Children’s Fiction in the City

By Avigail Oren, with contributions from Kevin Seal, Melanie Newport, and other #twitterstorians

I’m spending the month of February living in the bedroom I occupied as a teenager, in the house my parents have lived in for almost twenty years, which is mercifully located in the warm and sunny state of Florida. In the parlance of the internet, I just can’t with winter anymore. So here I am, surrounded by the books my parents bought me as a child, brought from Chicago and St. Paul to Gainesville, where I added more to the collection.

When we proposed the City in Fiction series on The Metropole, I did not anticipate that I would simultaneously be editing thoughtful analyses of novels set in the urban landscape and weeding through my own personal archive of fiction. But I have been, and in addition to the books by Judy Blume and Sharon Creech, the volumes of the Anastasia and Alice series, and the bevy of great historical fiction for young readers, I found the seeds of my own personal interest in immigration, race and ethnicity, and the urban environment.

IMG_0598In amongst the Dr. Seuss I found a picture book that fascinated me as a child. In Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach, Cassie’s parents take the family out onto the roof of their neighbor’s Harlem apartment building one evening. Cassie and her brother Be Be eat dinner with their parents and Mr. and Mrs. Honey and, as the adults begin playing cards and socializing, Cassie and Be Be lay down on a mattress and go to sleep. Except that Cassie does not go to sleep. The story begins with her recalling how, that night when “the stars fell down around me and lifted me up above the George Washington Bridge,” she imagined flying above the city and taking ownership of all that she could see.

Sleeping on Tar Beach was magical. Lying on the roof in the night, with stars and skyscraper buildings all around me, made me feel rich, like I owned all that I could see. The bridge was my most prized possession. Daddy said that the George Washington Bridge is the longest and most beautiful bridge in the world and that it opened in 1931, on the very day I was born. Daddy worked on that bridge, hoisting cables. Since then, I’ve wanted that bridge to be mine. Now I have claimed it. All I had to do was fly over it for it to be mine forever. I can wear it like a giant diamond necklace, or just fly above it and marvel at its sparkling beauty.

Although the context was lost on me at the time, Cassie’s flight over the city and her repossession of the various infrastructure projects her father helped build was her response to the racism and exclusion her father experienced in the labor movement of the 1930s and 1940s. As a kid, I could understand and relate to Cassie’s worship of her father, a man who “can walk on steel girders high up in the sky and not fall,” earning him the nickname “the Cat.” I also admired my father, whose work as a political scientist was less risky but clearly intriguing enough to me that I followed him into academia. What I do not recall is what, if anything, I understood when my parents read me Cassie’s declaration that her “Daddy is going to own [the new union] building, ‘cause I’m gonna fly over it and give it to him. Then it won’t matter that he’s not in their old union, or whether he’s colored or a half-breed Indian, like they say.” I must have recognized that Cassie and her parents did not look like me, but did I register the unfairness that Cassie felt because of the discrimination her father faced? Did I intuit her need for reparation, and the reason why?

Regardless, I remember wanting to be Cassie and to have the ability to fly above the George Washington Bridge and wear it as a necklace. The idea of sleeping on the rooftop of an apartment building on a hot summer night in the big city was as fantastic to me as dragons and fairy princesses, but unlike dragons I knew that cities were real and that one day I too could move to the big city. And I did, and for two years I lived at the foot of the George Washington Bridge—though I never lay on my own tar beach.

As I became a stronger reader and began tackling chapter books, the American Girl books introduced me to historical fiction and made me fall in love with immigrant stories and American history. At the time, there was only Felicity, Kirsten, Ada, Samantha, and Molly, and I read and loved all of their stories. Molly, whose story was set on the home front during WWII, was my favorite. I eventually became a historian of post-1945 America.

IMG_0599When I moved on to more substantive historical stories, one of my favorites was Joan Lowery Nixon’s Land of Hope—which I just reread. It tells the story of Rebekah Levinsky, who we meet in 1902 as her family is in the woods at the border between Russia and Austria, attempting to sneak across en route to the port of Hamburg. As pogroms crept steadily towards their shtetl, her father decided that his family should join his brother Avram in New York City. Rebekah, at age 15, is brokenhearted to leave the life she knew—but that changes when, onboard the steamship to New York, she finds two spunky girlfriends who help her imagine the life she can have in America. The proto-feminists Kristen Swensen from Sweden and Rose Carney from Ireland encourage Rebekah to pursue her dream to get an education and become a teacher, despite that her parents have prioritized the education of her brothers and need Rebekah to work to support the family. As her family passes through the inspection at Ellis Island, their carefully-laid plans begin to go awry; with the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the generous but pragmatic Avram, they begin to adapt to life on the Lower East Side.

The first time I read the book, I remember that I finished the final chapter, sprung out of the teal pleather beanbag chair I was sitting in, and ran to ask my mother when Grandma came over on a boat from Europe. I was crushed to learn that Grandma was born in the Bronx (as was her mother). This most recent re-reading, I had a more pleasant historical realization—the book is remarkably accurate on the facts of European immigration, down to the detail that inspectors at Ellis Island only denied entry to around 2% of migrants. And I say this having taught U.S. Immigration history last semester.

Land of Hope provided a backstory and context for another fictional Jewish family on the Lower East Side in the early twentieth century, Sidney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family. I learned the terrain of New York City from Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie. The adventures of the five sisters took them from the local and familiar—school, their Poppa’s junk shop, the candy shop, and the public library—to the faraway and foreign, such as when they rode the train out to Coney Island on a hot summer day, and when eventually the family moved to a nicer apartment in the Bronx. I’m constantly reminded of tiny details from Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family books. I can’t go into a candy store without thinking how marvelous it would be if you could buy four candies for a penny. Drinking black tea reminds me of when Henny spilled some on her sister’s white dress, so she dyed the dress in a bathtub filled with tea to match the stain. And when I dust the house I wish that someone had hidden buttons and pennies for me to find. These are the details that captivated me as a girl, that made me fall in love with this family and their lives, and that piqued my curiosity about their particular time and place. Years later, despite coming to graduate school to study something entirely different, I wrote a dissertation about Jews in New York.

I’ve gone through every bookshelf in my parent’s home and cannot find the last novel that made me fall in love with city life: Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Egypt Game. Set in the 1960s in what I presume to be Berkeley, though it’s only named as “a large college town in California,” The Egypt Game follows April and Melanie and Marshall and Elizabeth as they build a shrine to Nefertiti in the overgrown yard behind a neighborhood curiosity shop. The devotion of this multiracial group of friends to the study and celebration of ancient Egypt spurred them to search throughout their neighborhood for objects to decorate the shrine and items needed to perform rituals. Their urban neighborhood was one of limitless opportunity, so long as you had imagination and elbow grease. And it’s this possibility and creativity that remains what I most love about cities today.


And some additional recommendations, for those in search of great books to read or gift to kids. This list comes from Kevin Seal, a 4th Grade teacher, native New Yorker, and–in the interest of full disclosure–my husband. These are listed in reverse chronological order.

Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia

Set in New York City (get used to that), this middle-grade novel follows blues-loving Clayton in the aftermath of a family tragedy. Seasoned New York subway riders will connect with Clayton’s underground journey. It’s showtime!
Defying the notion that community doesn’t exist in urban areas, this modern throwback follows the Vanderbeeker family in New York City’s Harlem. The Vanderbeekers, beloved members of their neighborhood and all-around lovely family, find out that their landlord will not renew their lease, and turn to community ties, activism, and old-fashioned acts of kindness to turn the tide.
When The Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop by Laban Carrick Hill; illustrated by Theodore Taylor III
An historical fiction picture book, When The Beat Was Born traces the story of hip-hop’s roots from Jamaica to The Bronx. DJ Kool Herc is the star of the show here.
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
Rita Williams-Garcia’s second entry on this list, One Crazy Summer is the story of three sisters moving from New York City to Oakland, California in 1968 to live with their estranged mother. The sisters discover mysterious depths to this seemingly heartless matriarch, and soon find themselves enrolled in and energized by a Black Panther day camp.
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
Set in Manhattan, this first-person narration features a unique mix of urban, cynical savvy and magical revelations. For a slightly older crowd than previous entries, this book demands to be re-read to fully appreciate what on earth just happened. Stead’s Liar & Spy could just as easily be on this list as well.
Macaroni Boy by Katherine Ayres
This novel is wonderfully confined in place and time: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s working class, immigrant-filled Strip District during the Great Depression. Main character Mike Costa balances working for the family business and dodging bullies with solving a mystery to save his failing grandfather. A great way to learn about an underappreciated neighborhood.
From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun by Jacqueline Woodson
Set in Brooklyn, this novel examines the relationship between 13-year-old protagonist Melanin Sun and his single mother. Their bond is imperiled when the latter reveals that she is gay and dating a white woman. Tackling issues of race, sexuality, and masculinity, Woodson pulls no punches in showing Melanin’s once-simple world spiraling out of control towards a promising but uneasy conclusion. Woodson’s novel in verse Locomotion could also be on this list.
An immigrant story of struggles and triumphs, Lord sets Chinese protagonist Shirley in Brooklyn at the same time that Brooklyn Dodger and civil rights pioneer Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier. No real appreciation or knowledge of baseball is required for this one, but it does help a bit to round out the context. May inspire curious minds to learn more about Jackie Robinson or professional sports’ role in America’s racial history.

And finally, some crowd-sourced recommendations from UHA members, #twitterstorians, and enthusiastic readers.

Melanie Newport on Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street

I first read The House on Mango Street at Curtis High School in suburban western Washington. I loved how the book captured the energy of the city and the importance of taking in every detail. I was most excited by the fact that it centered how young women moved through the world. My favorite chapter, “Hips” starts out, “One day you wake up and they are there. Ready and waiting like a new Buick with the keys in the ignition. Ready to take you where?” At a time when I thought my body was in revolt, that passage made me feel powerful. I can see now that The House on Mango Street was a book that made me appreciate that you can love where you came from and still leave.

Katy Peplin (of Thrive PhD) on The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Amanda Kolson Hurley (of CityLab) on David Macaulay and Castle

Art Blake on Time of Trial by Hester Burton

Help us create a valuable resource for parents, teachers, gift-givers, and book lovers! Share your favorites with us on Twitter @UrbanHistoryA or on the UHA Facebook group and we will add them to this post.

8 thoughts on “Children’s Fiction in the City”

  1. Thanks to Avigail Oren for this inviting post on books about cities for children and young people. I would like to add another title to a list which I hope will continue to grow right here. Consider Virginia Lee Burton’s Caldecott prize- winning,*The Little House *(1942).

    In this story, the Little House, happy in the bucolic countryside, is over the course of generations smothered as a crowded, noisy, stinking city grows up around “her.” In the end, a kindly descendent of the original owners, taking pity on the Little House, jacks her up and has her wheeled out to the countryside. Paradise regained!

    Burton gave voice to the yearnings of a tense, wartime generation toiling on the home front in substandard housing, yearning for light, air, privacy, and extra space. *The Little House h*as, since publication, been among the highest ranked of childrens picture books, attracting the attention not only of thousands kids, but also a number of scholars. Few I believe have done better in putting the story into historical context than my friend at the University of Copenhagen, Joe Goddard. See Joseph Goddard, *Being American on The Edge: Penurbia and The Metropolitan Mind, 1945-2010* (2012), pp.117-120 and along with his “Virginia Lee Burton’s Little House in Popular Consciousness: Fueling Postwar Environmentalism and Antiurbanism?” *JUH* 37:4 (2011).

    Joe argues that what we learn from books and movies ( Disney made *T**he Little House* into very popular cartoon) may profoundly affect our outlook as adults. Shall we then connect mass suburbanization and the environmental movement to *The Little House*? Joe Goddard forcefully argues point though I am less sure how ideas received in childhood shape social change and policy .Did Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch and Mr. Rodgers contribute more to gentrification than Jane Jacobs? Say, may that is not such a bad idea. What do you think?

    Jim Wunsch Empire State College (SUNY)

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    1. Jim, I had completely forgotten about The Little House! I definitely read it as a kid, though I don’t think I ever saw the cartoon. I’m of two minds about the relationship between early exposure to ideas and participation in social change/movements. On the one hand, I have distinct recollections of empathizing with characters in books who were both like me and very different from me, and likewise whose struggles were similar and different. I do believe that reading historical fiction about slaves escaping from slavery, for example, profoundly directed my ethical compass. But I also know that these books were handed to me by librarians and booksellers and my parents, who got those books after they went through the hands of authors and editors and publishers and distributors and buyers, and so by the time anything appeared before my eyes it was already very much a product of its time and place. So how much did my reading it really matter? I was in the midst of growing up in an era that valued multiculturalism (at least rhetorically, if not in practice).

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  2. The photo with your post includes another childhood favorite of mine with a fascinating perspective on New York City–that is the Pushcart War by Jean Merrill. After I read this aloud to my elementary age daughter a decade ago, eating from a “pushcart” became a goal of hers for her first visit to NYC.

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    1. Kathleen, thank you for sharing that story! Was your daughter satisfied with a pretzel or a hot dog from a modern-day foodcart? I have a distinct memory of also wanting to visit a pushcart, but I can no longer recall if it’s from reading The Pushcart War or from All of a Kind Family. I’ve long entertained the idea of starting a pickle and chickpea “pushcart” to appeal to the crowd who loves everything artisinal and vintage….

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      1. She was a little disappointed that the modern metal carts didn’t look much like the wooden ones from the book, but she enjoyed her pretzel.

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