Wonderful Town

I’m back from a whirlwind trip to my hometown, including three (yes, three) Passover seders, one jaunt to Central Park, and a long afternoon waiting in line (followed by a couple of short elevator rides) at the ultimate New York tourist destination, the Empire State Building, where I’d actually never been before. I had an excellent Szechuan dinner and saw a grown-up Broadway show with an old friend, my daughter and my cousins and I went to a circus performance, we did a lot of window-shopping and ate a lot of street food and rode a lot of subways and saw a lot of relatives.

And on the very first day, before we’d even completely slept off our jet lag, we stopped by the main branch of the New York Public Library, posed under the lions, then went inside and met the kidlitosphere’s own Betsy Bird, live on the reference desk. She is swell, by the way, and gamely discussed the Top 100 Picture Books Poll and the virtues of various blogging platforms while simultaneously keeping an eye out for real, actual patrons who might have non-blogging-related questions.

It was a great visit. I love where I live, but I miss New York.

Fortunately for someone like me, who finds comfort in virtual travel through books, there is no better place to miss than New York City. I don’t think there’s any other single locale in the world that has been the setting for more books, especially children’s books. There are probably thousands of them. I featured several last year when writing about city books for kids. Here are five more that might ease the pains of homesickness if, like me, you miss the place where the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down:

Here’s the setup: a yellow-balloon-toting little girl is visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art with her grandmother, but, oh, no! balloons aren’t allowed into the building. A friendly guard saves the day by promising to look after the tethered balloon until the girl can retrieve it, but, oh, no! the balloon flies away. The guard runs after it, and the balloon leads him a merry chase through many of the city’s landmarks. Meanwhile, the girl is looking at some famous pieces of art, each of whose composition echoes the various shenanegans witnessed by the balloon and its pursuers (for example, a painting of Washington crossing the Delaware is shown opposite the scene in which a motley group piles into a small boat to chase the balloon across the pond in Central Park). Great fun, and would make an excellent to NYC for a kid who’s visiting for the first time.

This flat-out gorgeous picture book, adapted from a quilt created by the author-illustrator, is the story of Cassie and her family and their summer nights up on their roof, the “tar beach” of the title. Life is not easy for this family: Cassie’s dad, a construction worker, can’t get into the union because of his race. But at its heart, this book is a tribute to one child’s imagination, and her love of the city; over which she imagines she can fly, soaring over the buildings and bridges and transcending all the problems and worries of everyday reality.

A rebellious child of wealth skates through 1890’s Manhattan during one precious year of freedom, and never really returns. Full of fascinating glimpses of long-vanished sights, like Bryant Park before it was the site of the New York Public Library. And you just have to root for Lucinda all the way.

Tourist suggestion: read this book, and then the sequels, which are, in order, All of a Kind Family Downtown, More All of a Kind Family, and All of a Kind Family Uptown (don’t make the mistake I did and read More AOAKF right after the first one or you’ll get all confused). Then, book a tour of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum to see the tiny spaces that large immigrant families like the one in this book really lived in (though I always got the sense that this family’s apartment was slightly larger than the ones in the Tenement Museum—after all, they had that beautiful parlor that was dusted every day by a different sister!) An American family classic, right up there with the Little House books, Little Women, Betsy-Tacy, and The Birchbark House.

(Full disclosure: I have a family connection with the author. But even if I didn’t, this book would have me wishing I knew her.)

New York City feels like a place where anything can happen, where almost too much life, too much variety, too many different things and people and thoughts, are packed into one small space. Changeling gives that magic another dimension, depicting a city in which fairies and other mythical beings of all cultures, imported to New York along with immigrants from all over the globe, coexist in uneasy harmony (and disharmony) with regular folk and literary creations. I’m rereading it now, in hopes of keeping that magical feeling from fading just a little bit longer.


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