to be a list of picture books to directly teach kids about NYC (rather books that happen to be set in NYC), yet I can not resist including A Walk in New York, with its retro-inspired drawings depicting a boy and his father touring The Big Apple. The pair take in all the sights and the diversity of people as they make their way through the city (aka Manhattan), starting at the NY Public Library. Lots of little informative blurbs give kids insight into the scenes.
Tar Beach. This is an interesting book to me on so many levels. At a family picnic on a hot summer evening on the roof of their Harlem apartment, a young girl imagines coasting through the starry sky on a blanket with her brother over the George Washington Bridge (you would be surprised at how many books there are that feature flights over NYC, I could make a list just about that!), which her father helped build. The girl’s optimistic dreams of her own future and the possibilities ahead of her do not gloss over the hardship that her family faces. Ringgold’s gorgeous illustrations are quilts come to life. You will also find this book on our list of books about summer in the city.
A City Is is a book of short poems about urban life in NYC. The late Norman Rosten was the first poet laureate of Brooklyn and illustrator Melanie Hope Greenberg brings life to his words with colorful vignettes that take readers on a visual tour through the city during the course of a year. Incidentally, Greenberg designs coloring pages for this blog, and you can download (for free, of course) her New York City Coloring Page.
The Castle on Hester Street is a notable read for many reasons. First because Jewish immigrants play such an important role in the history of the city, but also because the idea of NYC as a place of opportunity is still firmly rooted in our consciousness. Grandpa Hester’s storytelling is filled with fanciful details about immigrating to NYC with a singing goat, and selling jeweled buttons from a pushcart. He sees his past through joyful rose-colored glasses. Grandma, on the other hand, describes their immigrant experience through more practical lenses, but no less joyful.
So tell me, which favorite New York City picture book did I fail to include?