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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These are great for my city-born, country-bred child! We also like One Smart Skunk by Harriet Ziefert, in which the smart skunk of the title abandons suburbia for a happier life in a big (unnamed) city. She even declares the city to be a good place to rear children.

Also, "Remember Me to Harold Square" by Paula Danziger!

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