Kid's Stuff -- Books About Cities & City Life
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If you're like me, you may tire of all the cutesy, idyllic farm-and-country books. I mean, yeah, animals are fascinating, and they help children learn to differentiate and to empathize with other creatures, and we should all try and retain some connection to the natural world that births and sustains us... Sure, all of that is true, but then again, how many families even live within twenty miles of a grain silo or a corral anymore? For us city dwellers, it's a real relief to come across good books that reflect our lives, too: bustling neighborhoods, busy streets, concrete, traffic, sidewalks with cracks and weeds and maybe even a little trash or some dog poo on 'em. It doesn't have to be grim or depressing or teach a big lesson, but it is nice to see a story once and a while that looks like what we see from day to day. Here are a few favorites -- and, as ever, we'd love suggestions for a few more books on the same topic... Thanks!

Written by Jeannie Baker
Illustrated by Jeannie Baker
(Greenwillow, 2004)

A brilliant book showing the rebirth of a blighted urban neighborhood, as seen through the eyes of a young family that moves into a modest home on a seedy, run-down city street. Each densely-detailed, text-free page shows the same vista -- the view outside the daughter's window, from the day she was born, up through her marriage and the birth of her own child. Taken in two year leaps, we see the neighborhood slowly change for the better: the family digs up the concrete in their back yard and plants first a lawn, and then a wild, sprawling garden. One year their neighbor reaches over the fence and offers the girl a cutting of one of his plants, which eventually grows to be a towering tree; eventually the two families take down the fence between their yards, and a junky sheet metal fence facing the street is replaced with a trim wooden one, with a gate that the girl can use to go out onto the steadily improving boulevard. Meanwhile, a nearby crack alley is turned into a well-traveled corner park, vacant storefronts are brought to life and, way off in the distance, a highway flyover and an abandoned factory are torn down, to reveal a hidden river, with sailboats drifting by. The optimism of this book stands in contrast to many of Baker's other works, which shows environmental issues going in the opposite direction: downhill and towards disaster. Although this is a beautiful parable about community involvement and reclaiming the green from the gray, Baker never denies the permanence of the city: this story isn't about escapism, but rather about hopefulness and the hard work it takes to make positive change come true. Beautiful, and highly recommended. (A+)

"The Little House"
Written by Virginia Lee Burton
Illustrated by Virginia Lee Burton
(Houghton Mifflin, 1942)

A powerful, visually appealing story of a little country farmhouse that gets slowly engulfed, year by year, by the encroachment of a nearby booming metropolis. Eventually, the house is left derelict in a seedy neighborhood and is about to be demolished so something shiny and new can be built, when someone comes along who recognizes its beauty and saves it from the wrecking ball. I remember this book making a big impression on me when I was a little kid... It's a great story, artfully told and with a complex, multilayered narrative. Also a message that's close to my heart (perhaps in part to how moved I was by the story when I was young...) When I rediscovered it as a parent, though, I realized just how crushingly sad it is. In dramatic terms, this is an remorseless tragedy, with page after page of ratcheting sadness, only bringing the happy ending at the very end. It's a powerful critique of the changes that 20th Century moderization and urban sprawl brought to America, and the device of personalizing these changes in the form of an anthropomorphized little cottage was a canny move on Burton's part. Still, it's a story that's pitched at sensitive kids, and those very kids may have a hard time dealing with it until they are ready: my kid, who enjoyed Katy and Mike Mulligan almost burst into tears when we read this one... I guess we might need to wait a few years to try it again! Still, this is one of the best environmentalist stories ever written for kids, right up there with Dr. Seuss's The Lorax. Highly recommended. (A)

"My Steps"
Written by Sally Derby
Illustrated by Adoja J. Burrowes
(Lee & Low, 1996)

In this love letter to inner-city urban life, a young girl tells of how she plays all year long on her apartment stoop, coming up with all kinds of imaginative pastimes and games. The seasons pass by, and as the weather changes, so do her games. A cheerful, positive view of urban life as millions of kids have lived it, and a welcome change of pace from the idyllic moo-moo-neigh-neigh farmyard fantasies that dominate the world of childrens' lit. (Translated into Spanish as Mi Escalera.) (B+)

"Jethro Byrd, Fairy Child"
Written by Bob Graham
Illustrated by Bob Graham
(Candlewick, 2002)

Little Annabelle lives in the middle of the city, her backyard is right next to a filling station... But she still looks for fairies wherever she goes, and one day, when the Byrd family's ice cream truck crashes in the parking lot next door, she helps Jethro, the little fairy child and his family, and invites them over for tea. Mom and Dad can't see the fairy family, but they are polite anyway, and Jethro and Annabelle have a wonderful afternoon playing together. A lovely celebration of magic and magical thinking, this shows -- as many other Bob Graham books do -- regular kids living happy, imaginative lives amid crowded urban environs... The story is nice, the art is a delight, the only trouble is that the text is a little crowded. Everytime we hear from one fairy, each member of the family speaks as well, each in quick succession, and it's hard to keep them all separate, do all the different voices, etc. Still, this is a nice book, and for those who can see faeries, destined to be a classic. (B-)

"Oscar's Half Birthday"
Written by Bob Graham
Illustrated by Bob Graham
(Candlewick, 2005)

A sweet book about a little baby getting his "half birthday" at six months, because his loving family just can't wait to celebrate him. They go to a local park, set amid a super-urban, post-industrial landscape and have a little picnic, which is joined by numerous friendly strangers from the neighborhood, who all sing "Happy Birthday" for the little drooler... This is a great book for city folks, and particularly for scruffy, non-rich city folks who are tired of reading all those endless books about comfy upper-middle class families ensconced in rustic, idyllic farmhouses off in New England somewhere. In contrast, this features parents with baggy pants, simple t-shirts and unlaced sneakers, walking to a breezeway over a freeway next to their graffiti-laden apartment building. Their humble flat is cluttered but clean, and they accept -- perhaps even relish -- the imperfections around them. Oh, yeah, they're also an interracial couple, although the text calls no attention to it... In brief, this is a nice portrait of the contemporary urban, lower-middle class hipsters building lives in big cities such as London or San Francisco... If you're living there, you'll recognize this young family, and celebrate their cheerfulness and lighthearted embrace of life. The warmth and loving support they show their children defines this book, again, shown without much fanfare, but ringing wonderfully true. Recommended! (For more books by this author, see our Bob Graham profile page) (A-)

"One Of Three"
Written by Angela Johnson
Illustrated by David Soman
(Orchard Books, 1991)

The narrator is one of three -- the youngest of three sisters, growing up together in an urban apartment (presumably in New York City). The first half of the book shows the three sisters doing everything together, often with the rest of their family: going to school, walking home, riding the subway or taking a cab. Midway through, though, her older sisters ditch her, telling her to stay home while they go out and do big girl stuff. The youngest child sits, crestfallen, on the floor until mom and dad come to cheer her up, and then she's one of three again: a little girl with her two parents. A positive, cheerful, delightfully detailed kid's-eye view of modern life in a big city... nice! (B)

"Max Found Two Sticks"
Written by Brian Pinkney
Illustrated by Brian Pinkney
(Simon & Schuster, 1994)

A nice music-appreciation story about a young boy who loves to drum and makes everything he can into a percussion instrument -- paint buckets, trash cans, soda bottles, whatever. In the end, a drummer from a marching band tosses Max a couple of "real" drum sticks, and encourages his creativity and talent. Nice art, nice story; good if your kid is into drumming to begin with. Also nice to see kids in an urban, inner-city environment, just being kids. (A)

"Block Party Today!"
Written by Marilyn Singer
Illustrated by Stephanie Roth
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2004)

A simple celebration of a summertime block party in a (real life) Brooklyn neighborhood... The cast of characters is admirably multi-ethnic and multigenerational, although few real personalities emerge. The dramatic elements center on a trio of girls who are in the middle of a jump rope-related feud when the story begins. This part reads a bit roughly: we never see the original fight, and it is explained poorly (one girl is sulking at home because her friends wouldn't let her go first in yesterday's game, and they had a big fight about it...) The subplot also introduces a strong negative element in what purports to be a celebratory book -- there are two different narratives being crammed into one story, and the combination isn't handled very skillfully. Ultimately the happy, happy street party part of the book loses out, and the event itself seems ill-deifned: we see pictures of people dancing and playing in the street, but the text is about Lola's problems with her friends, Yasmin and Sue. Of course, they all get together and make up in the end, but I'm far less interested in their game of jump rope than in what the other people in the 'hood are up to. Then the party ends, and girls go home. Kinda clumsy, really. Maybe the book should have just been about the jump rope fight and the girls making up? Or just the block party? Oh, well. Nobody asked me. :-) (C+)

"Jonathan And His Mommy"
Written by Irene Smalls-Hector
Illustrated by Michael Hays
(Little, Brown & Co., 1992)

A young boy and his mother like to take walks together and walk silly walks -- zig-zags, backwards, hopping, crisscrossing each other's legs, etc. Monty Python would be proud! The setting is urban, but the tone is joyful and bright; also includes passing references to hip-hop and reggae, for the musically inclined. The text has a nice lilt to it, with a genuinely childlike tone, as Jonathan tells us about taking a walk with his upbeat, playful mom. Nice to read aloud, with lively, realistic artwork that was probably painted working from photos. Worth checking out. (B)

"Subway Sparrow/Gorrion Del Metro"
Written by Leyla Torres
Illustrated by Leyla Torres
(Farrar Straus Giroux, 1993)

When a sparrow flies into a New York City subway car, four city dwellers from different ethnic backgrounds and ages cooperate to capture the panicky bird and bring it back outside to street level and set it free. One man speaks only Spanish, and a woman speaks Polish, but everyone understands each other as they work together to solve the problem. A nice, simple story about cooperation, kindness to animals and compassion in the heart of the big city. Nice glimpse at one of the world's biggest subway systems as well, albeit in a slightly shinier version than many of us might be used to. (B)

"Wake Up, City!"
Written by Alvin Tresselt
Illustrated by Carolyn Ewing
(William Morrow & Co., 1990)

The rhythms of life in a big city are captured in this pre-dawn tone poem... Rosy-fingered dawn comes creeping an the city awakens, first clouds, then birds, then buildings and children and cars... The text is a teensy bit stilted, but that's okay -- it gives a great introduction to the mechanics of city life, the street cleaners and small markets, the traffic and transit. A clear, simple presentation that celebrates big-city life, based on a text originally written by Tresselt in the late 1950s. Recommended! (B+)

"Wake Up, City"
Written by Susan Verlander
Illustrated by Susan Verlander
(Chronicle Books, 2004)

A stylish, vibrant wake-up book, set in urban environs. This shows shopkeepers and subway cars, stalled commuters and school buses, all setting off to greet the day, already afire with loud noises and dazzling color. The artwork is cartoony and a little too stylized, and the text a bit thin, but if you're in the right mood, this could be a lot of fun. Beep, beep! Make way for the big city!! (C+)

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