Life in the Big City

Life in the Big City

In her parenting blog Crunchy Granola, my friend Susan wrote recently that her daughter's school is starting a unit on cities. As a city girl myself, I immediately gripped with thoughts of city books and started drawing up a list of my favorites.

Here are some titles that jumped out at me right away, followed by a longer un-annotated list of other city-themed books. This is just a small selection, as so many children's books are set in cities that it's not even noted in any descriptions of the book. In many of the titles listed below, the city is so important that it's almost another character in the book.

One note: It hasn't escaped my notice that New York City (which happens to be my home town, and not coincidentally the dwelling place of many children's book authors) is overrepresented among books set in cities. In fact, a list of children's books that take place in New York would probably scroll through several screens of this blog! So I've tried to pick out the best of the NYC books, and make sure some other cities are represented as well. I've noted the name of the featured city when it's identified in the book.

Roberto the Insect Architect, by Nina Laden. Roberto has a problem: he's a termite, but unlike most of his species, he wants to create buildings, not eat them. He must leave home and cast his lot in the big city to fulfil his dreams. The complex layered collage illustrations and sly pun-filled text make this a great picture book for older kids.

Alphabet City, by Stephen Johnson, is probably my very favorite city book. It has no words, just letters to find in the city scenes on each page: from A (a construction sawhorse) to Z (a zigzagging fire escape). But it is more than worth a look; it's gorgeous. The illustrations are so finely detailed that I had to look closely and repeatedly to realize that they are paintings, not photographs. (Also, see Johnson's City by Numbers.)

The Journey,
by Sarah Stewart; illustrated by David Small. On her first trip to the big city, an Amish girl records her impressions each night in her journal. By day, she silently takes in the exciting, and sometimes moving, sights and sounds of Chicago. (The Gardener, by the same author, is also a story of city life through the eyes of a country girl.)

Cherries and Cherry Pits, by Vera B. Williams. Every day, Bidemmi grabs a handful of markers and draws pictures to match the stories she's making up, all about life in her city: about an old lady on the subway, a warmhearted father coming home to his children, a tall boy leaping his way up the stairs to his apartment, all of them "eating up cherries and spitting out the pits, eating up cherries and spitting out the pits." The bright, cheerful illustrations match Bidemmi's hopeful and generous voice.

Next Stop, Grand Central, by Maira Kalman, does a great job of capturing the buzz and zip of a big city train station. Like all Kalman's books, it's full of offbeat energy.

Other City-Themed Picture Books:

  • Black Cat, by Christopher Myers
  • Bronzeville Boys and Girls, by Gwendolyn Brooks, with new illusrations (Chicago)
  • City Angel, by Eileen Spinelli.
  • City Mouse, Country Mouse, [retold] by John Wallner
  • Eloise, by Kay Thompson (NYC)
  • Has Anybody Lost a Glove? By G. Francis Johnson; illus. by Dimitrea Tokunbo
  • Jenny and the Cat Club, by April Averill (NYC)
  • Jonathan and His Mommy, by Irene Smalls-Hector
  • Jonathan Cleaned Up…Then He Heard a Noise, by Robert Munsch (Toronto)
  • Knuffle Bunny, by Mo Willems (NYC/Brooklyn)
  • Madlenka, & Madlenka's Dog, by Peter Sis
  • Make Way for Ducklings, by Robert McCloskey (Boston)
  • Max's Wacky Taxi Day, by Max Grover
  • Meet Danitra Brown, by Nikki Grimes
  • Mural on Second   Avenue and Other City Poems, by Lilian Moore
  • Nothing Ever Happens on 90th Street, by Roni Schotter (NYC)
  • One Hot Summer Day, by Nina Crews
  • Pearl Moscowitz's Last Stand, by Arthur A. Levine
  • Round Trip, by Ann Jonas
  • Tar Beach, by Faith Ringgold (NYC)
  • The Case of the Elevator Duck, by Polly Berends
  • The Day of Ahmed's Secret, by Florence Parry Heide (Cairo)
  • The House on East   88th Street, by Bernard Waber (NYC)
  • The Little House, by Virginia Lee Burton
  • The Snowy Day and other books by Ezra Jack Keats
  • Wake Up, City, by Susan Verlander
  • Wild in the City, by Jan Thornhill
  • Wow! City! By Robert Neubecker

City-Themed Chapter Books:

  • A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett (London)
  • Alphabet City Ballet, by Erika Tamar (NYC)
  • Busybody Nora, by Johanna Hurwitz (NYC)
  • Changeling, by Delia Sherman (NYC)
  • Chasing Vermeer, by Blue Baliett (Chicago)
  • Child of the Owl, by Laurence Yep (San Francisco)
  • Clementine, by Sara Pennypacker (Boston)
  • Freaky Friday, by Mary Rodgers (NYC)
  • From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg (NYC)
  • Fudge series, by Judy Blume (NYC)
  • Hannah West in the Belltown Towers, and other Hannah West books by Linda Johns (Seattle)
  • Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh (NYC)
  • Last Summer with Maizon, by Jacqueline Woodson (NYC/Brooklyn)
  • Leon and the Spitting Image, by Allen Kurzweil (NYC)
  • Roller Skates, by Ruth Sawyer (NYC)
  • Sahara Special, by Esme Raji Codell (Chicago)
  • Seedfolks, by Paul Fleischman
  • The Beastly Arms, Patrick Jennings
  • The Cricket in Times Square, by George Selde (NYC)
  • The Saturdays, by Elizabeth Enright (NYC)
  • The School Story, by Andrew Clements (NYC)
  • The Young Unicorns, by Madeleine L'Engle (NYC)
  • Twinspell, by Janet Lunn (Toronto)


  • City of Angels: In and Around Los Angeles, by Elisa Kleven (Los Angeles)
  • Underground, by David Macaulay (NYC)

So, what are your favorite big city books?

January 30, 2008
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One Kid, One Vote: Young Readers' Choice Awards

One Kid, One Vote: Young Readers' Choice Awards

February is almost upon us, and that means it's the heart of election season. Oh, sure, there are the Presidential primaries, but I'm talking about the many regional Readers' Choice Book Awards that librarians are publicizing and children and teens are reading over the winter, to be voted on in the spring.

The Newbery and Caldecott Medals and their ALA-sponsored kin, announced last week, get the big international buzz, but these kid-chosen regional book prizes have a special place in my heart. Accolades from librarians, publishers, and academics are all very well, but what could be more meaningful to a children's author than a medal bestowed by kids themselves?

The premise behind readers' choice awards is simple: kids read from a slate of nominated books each year, and vote for their favorite title. The book that earns the most kids' votes gets the prize. For children's book authors whose books are up for these awards, the phrase "it's an honor just to be nominated" has real meaning, as school and public libraries stock up on multiple copies of each title on the ballot, so that kids can read as many nominees as possible before voting.

As a librarian at a Pre-K through 8th grade school for many years, I was a bit award-happy and promoted a bunch of them. My students liked having a say about which book wins, and some got very focused on reading as many of the nominees as possible. For myself, the need to promote the books spurred me to read titles I might otherwise have passed up--Saffy's Angel (the edition I first saw had a boring cover) and Runt (I'm not big on animal stories) are two that I'm sure I never would've picked up if I hadn't needed to talk them up  for the Young Readers Choice Award. I loved both books, and now recommend them all the time.

One award I'm fond of is the Washington Children's Choice Picture Book Award for grades K-3. I used to try to read as many of the twenty nominees as possible to the primary-grade students; they always got excited about the prospect of helping to choose, and took their votes very seriously. And the winner almost always surprised me; a couple of years ago it was Arrowhawk, the true story of a wild hawk who survived for several weeks with a poacher's arrow stuck in his leg before being rescued by raptor specialists. I would've thought the book was too intense and even gory to appeal to many younger kids, but they were fascinated and voted it in at my school and all over Washington State.

Because my daughter went to a different school that also participated in the WCCPBA when she was in kindergarten and first grade, we both ended up being familiar with the same slate of books, and having discussions about which ones we liked best. I had to work hard last year not to influence her to like my own favorites—because, of course, she had a vote, but I didn't!

If you have a child in elementary or even secondary school, he or she may well be able to participate in a kids' or teen choice book award through his/her school or local public library. Check this link for a list of choice awards throughout the United   States.  A list of Canadian children's book awards, including readers' choice awards, is also available online through the Canadian Childrens' Book Centre.

January 23, 2008

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The Envelope, Please: 2008 Newbery and Caldecott Medals

The Envelope, Please: 2008 Newbery and Caldecott Medals

One of the advantages of living on the West Coast is that any early-morning news breaking in the East is safely documented by the time I wake up. So this Monday morning, I bounded out of bed and straight to the computer, secure in the knowledge that a couple of keystrokes would lead me to the biggest news story of the year for children' book lovers: the American Library Association's press release announcing the Newbery and Caldecott book awards.

It's become almost a cliché to refer to these prizes as "the Oscars of children's literature," and relative to the general low-keyness of the children's book field (pre-Harry Potter, that is), the glamour of these awards glows, if anything, even more brightly than their cinematic equivalent.

The Newbery Medal, given each year to the author of the "most distinguished contribution to American literature for children" and Caldecott Medal, awarded to "the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children," are the oldest and best-known of the prizes, but several others have been added in recent years; my particular favorites are the Giesel Award (for easy readers), the Coretta Scott King Award (for books by and about African Americans), and the Printz Award (for teen books). One medal winner and two to four honor books are named in each category during the ALA's annual conference in January.

This year, the winners of both the Newbery and Caldecott Awards were surprising and unconventional choices: both books are by established authors and have won critical acclaim, but both were dark horses for different reasons. The Newbery medal winner, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, by Laura Amy Schlitz, is a collection of dramatic monologues about, well, a group of medieval villagers. Its author is best known for her 2006 novel A Drowned Maiden's Hair, which didn't get any Newbery recognition last year, though it won the first-ever Cybils middle-grade fiction award.

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, probably because it's hard to categorize (is it poetry? Drama? History? All of them?), hasn't been as widely bought or read; I have to admit that the library where I work doesn't own it, and that I haven't read it yet, though based on the excerpt provided on the Baltimore Sun's website, I can't wait. The book was written to be performed by a class of 5th graders studying the Middle Ages, and of course it's perfect for that purpose, but it looks like it would also be a great read-aloud with an individual child who's old enough to face some of the gritty realities of medieval life. I'm hoping that at least some of the monologues will be suitable to read to my poetry-and-drama-loving child.

The bestowal of the Caldecott Medal on Scholastic's own The Invention of Hugo Cabret,by Brian Selznick, was a surprise, too, but not for lack of popularity; the book, a mystery featuring a young boy who lives alone in a Paris train station, has been flying off bookstore and library shelves ever since it was released (I personally hand-sold several hardcover copies during my school library's book fair last spring, just by showing people the first few pages). It's been well-reviewed, too; most adults I know are as wowed as the kids by its innovative format. It was even featured as the first selection in Al Roker's Book Club for Kids.

But this is surely the very first time that the Caldecott Medal has been awarded to a book that's over 500 pages long. Nearly all past Caldecott winners have been conventional picture books: that is, 32 or at the most 48 pages, with a brief narrative and a focus on the illustrations. Hugo Cabret is a big doorstop of a book: a sort of novel-in-pictures that intersperses passages of text with stretches dozens of illustrated pages without any words at all. I don't think I'm the only children's book fan who felt the tectonic plates of her brain shift on Monday morning, taking in the understanding that the definition of "picture book" just got a lot broader.

Of course, award speculation in the children's book world, including the kidlitosphere, has been hot and heavy for weeks, if not months. After the announcements, Monday-morning quarterbacking is the norm: in past years, I've heard and read (and made) complaints that one winning book or another was not kid-friendly enough, was not nearly as good as some other book that didn't make the cut, was a consolation prize for an author or illustrator who really should have won for their last book…just like the Oscars, really. This year, the consensus seems to be delighted surprise.  MotherReader has a terrific roundup of bloggers' reactions, and Newbery Committee member Monica Edinger has written a thoughtful and revelatory series of Thoughts on Newbery posts chronicling her year on the committee.

January 16, 2008

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Cough, Sniffle, Snooze: Books About Illness

Cough, Sniffle, Snooze: Books About Illness 

Yesterday morning, my daughter dragged out of bed even more floppily and reluctantly than usual. She slumped into the kitchen and only picked at her warmed-up waffle. I would’ve put it down to general post-vacation malaise, but when she collapsed on the couch after a few minutes, asking for seltzer and an empty bowl in a weak and frighteningly polite voice, we had to face it: she was sick.

I came home from work bearing ginger ale, crackers, and vociferous thanks to the cousin who’d stepped in to do emergency childcare, and settled down with my recuperating girl, who’d had enough of videos and wanted me to read to her. So we snuggled on the couch together—germs be darned—and picked out favorite selections from our tattered and beloved family copy of this old illustrated compendium of fantasy. (So, she does like some of the books that I loved as a kid, after all.) 

As she lingered over the illustration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s much-anthologized poem, “The Land of Counterpane,” I wondered: where are the books about being sick? Yes, there are many wonderfully-written and much-needed children’s books about serious illnesses and diseases. But how many books are there, really, about the common experience Stevenson was writing about and that my daughter just experienced: being laid up for a couple of days with a cold or flu, missing school, and languishing on the couch or bed with a thermometer in your mouth, a glass of ginger ale at your side, and a box of tissues nearby, as you contemplate your own land of counterpane? 

As it turns out, there are more such titles than I would have guessed; I’ve provided a partial list at the end of this post. But first, a couple of my favorite picture books about illness:

Chicken Soup by Heart, by Esther Hershenhorn, ill. by Roseanne Litzinger . Rudie Dinkins’s sitter, Mrs. Gittel, always knows just how to take care of him when he has a “Rudie Dinkins chest cold.” But now Mrs. Gittel has the flu herself. With his mom’s help. Rudie fixes up a batch of special chicken soup, mixed in with stories and memories.

This is one of those rare and special books that you have to read aloud to truly appreciate. When I skimmed through this book silently, I liked the illustrations but the text didn’t jump out at me. But when I read it to a class, the words sang, and I understood why it won the Sydney Taylor Book Award in 2003. A warm and sweet treat. 

Miss Bindergarten Stays Home from Kindergarten, by Joseph Slate, illustrated by Ashley Wolff. In this third volume of the popular Miss Bindergarten series, the eponymous kindergarten teacher calls in sick with the flu. As her class (of 26 different animals, each starting with a different letter of the alphabet) adjusts to life with Mr. Tusky, the substitute teacher, the flu symptoms ripple through the student body: one by one, Adam the alligator, Brenda the beaver, and the others succumb and have to stay home, themselves. By the end of the book, Miss Bindergarten is ready to return to kindergarten, but…oh, poor Mr. Tusky.   

Everyone who’s been at school knows this common winter phenomenon, the rolling infectious illness that hits one kid (and teacher) after another, but this is the first book I’ve found to depict it so colorfully.

Here are some more picture book titles about colds, flu, chicken pox, and other minor afflictions of the season:  

Bateman, Teresa; ill. by Nadine Bernard. Farm Flu
Brown, Marc. Arthur’s Chicken Pox.
Calmenson, Stephanie. Get Well, Gators.
Hest, Amy; ill, by Anita Jeram. Don't you feel well, Sam?
Ehrlich, H. M. ; ill. by Laura Rader. Dr. Duck
Gray, Kes; ill. by Mary McQuillan. The get well soon book : good wishes for bad times
Thomas, Shelley Moore; ill. by Jennifer Plecas. Get Well, Good Knight
Hest, Amy; ill. by Jill Barton. Guess Who, Baby Duck!
Yolen, Jane; ill. by Mark Teague. How do Dinosaurs Get Well Soon?
Neitzel, Shirley; ill. by Nancy Winslow Parker. I'm not feeling well today
Hurd, Edith Thacher; ill. by Clement Hurd. Johnny Lion's bad day
Edwards, Pamela Duncan; ill. by Elicia Castaldi. Miss Polly has a Dolly
Murphy, Jill . Mr Large in charge
Rylant, Cynthia; ill. by Arthur Howard. Mr. Putter & Tabby Catch the Cold
McPhail, David. Rick is Sick
MacLachlan, Patricia; ill. by Jane Dyer. The Sick Day
Weninger, Brigitte; ill. by Marianne Martins. Stay in Bed, Davy
Kopelke, Lisa . Tissue, Please!

Wells, Rosemary; interior ill. by Jody Wheeler. The Germ Busters
Wilson, Karma; ill, by Jane Chapman. Bear Feels Sick


Enjoy, and good health to all in 2008! 


January 9, 2008

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