12.13.2011

Pancake City: The Golem's Latkes

When I first saw The Golem's Latkes I was skeptical. First, because I find the concept of the Golem a little creepy and second, because I confess I have failed to find many picture books about the Jewish holidays that inspire me. The ones I find in the library all seem to either feel the need to recount every historical detail of the event in full or are about spiders (Sammy, anyone?).

I don't read books about spiders. No matter how good other people say they are. Period.

But I digress.

In Eric Kimmel's latest Hanukkah offering, The Golem's Latkes, Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague crafts the legendary Golem from clay, writes a magical word on his forehead and then sets him to work with household chores. When his housemaid, Basha, requests the Golem to help her get ready for Hanukkah, the Rabbi reluctantly agrees but warns her not to leave the Golem alone or he will never stop working. Basha, impressed by the Golem's cooking skills, instructs him to continue making latkes while she pops out to gossip with her friend. Just for a minute, you understand. The Golem, true to his clay-for-brains form, makes latkes enough to fill the streets of Prague. When Rabbi Judah finally commands him to stop there are enough latkes to have what is essentially a city-wide latke block party -- for eight days. The story ends on the anticipatory high note while Basha contemplates if the Golem may also be skilled in the art of making hamantaschen for Purim.

I'm not an expert on either the Golem or on Jewish narratives so I will not make any authoritative statements about whether or not Rudolf II would actually attend a Hanukkah party given by Rabbi Loew (although I believe he was rather cosmopolitan), or whether or not the Golem would be set to work making latkes in lieu of defending the Jewish ghettos. Not to mention: hello? where did all the potatoes come from? I'm sure there are many narratives and many incarnations of the Golem and his story, so why not have a little fun with it.

The Golem's Latkes is an exceptionally fun read aloud for the holiday. It's playful, quirky and fortunately Aaron Jasiski's Golem is more cute than he is creepy. The setting of medieval Prague can't be beat and I can't imagine anyone who wouldn't like to attend a party with limitless latkes and wagons full of sour cream.

Latkes: they bring people together.

Want More?
The Whole Megillah has a lightening fast pros and cons of the book.
The New York Times likens the book to Disney's Sorcerer's Apprentice.
Eric Kimmel has written loads of other books: find out about them on his website.

Big Kid says: Are you making latkes this year?
Little Kid says: This is the book about cookies.

12.11.2011

Festive City: Everett Anderson's Christmas Coming

Lucille Clifton's Everett Anderson's Everett Anderson's Christmas Coming is a gentle little book about a young boy who eagerly awaits Christmas by observing all that is happening around him. For five days before Christmas, he watches the snow fall on the apartments below his 14th story window, looks in store windows, decorates his tree and enjoys a party. Clifton's touching poetry takes us into the young boys' inner life full of wonder and anticipation.

There are a lot of little urban details in this lovely book that city dwellers will appreciate, although the story is easily enjoyed by everyone, no matter where they live. Everett's mom gives a party, which Everett subtly lets us know his downstairs neighbors did not appreciate. There is the careful activity of getting a tree into an elevator and playing in snow covered playgrounds. Jan Spivey Gilchrist's illustrations have a dreamy feel, which is well fitted to Clifton's poetry. Ultimately, however, this is not a book about the city, but about a wide-eyed, observant and well-loved boy.

I found Everett Anderson's Christmas Coming to be a special little book. Written in 1971 and republished in the 1990s, it's now out of print, but if it's in your library's catalog, I recommend checking it out.

Want More?
Read about Lucille Clifton.
Clifton wrote several other "Everett Anderson's" books you could search out.
When winter is done, read Clifton's The Boy Who Didn't Believe in Spring, which I reviewed here.

Big Kid says: When are we getting a tree?
Little Kid says: He wants that bicycle.

12.08.2011

Festive City: Christmastime in New York City

The title of Roxie Munro's Christmastime in New York City is self-explanatory. Colorful illustrations of popular New York City Christmas attractions are accompanied only by labels. Despite its simplicity both my boys enjoy looking at the illustrations and talking about what they have seen and what they want to see during the holiday season -- so I thought I'd include it on this blog.

If you live in or love NYC, you might enjoy this book, too.

Want More:
Roxie Munro's Inside-Outside book series includes the cities Paris, London, Washington, D.C., and New York City.
Visit the author's website.

Big Kid says: Grandma and Grandpa took me to FAO Schwartz once.
Little Kid says: Can we see that?

12.05.2011

Soaring City: The Little Reindeer

When I read the jacket blurb about the author of The Little Reindeer living in England I was so excited that this might be a city book set in an English city! Sadly, no. The book is set in New York City. Not that NYC isn't terrific. It is, but there is such an abundance of city-themed books set in NYC and such a dearth of picture books set in English cities (at least that I can find) that I could not help but be disappointed.

However, once I started to read the book I got over my disappointment quite quickly. So don't let the choice of settings deter you from picking up this book to read over the holiday season, for the illustrations are spectacular and the story lovely.

When a curious little reindeer investigates the bustling activity in the toy workshop, he finds himself accidentally wrapped up as a gift and delivered to a snowy city rooftop. A young boy finds and cares for the little reindeer. Together they eat peanut butter sandwiches and watch the city activity from the rooftops with the pigeons. When the little reindeer discovers he can fly, he and the boy begin to venture farther and farther from home, discovering the joys of soaring above the city at night. However, both the boy and the little reindeer realize that the fate of a flying reindeer is bigger than just one metropolis and one special morning, the boy wakes to sleigh tracks, jingle bells on pigeons and a note from an important man.

Foreman's watercolors are spectacular and gorgeous. As we spend the action of the book above the city over the course of a year, the mood of the book is serene. There are some intriguing surprises, however. Billboards play an unusual role and one cannot help but notice the abundance of water towers. Pigeons are delightful instead of a nuisance. It all makes one want to climb to the nearest rooftop and wait for one's own reindeer to arrive.

The Little Reindeer is a lovely story of friendship and devotion to share this holiday season (or anytime, really). Read it.

Want More?
Learn about the author.
Read an interview at Paper Tigers.
Apparently there was an animated short based on the book.

Big Kid says: I love that book.
Little Kid says: Mommy, look! Taxis!

12.01.2011

Turkey City: The Money We'll Save

Last year I rounded up a number of Christmas-in-the-City books and will be doing the same this December. My first selection is brand-new to the shelves and quite a treat: Brock Cole's old-fashioned, humorous tale The Money We'll Save.

With all the children busy with their chores, Ma must send Pa to the grocer's with a list. When she gives the warning, "Christmas is not far off, and we must save every penny," Pa returns with a young turkey for the family to fatten up for Christmas dinner. "Think of the money we'll save!" he proudly declares. As you might imagine, raising Alfred (as the turkey is now called) is no simple matter. The family experiments with creative ways to keep Alfred from overrunning the apartment, all to humorous effect. Mrs. Schumacher, the neighbor, makes a cameo now and then to complain about the noise and compounding chaos but the family's attachment to Alfred grows and they simply cannot eat him for dinner. What will they do?

Cole's quirky, touching and lively story, set in a nineteenth century tenement apartment, is full of surprises. Other than a few scenes at the market, the action of the story takes place in the family's apartment (or on the fire escape!), emphasizing the intimate nature of the story. End papers show a bevy of hanging laundry in a group of tenement buildings. But while these are people who hang, rather than send their laundry we are never allowed to get bogged down with heavy handed ideas about poverty and hardship. Rather, the lively and appealing illustrations carry us along a wave of joyful, creative and enthusiastic problem solving!

A truly enjoyable holiday read.

Want More?
Read a review at Waking Brain Cells.
Book Aunt looks at some other Brock Cole books.
I'm guessing you'll see this book reviewed several times in the next few weeks!

Many thanks to the publisher, Farrar Straus Giroux, for kindly providing me with a review copy.

11.26.2011

Exhibition City: Visual Narrative

Thanksgiving is over. It must be time to start reviewing books about the winter holidays.

While you are patiently waiting for me to do that, you might like to check out this wonderful exhibit at the Central Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library: Visual Narrative: Drawings, books and printed object by Paul Hoppe. There is only one week left, so I guess I should have told you about it earlier.

But just in case... children's book and graphic book author and illustrator, Paul Hoppe, has contributed some terrific art work to the exhibit, most of which is city-themed. (I'm embarrassed to say that I took this photo just before I saw the "No flash photography" sign. Sorry!)  My favorite illustration was of a snowplow on a city rooftop, but Big Kid loved the overhead electric train soaring above the city (which you can see here).

Even if you can't make it to the exhibit, check out the web page for a small glimpse and description.

Want More?
Visit Paul Hoppe's website.


11.18.2011

Festive City: Rivka's First Thanksgiving

I forgot that I had Rivka's First Thanksgiving sitting in my to-review-before-Thanksgiving-pile! This is quite pathetic, as there were only 2 books in the pile, but you still might have time to track it down before the big day. If not, put it on your list for next year.

In Elsa Okon Rael's Rivka's First Thanksgiving, the title character is the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Poland. She learns about Thanksgiving at school, but her parents don't think it sounds like it is a holiday for Jews. Her mother tells her, "It sounds to me as though this is a party for Gentiles." Well, this is just not good enough for Rivka who decides to take the issue to the Rabbi. But, lo and behold, the Rabbi agrees with her mother! What is Rivka to do? Well, what any intrepid, determined girl would do: she writes a letter of protest! For this she is called to state her case before a whole bunch of Rabbis!

Despite the rather doubtful premise that the Rabbis had not yet heard of Thanksgiving, I truly enjoyed this book. It presented an interesting perspective on the traditional holiday and I especially appreciated that the learned adult community was able to listen with respect to the ideas and opinions of a young girl and to admire her point of view. Rivka draws insightful paralles between her Jewish family's experience and the experience of the Pilgrims.

The turn-of-the-century city landscape in this book is illustrated by Maryann Kovalski. The setting is obviously New York's Lower East Side although the only textual nod to place is a reference to Rivington Street. The tenement houses, narrow stairways and views of busy street life and laundry on fire escapes are the same familiar and comforting images we've seen over and over again whenever this neighborhood appears in picture books.

If you're bored with rhyming books about turkeys and Mayflowers, Rivka's First Thanksgiving is a great addition to your Thanksgiving reading. It might, however, be better appreciated by children who already have a grasp on the meaning and history of the Thanksgiving holiday (there is also a brief mention of pogroms).

Want More?
Visit the illustrator's website, she has some photographs that inspired her illustrations on this page.
Read my reviews of other Thanksgiving in the City books.
Listen to a 3 minute interview with Maryann Kavolski here (starting around minute 9:30). It's very interesting!

11.11.2011

Huggy City: Loopy

I love it when I find books for this blog purely by accident.

Aurore Jesset's Loopy is a Swiss import (How many other Swiss picture books do you know? Oh, look! I've reviewed one!) about a girl who has left her favorite toy bunny at the doctor's office. After I read this book I felt sure that someone must have already made the connection with Knuffle Bunny (Oh, look! Someone has!), but here the protagonist's mommy has refused to make a midnight run to retrieve the toy. (The Swiss are obviously more sensible than we are.) Consequently, the young girl imagines all sorts of worrisome adventures Loopy must be having -- ghosts in the doctor's office!, bunny-eating garbage trucks! -- and how she might save the toy. Not to worry, though, her bunny is returned to her by someone who knows how important just the right huggy is at bedtime.

I really enjoyed Loopy, as did my 2 year old. At first I thought it might be too scary for him, but the child's narrative voice is direct, simple and honest, and Barbara Korthues' illustrations are so interesting, with their toy cars and kids flying around in paper airplanes, that he found the book much more fascinating, than frightening. Unlike Knuffle Bunny, we never see the adults, despite their influence on the action of the book. This is the girl's story and their are no red-headed bleary-eyed parents to steal the show.

We first see the nighttime city out the bedroom window, with it's black buildings dotted with yellow-lit windows, but as our heroine imagines the worst the row of buildings turn into a crocodile -- mirroring her imagination of how dangerous the world must be for a lost, alone stuffed blue bunny. At street level, however, the buildings take on a more colorful palette and are more benign, though still an appropriate backdrop for the girl's fears.

Don't be put off by the idea that Loopy might be scary, it has a joyous ending and is a book worth checking out.

Want more?
Read a good thorough review at The Imperfect Parent.
In addition to Knuffle Bunny, other books on the them of toys lost in the city include: The Teddy BearLa La Rose. and

Little Kid says: She got her huggy back. [note: we call bedtime friends "huggies"]

11.09.2011

Visit Jama for a Great Review and Giveaway

Recently I reviewed Melissa Sweet's Balloons Over Broadway. If the review peaked your interest, I encourage you to head over to Jama's Alphabet Soup, where there is a phenomenal review packed with illustrations, vintage photographs (love the Nantucket Sea-monster!!), an interview with the author, and a giveaway for the book. But hurry, the giveaway ends tomorrow.

11.06.2011

Epistolary City: Love, Mouserella

If I was an author/illustrator who had just won the Caldecott for a fabulous book like Interrupting Chicken, I would be extremely nervous about all the attention that people would be paying to my next book. Of course, if I had just won a Caldecott award and I was the awesome Davie Ezra Stein I probably would have a bit of confidence in my abilities.

Predictably, David Ezra Stein's Love, Mouserella was reviewed by many and so I won't spend too much time recounting the basics. Stein crafted this book as a letter (no email for this mouse!) from a young mouse to her grandmother grandmouse who has just moved to the country. Imagine the cover you see on  the right flipped 90 degrees because the book opens horizontally, like an envelope. I'm rather surprised that no reviews I read mentioned that this story may have been inspired by the Country Mouse-City Mouse folk tale.  I can't help but wonder a return letter from grandmouse is in Stein's future...

The letter starts out as many letters do, "I don't know what to write..." but then builds momentum as Mouserella recounts her adventures in the city. She wonders if her grandmouse misses the city. She can't help but contrast her city life with the country life she imagines her grandmouse has: one with (sadly) no packets of ketchup, but one which is filled with starry skies. Mouserella writes about a city-wide blackout and I seem to recall that I have read several picture books that mention blackouts (in addition John Rocco's terrific Blackout). Of course, now I cannot recall which books they were. I suppose there is something in the city dwellers' collective conscious that just won't let go of those moments in the dark. (That would be an interesting project: all the urban picture books which mention the lights going out? Hmmm, how would one find those in the card catalog?)

The city in the book is mouse-sized as opposed to mice living an underground existence and I noticed that Mouserella's apartment has one of those mythical and coveted balconies with sliding glass doors. Like all city kids she gets to visit the Zoo (Ooh, scary cats!) and the Natural History Museum (Ooh, scary cave mice!). One of my favorite moments is when she plays fetch at the park with a ladybug. Of course the final image is of Mouserella mailing her letter in the blue city postbox during a rainstorm. I can't describe why, but the fact that it was raining seemed very appropriate for letter-mailing! This image also reminded me of how, when I first moved to the city, I had remember to drop outgoing mail in a postbox, rather than put it in my personal curbside house mailbox with the red flag up!

While Love, Mouserella is certainly charming and endearing in many ways, it is not my favorite Stein book. That honor belongs to Pouch! with its sweet and true simplicity. On my first reading, Love, Mouserella lacked an element of tension that I like in a picture book. However, I recognize that not all books need be overloaded with tension and suspense and in the interest of full disclosure both of my kids loved the book and have requested it several times. Their opinions in this case are more important than mine (although my 2 year old does think Pouch! to be the best thing since sliced bread).

I'm guessing your kids will like it too.

Want More?
If you prefer reviews more concise than mine check out these at Sal's Fiction Addiction, A Year of Reading, New York Journal of Books.
Visit the author's website.
If you also liked Pouch!, here is a lovely storyline of the book's creation (and a picture of the author at the Brooklyn Zoo!)
Read an interview with the author at Seven Impossible Things.

Big Kid says: Putting honey on your ears sounds gross.
Little Kid says: She's throwing a stick at that ladybug!

11.03.2011

Parade City: Balloons Over Broadway


Thanksgiving books tend to be set on turkey farms, Pilgrim homesteads or around well-laid tables in suburban homes. I should know, I went through every Thanksgiving book at the Brooklyn Public Library.

This year, I am pleased to report there is a new Thanksgiving-themed book set in the city, and I am especially pleased to report it is written and illustrated by Melissa Sweet.

For anyone who has ever watched (or will watch) the famous Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, Sweet's Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy's Parade is essential reading. While the familiar larger-than-life balloons are now emblematic of the parade, this was not always so. Sweet's book gives us the low-down on Tony Sarg ("rhymes with aargh!"), the inventor of these upside-down marionettes.

The story starts when Sarg was six years old and began his inventing career figuring out a way to automatically open the family's chicken coop from his bedroom window. Apparently, for this feat his father rewarded him by saying he never had to do another chore. Ever. Perhaps it was all the free time left on his hands that led him to tinker around with marionettes. As an adult, Sarg moved first to London and then on to New York, where he got his start decorating windows at Macy's. In 1924 when the parade takes off, Sarg began by designing costumes and floats. Sweet devotes the majority of the book detailing Sarg's development of the helium balloons now used in the parade. Of course we know he was successful, but Sweet does an excellent job of making Sarg's journey interesting and suspenseful.

If you are familiar with Sweet's illustrative style you are probably already a fan, but you should know she has really outdone herself here. Combining collage, drawings, vintage ephemera and puppets she made herself (some based on Sarg's drawings!), Sweet has created a feast for the eyes. The city backdrop is essential to the story and I was pleased to see that she did not forget about period details like the El train. Somehow she has made the city buildings seem like a small town which has the appropriate effect of making the balloons seem even more gigantic. An especially nice touch were the spectators hanging out of their windows watching the parade. (That's some prime real estate, people!)

The end pages include a newspaper clipping from 1933 in which I was delighted to see the same blue elephant whose fate I had enjoyed following throughout the book. It was also amusing to find out that Santa Claus used to be pulled in a dog sled drawn by 11 huskies! An author's note on Sarg and the parade's history completes the book.

Only 21 more days until the parade! There's still plenty of time left to pick up a copy of this book. You're sure to enjoy it.

Want More?
Read a thorough review at Abby the Librarian.
Visit the author's website -- she has crafts to go with her books.
Read Millie and the Thanksgiving Parade (reviewed here at Storied Cities) or Gracias, A Thanksgiving Turkey (also reviewed here), for more Thanksgiving in the City fun.
Visit the Macy's Parade Website, which includes a history of each parade and features Sweet's artwork.

Thanks to the publisher, Houghton Mifflin, for kindly providing me with a review copy.

10.27.2011

Immigrant City: American Too


This looks like it will be my last immigrant-in-the-city themed book of the month. I have certainly not exhausted the topic, but I am happy to be ending this theme on a high note: American Too.

None of the immigrant-themed books I've written about so far have focused on that perennial symbol of hope for a new life: the Statue of Liberty. It's certainly been in the illustrations of most of the books, but in Elisa Barone's American Too, it is moved to the forefront.

A very young Rosina immigrates to America with her family and the first thing she sees is the Statue of Liberty. Rosina find her beautiful and hopes one day to be as beautiful herself. Growing up in New York City, Rosina starts to value her American life and culture over the Italian one at home. She refuses to speak Italian, sits on her hands when she speaks (to avoid gesturing!) and discards her red coral necklace when the neighborhood girls tease her about being superstitious. In the process she acts like many American teenage girls and yells at her parents. Mon Dieu! When, to her dismay, she is chosen as queen of the Italian festival of San Gennaro she harnesses her admiration of the Statue of Liberty and becomes an Italian-American Queen.

American Too is a high-spirited book with a positive outlook on the immigration experience. Ted Lewin's watercolor illustrations are amazing. I am usually a fan of a less realistic style of illustration for children's books, but his painting serve the book remarkably well. The expressions on the characters faces brilliantly capture the emotions expressed in the story. The city in the book is not nitty-gritty, colors are light, tenement apartments are clean and sunshine is abundant. Apartment interiors and views of city sidewalks will draw you in with their detail. The iron work and stone detailing on the buildings are particularly impressive. Having tried working with watercolor myself, I am always amazed when artists exhibit such control over a naturally uncontrollable medium.

Ignore the two bad customer reviews on Amazon, they completely missed the point of the story. Fortunately, the professional review did not. This would be a great book to read in conjunction with any patriotic holiday.

Want More?
Bartone and Lewin also collaborated on Peppe the Lamplighter, also about Italian immigrants. I reviewed that book here.
I've also reviewed Lewin's book Stable, set in Brooklyn, and the Lewin-illustrated Paperboy.
Watch this blog for more Lewin illustrated books, because they are coming.

10.24.2011

Immigrant City: Hannah Is My Name


Hold on to your hats, here's a book about an immigrant family that's not set in New York City!

Belle Yang based her book, Hannah is My Name, on her family's experience immigrating to San Francisco from Taiwan. Over the course of two years, Na-Li, who adopts the name "Hannah," becomes accustomed to life in America. But her life is not carefree, as she and her family have moved to America without legal status. Hannah relates many of her anxieties about her new life, including her family's need to find a cheap place to live, the fear that their application for green cards might be denied, the danger of being discovered working illegally, and even the shame over wearing shabby cloths. These realities are not glossed over in the book. Hannah watches as her friend is deported and her father hides during a green card check at his place of employment.

This is a picture book for children 6 and up, and there is a lot of text. I didn't realize that Yang's book was set in the 1960s until one day Hannah's teacher tells the class that Martin Luther King was just killed. There is nothing in the illustrations to date them. In fact the illustrations are quite colorful and help emphasize the story's more cheerful notes.

San Francisco is the closest big city to my hometown and the images of the city in Yang's book are familiar to me: cable cars, a Chinatown full of treats like moon cakes and ducks hanging from the windows, the Golden Gate bridge in the background. Yang, who also illustrated the book, begins the story with a two page illustration of the family in rural Taiwan being transported by ox and cart, but ends the book with the family being transported through the city by a taxi. In both illustrations the family is joyful: at the start because they are on their way to a new life, and at the end, because they have just received their green cards (which are actually blue!).

I think Hannah is My Name is a good book to share with slightly older children. The anxieties that Hannah's family feels are a good talking point for discussions over the difficulties illegal immigrants feel and the importance of being sensitive and empathetic with their situations.

Want More?
Visit the author's website.
Read more about the author in an article in UCSC's Currents.

10.21.2011

Shovel City: All the Way to America


All the Way to America got a lot of internet buzz when it came out earlier this year. And rightly so. Its author is the fantastic Dan Yaccarino, who has written several books we already know and love.

Yaccarino's story, based on his own family's, begins on a farm in Italy. His great-grandfather, Michael, worked the land with his little shovel. Whenhe immigrates to America, his father gives him the shovel. The shovel acts as a generational link through the book as Michael raises his family in New York City. Descendants move to the New Jersey suburbs(!), but then (thankfully) back to the city.

Yaccarino's book is a delight from start to finish. His characteristic graphic illustrations are colorful and full of life. I love his images of Little Italy -- he even includes the Feast of San Gennaro. The skyline is frequently in the distance, reminding us of all the people with similar immigrant stories. The movement from farm to city to suburb and back to city reminds me of the current trend of city resurgence. Mid-century, everyone wanted to move out of the city, but these days the city has regained some of its reputation. In fact, this mirrors my own immigrant family's movement - from the Swedish farm to the City (Minneapolis) to the suburbs (CA) and the my move to the City (NYC).

You're destined to enjoy this one.

Want More?
Read a thorough review at Jen Robinson's Book Page.
Visit the author's website.
One of our favorite Yacccarino books is Every Friday, which I featured here on Storied Cities.
I reviewed Peppe the Lamplighter, also set in Little Italy, but with a much different feel.

Big Kid says: Little Italy: I've been there.

10.20.2011

Making Book Reviews Useful

After reading the excellent post at Abby the Librarian, Why it's Critical to Review (and Read) Critically, I started getting worried that my reviews on this blog were less than useful.

I have always acknowledged that I am not the most talented writer (or reviewer) out there. I notice that I tend to repeat phrases (I'm trying to be better about that) and I rarely delve deeply into the plot of the books. On the one hand, I don't see the point of re-inventing the wheel. If someone has already written a great plot review, why not just link to it in the "Want More?" section of each post? Similarly, I make a point of (for the most part) not reviewing books that many other people have already reviewed or are extremely well-known. Why review Ezra Jack Keats' The Snowy Day, for example?

On the other hand, I hope to craft a review post that introduces a book in such a way that the reader (i.e. you) will know whether or not she wants to further investigate the book, either by reading other opinions of it, or by putting it on hold at the library. How do I do that? Well, I don't have a formula, and no doubt some posts are less successful that others -- depending on various factors such as my own fatigue level, time constraints or that mysterious thing we call inspiration.

This blog has a very limited focus, too: books with an urban setting. I always try to include my perspective on how the urban setting is represented in the book, what role it plays, and so forth. I suppose that is my unique take on a book -- what I see as making my reviews "useful" ... or not. It's probably also the factor that keeps my blog's readership low. In the beginning, I thought it would also be what would draw people to the blog. Shows you how much I know. I love books and I love the city, however, so I keep plugging away.

But back to my original point. I'd always love to know if there is anything in my individual reviews that you would like more of. What would make them more useful?

10.19.2011

Storyteller's City: The Castle on Hester Street


In my series on immigrant-themed picture books we are returning again to the Russian-Jewish experience. I haven't yet determined if it is just my particular knack for finding these books, or if there is indeed an abundance of books about Russian Jewish immigrants. What do you think?

In any case, Linda Heller's The Castle on Hester Street is a clear winner. When it was first published in 1982 it won the Sydney Taylor Book Award, and for its reissue 25 years later, Boris Kulikov added his terrific and vibrant illustrations (Heller did the original illustrations).

Julie's grandfather is a weaver of tales. On day he tells her how he came to America. It is an extraordinary tale indeed, Moishe the goat carried him all the way from Russia in a golden wagon, he was met at the docks by Theodore Roosevelt himself, and he made his living selling jewel encrusted buttons.

Or did he?

While he tells Julie his tale, her grandmother sets the record straight with a more accurate rendition of events. Both versions, however are full of love for their adopted country, for each other and life itself.

Heller's text is vibrant, lively and grandfather's tale pulls us in immediately.  Her witty take on the immigrant story -- placing side by side a dream-like, fanciful version and a realistic one, is not unlike the immigrant experience itself. After all, in many ways America idealizes the immigrant experience, which is always one of a new life, filled with hardships as well as dream-fulfillment of some kind. And that's also the story of the City, especially New York City: a place where you go "to make it" and find your way, but also a place of challenges to the body and the mind.

Reading this book as an adult begs the question: how will you tell your tale to your children? But whatever you chose, make sure you read this book to them.

Want More?
Read about the illustrator and see more great artwork at Seven Impossible Things.
Visit the illustrator's website.

Big Kid says: Why was the grandfather making that stuff up?

10.16.2011

Cinematic City: Silent Movie

Avi, the author of Silent Movie, is better known for his chapter books (such as the Poppy series), but perhaps the illustrator, C. B. Mordan, should be billed as a co-author, because like silent movies, the story here is told as much through the pictures as it is through the words.

The story begins in 1909, when a Swedish man arrives in New York. But Six months later, when his wife and son arrive he cannot find them at the dock. Mother and son scrape by and when the boy recognizes a theif who had robbed them earlier, he in turn is "discovered' by a famous movie director. The boy, Gustav, becomes a movie actor and is spotted by his father on the screen and the family is reunited.

This book is lovely in the way it captures the spirit of early movie dialogue and storytelling through emotional gesture and light. The story is conveyed through a series of black and white "stills" and the text is kept simple. You can easily imagine it as being on the screen. Silent Movie also accurately reflects one version of the American Myth of immigration: that things might be hard at first, but in America you will become rich and famous -- easily!  Of course this is not true, but it was (and is) the stuff that movies are made of, and is also unique to stories (melodramas!) about America. Avi and Mordan have created an interesting and beautiful book. There is also a good historical note at the end of the book which is worth reading, but I was surprised it didn't touch on New York City's role in early film history.

Want More?
Visit the author's website or the illustrator's website.
Read about Vitagraph Studios, one of NYC's movie studios, which produced silent movies.

10.14.2011

Snowy City: When This World Was New


In D.H. Figueredo's When This World Was New Danilito and his parents leave their home in the Caribbean in order to live in America. Danilito is nervous, everything is new and strange. He worries whether his family will be able to have everything they need in the new country.  His Uncle Berto takes the new immigrants to what is to become their home and the next morning, Danilito sees something he never has before: snow. Spending the morning playing in the snow with his father eases some of Danilito's fears and he feels ready to meet his new life.

Figueredo has written a thoughtful tale and the book is pleasant enough. Although the book doesn't stand out for me, if you are tackling issues of diversity and immigration I would certainly include it in your reading. The metaphor of new snow/new world is an obvious one, but it works here. Figueredo also successfully addresses the issue of a child's fears over the meeting of basic necessities.  Enrique O. Sanchez's illustrations are a good match.

Both the island left behind and the city are never named, but we might assume that they are based on Cuba and a city in New Jersey, mirroring the experience of the author as a teenager when he immigrated to the United States. The city certainly feels like something in New Jersey: a suburban-like neighborhood against the nondescript city skyline.

Want More?
Read a bit about the author or the illustrator.
If you want to use the book for further discussion, this guide might help.

10.13.2011

Carousel City: Feivel's Flying Horses


Since last week's selections all contained an immigration theme, I thought I would just continue in the same vein through the month. I had planned to review a series of immigration book around the Fourth of July, but never got to it. Now is as good a time as ever, right? After all, in October we celebrate a man who many people consider to be the first modern European immigrant.

Today's selection, coincidentally, is about another Jewish immigrant. His homeland is never specified, but the title character in Heidi Smith Hyde's Feivel's Flying Horses is a wood carver specializing in fearsome lions and ornate desks for synagogues. When he immigrates to New York, leaving his family behind, he finds work in the Lower East Side making more mundane tables and chairs. One day he finds a job making carousel horses in Coney Island. He earns enough money to send for his family.  When the elaborate and beautiful carousel is finally complete, they family is able to ride it together.

I found this to be a lovely, touching story which celebrates many things: the artistic influence immigrants have our culture, the struggles and joys they faced when they came to America, the difficulty of leaving loved ones behind, the potential rewards of hard work (not just monetary) and, of course, the pleasure of a simple carousel ride. Johanna van der Sterre's illustrations are pleasantly nostalgic but not sappy, and she gives us a fun view of old Coney Island (be sure to find the sliders). An author's note gives further historical information.

I think you'll like it.

Want More?
Read another review at Feathered Quill or Amusing the Zillion.
Read about another Coney Island tradition in Mermaids on Parade.
I have not read it yet, but there is another Carousel/Coney Island/Jewish Immigrant picture book: The Rose Horse.

Big Kid says: I've never ridden a carousel at Coney Island. But we did at Prospect Park.
Little Kid says. Those are horses!

10.07.2011

Crowded City: Immigrant Girl, Becky of Eldridge Street


Well, I might as well round out the week with another book about Russian Jewish Immigrants. This trio of books was not at all planned, but fortuitously came during the week between the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Brett Harvey's Immigrant Girl: Becky of Eldridge Streetis much different in tone and style that my previous two selections. This is clear from the first page, when Becky sets the scene in 1910. Her family has just immigrated to New York City in order to escape the pogroms in Russia where, "Many Jews were killed and their housed burned. Our zayde was shot. Bubbeh would have been, too, but she hid in the cellar." This is a picture book for an audience older than the typical 4-8 set.

The overriding image of the city in this book is one of crowded, busy, active streets and homes. Becky narrates her experience of living in New York, which seems to be dominated by crowds of people, whether children, pushcart sellers, factory workers or family members filling the house on Shabbes. At one point, Becky tells of her 19 year old aunt who works in a shirtwaist factory, where the doors are always locked. I was a bit nervous the book was also going to cover the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. While the story does not gloss over what were very real hardships in immigrant life, Becky's story makes life sound full and exciting.

Becky's narration emphasizes the importance of her family and she tells us of some truly enjoyable city experiences, like cooling off in the fire hydrant, visiting the nickelodeon, attending school (her teacher smells like roses), sleeping on the roof and escaping to open space in the Bronx. In addition, Becky's Jewish identity is central to her life and her narration ends with a Passover seder. Deborah Kogan Ray's black and white illustrations (done in charcoal, maybe? I'm not an expert.) give weight to the period setting of the story and she certainly doesn't skimp on the masses of people! Harvey includes a glossary of terms, from Bentsh lisht to Zayde, for those of us who could use a little help.

Immigrant Girl: Becky of Eldridge Street is a thoughtful narration of life in early 20th Century New York City -- a time and place dominated by immigrant life. If you are discussing this topic with your children, I highly recommend taking a look at this book.

Want More?
The Jewish Museum in NY has an extensive book list in their resource section on immigration.
Visit the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. If you don't live in NYC, their website includes many resources.
Clearly the next book I should read is What Zeesie Saw on Delancey Street.

10.05.2011

Familial City: Mimmy and Sophie

I my last post I reviewed The Doll Shop Downstairs, which stars daughters of Jewish Russian immigrants enduring reduced economic circumstances in early 20th Century Manhattan. In today's double feature I introduce you to sisters (only two this time), granddaughters of Jewish Russian immigrants in depression-era 1930s Brooklyn.

The inspiration for Miriam Cohen's two books about sisters Mimmy and Sophie came from her own girlhood in Brooklyn. Side by side the books are physically very different. The first Mimmy & Sophie,is a large picture book, every inch filled with colorful illustrations in a storyboard layout.  The sequel, Mimmy and Sophie All Around the Town, is an early-level chapter book with numerous black and white line-drawn illustrations. Tomas F. Yezerski illustrated both books.

Both books, however, are separated into short stories. Each short story could stand by itself, but strung together they paint a lively portrait of two girls who explore their neighborhood with each other, their friends and their extended family. Their adventures include a trip to Coney Island, a journey on the trolley to visit their grandparents on Pitkin Avenue, a visit to the cinema, as well as varied experiences on their block like a visit from the ice cream truck, sisterly spats and playing school with friends. My favorite vignette was the family vacation: a picnic on Brooklyn Bridge, from which they watched the sun like a "melting raspberry Popsicle on the water." I wouldn't say that these are technically the best written stories I've ever read, but they certainly have their fair share of charm, liveliness and family love. The trap in a book like this is to wallow in a pool of sentimental nostalgia and thankfully Cohen avoids doing that.

As you might imagine, the city, especially Brooklyn, is a key player in the story. Not only are specific places referenced throughout, but the environment in which the neighborhood children explore is defined by its "urban-ness." You don't find many alley-ways full of trash treasure in the countryside, for example. It's only in a tightly packed city that children can gather at a moment's notice on a stoop for an impromptu game of school.  And, like many "kids in the city" books, the children seem to have an awful lot of adventures without their parents present! Yezerski's illustrations keep us well situated in the city at all times. There's nary an empty sidewalk or vista without an apartment building.

My guess is that you and your kids will enjoy reading these together.

Want More?
Mimmy & Sophie was awarded a Parent's Choice award.
Visit the illustrator's website and see some of the pages.

Little Kid says: Popsicle book! Popsicle book!
Big Kid says: They don't have trolleys like that now.

10.03.2011

Entrepreneurial City: The Doll Shop Downstairs


Before I moved to New York 10 years ago, I thought the idea of living above a store was so old fashioned. Wasn't that what Nellie's family did in Little House on the Prairie? No one does that anymore, right? Wrong. Although, most people don't live above or behind their own business these days (they commute, I guess), Yona Zeldis McDonough's The Doll Shop Downstairs takes us back to a time, when such a thing was not uncommon. In this case, the store is a doll repair shop, and what girl wouldn't love to live above a doll shop?

McDonough writes in an afterward that her inspiration came from the real life story of Madame Alexander. The fictional family in her story are Russian Jewish immigrants. The three daughters love to play with the expensive dolls who are waiting for repairs. However, when WWI begins, their father finds he can no longer obtain the necessary parts to repair broken dolls because all the parts come from Germany. Instead, the family works together to design and make their own, "limited edition" dolls, which are then spotted by a buyer from FAO Schwartz. 

The city is very important to the girls' story and McDonough splendidly conveys a detailed sense of place throughout the story. The family lives in the Lower East Side, and there are many references to the kinds of sights and places they see on a daily basis and for special treats. The "packed narrow streets," "crammed with shops, horses, wagons, pushcarts and crowds of people" are contrasted with the wide streets of Fifth Avenue lined with fancy, upscale shops. Moreover, the girls are exposed to a variety of different types of people -- one of the best things about living in the city.

This book is doubly interesting because it seamlessly incorporates, without being didactic, the historical moment in which the action occurs. Small details play a large part in establishing the world the girls live in. I wonder how my son would feel if I sent him to school with a lunch made of "rye bread spread with horseradish, a cold boiled potato, and apple." The family's economic situation changes with the start of the war, the mother must take in work and the girls try to think of ways to earn money. But the girls apply their boundless energy and creativity to help move their family forward.

McDonough has written solid book, with much to recommend it. Heather Maione's black and white illustrations are perfectly suited to the time period. The characters are appealing, the family, even in difficult times, sticks together and the overall tone is positive.  Early chapter book readers will enjoy this one and younger ones should have no difficulty following it as a read aloud.


Want More?
Visit the author's website.
Read a comprehensive review at Truth, Praise and Help.
Coming Soon!!! The Cats in the Doll Shop.

9.25.2011

Thimble City: The Hinky Pink

The Hinky-Pink: An Old TaleIt's possible that with some of my selections I may be stretching the "decidedly urban" tagline of my blog just slightly. But you'll forgive me, right?

In Megan McDonald's The Hinky-Pink we travel to the Florence of Old Italy where Anabel (alas, not Anabella) dreams, not of being a princess, but of the day when she will make a dress for a princess. It's a sensible dream.

Fairy tale lovers will like this one, as will those who enjoy a good, unexpected twist on the more conventional tale. Anabel has been charged with making a dress for the Princess to wear to the Butterfly Ball. However, in order to do so, she must get a good night's sleep, something the Hinky Pink's pinches are preventing. Fortunately, Anabel is clever, as well as sensible, and outsmarts the Hinky Pink.

At the risk of sounding as if I codify books by gender (which I do not), I will say that until now I only knew the author through her "boy" book series about Judy Moody's younger brother, Stink. Likewise I was familiar with Brian Floca's illustrations from several brilliant books about transportation. So it was nice for me to read something a bit more "girly." Are you still with me?

Other than in the opening layout, the city of Florence, or Firenze, as it is labeled in the book, is firmly in the backdrop. Floca cleverly locates Anabel in the larger cityscape with a small word bubble coming from her room. In addition, her position in the tower during her employment as dressmaker-to-the-princess situates her as both of and removed from the city at large.

I'm pretty sure you'll like this one.

Want More?
Visit either the author's website or the illustrator's website.
If you want an in-depth review read Elizabeth Bird's (of the blog Fuse #8) review on the Amazon page.

Big Kid says: That was so silly.

9.19.2011

Adventure City: Take A City Nature Walk

Take a City Nature Walk (Take a Walk series)In my not-so-humble opinion, late summer and early autumn are the perfect times to get out exploring. Summer is just too hot: who wants to walk around the city looking for birds while sweating the whole time?

If you like to explore nature in the city with your kids, Jane Kirkland's Take A City Nature Walk will inspire you with some new ideas. Or if you think nature is everywhere but the city, this book will open your eyes to the possibility that you might be mistaken.

Take A City Nature Walk is organized in three sections. the first, "Get Ready!" introduces the concept of the ecosystem and helps would-be nature walkers plan an outing with tips on staying safe and suggesting plants and animals to look out for. In "Get Set!"Kirkland gives more in depth information on familiar sightings: pigeons, falcons, and trees. In "Go!" the author explains how to take field notes and takes us on a tour of the various places to search out nature: parks, waterways, and man-made structures. She also includes photo-identification of common plants, animals and other natural phenomenon.

This book would benefit from a table of contents and an index and it is somewhat limited by the fact that it speaks of cities in general, whereas the natural world of cities in different geographical locations can be quite varied. Still, it has some good ideas. I recommend seeking out a city specific guide, if you can. Otherwise, Jane Kirkland's Take A City Nature Walk is a good source of inspiration and activities for your next nature walk.

Want More?
For nature activity inspiration, check out It's a Jungle Out There!: 52 Nature Adventures for City Kids.
If you live in NYC, you will enjoy Go Wild in New York City.
Take a look at the other Take a Walk books and website.

Big Kid says: Mom, we have to make a page like this for field notes.
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