NEW YORK WIRE   |

May 26, 2024
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Why Do New York City Kids’ Books Resonate?

child and her mother reading a book
Photo Credit: Unsplash.com

Children’s books aren’t just about talking animals and magical wardrobes; they offer a unique lens through which to see iconic places. Some of the most beloved kids’ books are set in New York City, capturing its energy, quirks, and unexpected pockets of wonder through the eyes of young protagonists.

Eloise (1955): Living Large and Causing Mayhem

Forget quiet good manners – Eloise is a force of delightful chaos, turning the posh Plaza Hotel into her own personal playground. She sees long carpeted hallways and thinks, “Perfect for racing my turtle, Skipperdee!” The elevator? Ideal for conducting grand opera performances for bemused guests. The fancy room service menu isn’t just for meals, oh no, it’s perfect for ordering raw turtle food at any hour of the day.

Eloise embodies the secret dream many kids have – what if adults weren’t in charge for a little while? What if all the rules could be gleefully broken, just to see what happens? While parents might read the Eloise stories with a slight sense of apprehensive amusement, kids are charmed by her audacity. She does things they would never dare, taking every bit of stuffy ‘grown-up’ formality and flipping it on its head.

The real magic comes from the clash between Eloise’s boundless energy and the luxurious setting of the Plaza. It’s inherently funny to see a six-year-old throwing a wild pool party in a penthouse suite or demanding that the chef create extravagant dishes for her pet dog. “Eloise books remind us how kids view the world differently,” says an early childhood educator. “Sometimes their perspective is messy, but always surprising and full of imagination – much like the city itself.”

Harriet the Spy (1964): Finding Adventure on the Upper East Side

With Harriet M. Welsch, the Upper East Side of Manhattan isn’t a backdrop for glamorous lives – it’s a spy thriller in the making! Harriet’s weapon isn’t a fancy gadget, it’s her trusty notebook, where she records every juicy detail about the people she observes. The grumpy deli owner, her emotionally distant parents, even her best friends – no one is safe from Harriet’s blunt and often hilariously insensitive assessments.

Her “spy route” takes her on a familiar path that, through Harriet’s eyes, becomes filled with potential mysteries. That ordinary trip to the grocery store? A chance to overhear snippets of conversation and speculate wildly about what secrets people might be hiding. A walk through the park isn’t just about fresh air, it’s an opportunity to observe the strange rituals of the grown-up world, from power lunches to odd nannies in old-fashioned uniforms.

Harriet embodies the childhood fascination with decoding the world around us. Adults move through life on autopilot, but kids notice the weird stuff – the neighbor who never goes out after dark, the coded language parents use when they think kids aren’t listening. Harriet takes that curiosity and amps it up to an extreme, showing that even within a small, familiar neighborhood, there are always stories waiting to be uncovered.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1967): Runaways in the Met

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is the ultimate museum fantasy brought to life! Imagine having the entire Metropolitan Museum of Art – those endless galleries, hidden corners, and rooms filled with treasures – completely to yourself. That’s what Claudia and Jamie achieve, turning their meticulously planned runaway adventure into something wholly unexpected and magical.

There’s something empowering about seeing the Met through their eyes. Those imposing statues of Greek gods or those rooms filled with dusty Egyptian artifacts become less intimidating. Claudia and Jamie bathe in the Italian Renaissance fountain, try out suits of armor for size, and create a cozy (if not exactly historically accurate) bedroom within a period English mansion set up inside the museum.

While there’s an element of thrilling wish-fulfillment, the book also subtly hints at how big institutions designed for adults can sometimes feel overwhelming to a child. Claudia and Jamie’s escapades make the Met their own. They solve its mysteries, live amongst its treasures, and come away with a new appreciation for the stories hidden within those often overlooked objects.

The View from Saturday (1996): Finding Your Tribe in the Big City

In The View from Saturday, it’s not about soaring skyscrapers and iconic landmarks, but the smaller, more intimate corners of NYC that create a sense of belonging. The story follows four sixth-graders, each feeling a little bit like an outsider for different reasons, who come together to form the unlikely Souls team for the Academic Bowl.

Their journey takes them to various neighborhoods – the hustle of Chinatown for delicious dim sum feasts, the quirky charm of a West Village tea shop where their beloved teacher Mrs. Olinski shares her wisdom, the academic pressure at an elite private school. Each spot becomes a backdrop for the deepening of their friendships and a growing awareness of the wider world beyond their own blocks.

The city itself feels like a supporting character. There’s a comforting rhythm to their routine – navigating the subways together, sharing meals in bustling restaurants, the quiet understanding they find amidst the ever-present hum of city life. “The View from Saturday reminds us that even a huge city can hold small pockets of connection,” observes a book enthusiast. “It’s about finding the people who make you feel seen and understood, even among millions of strangers.”

The tradition of NYC-based children’s lit continues! Recent examples show the city’s continued evolution through new eyes:

  • Last Stop on Market Street (2015) by Matt de la Peña: A young boy and his grandma explore a less glamorous, more diverse part of the city by bus, finding beauty in everyday moments and the kindness of strangers.
  • The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street (2017) by Karina Yan Glaser: A heartwarming story about a Harlem family fighting to keep their beloved brownstone home. It highlights issues of gentrification and the importance of community.

There’s something special about NYC that makes it such fertile ground for children’s stories. Perhaps it’s the built-in sense of energy, the promise that an unexpected adventure might be just around the corner. Maybe it’s the diversity of the city itself, a microcosm of the wider world reflected in the characters and neighborhoods these books portray.

“NYC in children’s books isn’t just about landmarks,” says a librarian.” It’s about the possibility, the feeling that anything can happen, all seen through the lens of kids who are bravely navigating their own small corner of this very big place.”

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