Brownstone City: The Beautiful Christmas Tree

Title: The Beautiful Christmas Tree
Author: Charlotte Zolotow
Illustrator: Ruth Robbins
32 pages
Publisher: Parnassus Press (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Publ. Date: 1972

When Mr. Crockett moves into a rundown brownstone on a fashionable block in a gentrified neighborhood, his neighbors are suspicious. After all, he engages in highly unusual activity such as cleaning his own windows and stoop! Surely he does not realize it is better to hire others to do this for you! He even has the Charlie Brown-esque audacity to purchase a spindly, sickly potted tree for Christmas instead of a lush, chopped-down evergreen. Mr. Crockett, however, subscribes to the outdated motto, "beauty is as beauty does," and he nurtures the little tree through the winter and in spring he plants it on the sidewalk. Needless to say, the little tree thrives under Mr Crockett's tender care. The tree catches the attention of the birds and children and the true meaning of Christmas is realized.

The references to fashionable neighborhoods at the start of the book reminded me of the battle over gentrification that is waging in cities like NYC. Neighbors object when someone doesn't conform (think: The Big Orange Splot) and are apt to miss the beauty right under their noses. Ruth Robbins' gentle illustrations are lovely and delicate. Her pastel brownstones stand in a neat row and oversized snowflakes cover sidewalks where kids pull their sleds. Mr. Crockett sits on his stoop, watching his more fashionable neighbors, but some of those neighbors like to watch out their upper floor windows. We only see one block (and one shop) of the whole city, but it is such an intimate story, that is all that is necessary.

This classic edition of Zolotow's story is no longer in print, but I recommend you try to obtain a copy (as opposed to the 2001 version -- see below) at your library or used bookstore. It's a longer picture book than most and a lovely story.

Want More?


Shopping City: Brownie & Pearl See the Sights

Christmas Book Brownie and Pearl Title: Brownie & Pearl See the Sights
Author: Cynthia Rylant
Illustrator: Brian Biggs
24 pages
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (Beach Lane Books)
Publ. Date: Oct. 5, 2010

Brownie & Pearl See the Sights is part of the Brownie & Pearl by powerhouse kid lit author Cynthia Rylant (seriously, it is amazing how many books she has written). In this installation, Brownie and her faithful feline friend, Pearl, head out to the city shops for a little retail therapy. Everything they try on is oversized until they get to the cupcake shop, where the products are a perfect fit. (Isn't that always the way?) When the sugar high turns into a sugar low, Brownie and Pearl head back home for a winter nap.

Biggs' illustrations are colorful and cheerful, loaded with oranges and pinks. When the shopping duo get to the city they are greeted with colorful shops and traffic, all decked out for the holidays. I love that there are even menorahs in apartment windows. A sprinkling of snow falls over the the grey city backdrop. The final note of the book tells the reader that being cozy at home is much more relaxing than seeing the sights and shopping in the city. However, they obviously had a good time on their outing and there is no sense that the city is a place to be avoided as sometimes happens in city v. country books.

My one complaint about the Brownie & Pearl series is that for short books they have a high price point. They are published in a hardback picture book format, but the $13.99 price tag is very high for an easy reader (I have the same complaint about the Elephant & Piggie books). However, I highly recommend finding this book and the rest of the series at your local library. As read alouds they are nice and short; as easy readers, they will lure in an audience with their jolly illustrations.

Want More?
Visit the illustrator's website.
Visit the author's website.


Rodent City: The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse

Title: The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse
Author/Illustrator: Helen Ward (from Aesop)
32 pages
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Publ. Date: Sept. 11, 2012

Helen Ward's retelling of Aesop's fable is traditional in its approach. There are no surprises in the text. All ends as it always does: the town mouse still likes the town best and vice-versa. East-west, home is best, and all that jazz.

The reason I have decided to review  The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse here at Storied Cities is simply because Ward's illustrations are so lovely. The town is no "town" at all. It is New York City in the 1930s! At Christmas! What could be better? Not much, I tell you. At first the little country mouse is dazzled by "great towers of smooth stone and glass," electric elevators, sumptuous holiday feasts, and cozy Christmas trees that make great sleeping nooks. Unfortunately, the city also comes equipped with one highly menacing pug dog, who sends the country mouse scampering back to home-sweet-home. The town mouse, however, doesn't mind his canine pal and curls up for a good gorgonzola-induced nap.

There are only a few city scenes in this book but they are worth it, and country lovers will enjoy Ward's  illustrations of the more natural side of life. It's an excellent choice for some cozy holiday reading.

Want More?
Try a different variation on the country mouse-city mouse theme with Love, Mouserella, or the duo Brown Rabbit in the City/Moon Rabbit.
Read an article in The Guardian about Helen Ward.


Fish City: Carl the Christmas Carp

Title: Carl the Christmas Carp
Author: Ian Krykorka
Illustrator: Vladyana Krykorka
32 pages
Publisher: Orca Book Publishers
Publ. Date: Sept. 1, 2006

In Czech culture it is traditional to eat carp for Christmas dinner. Some people keep this fish in their bathtub to fatten it up for a few days before the big meal. This is all news to me, but it sounds like a good idea for a picture book, right?

You are in luck.

In spite of Radim's declaration that he would rather have chicken, Radim goes with his father to the outdoor market to buy the traditional carp for Christmas dinner. After bringing it home they set it in the bathtub to live for the next week so they can fatten it up. Disturned by fish dreams and the resemblance of the fish to his uncle Carl, Radim decides to free the fish. One night, he and his friend, Mila, engage in a piscatorial conspiracy and release the fish into the local river. Fortunately for Radim, the Christmas spirit prevails, his parents forgive him easily and Mila's family has them all over for a nice chicken dinner.

Christmas stories from other cultures are always a great choice for holiday read alouds. Carl the Christmas Carp is a fun choice and not many kids' books are set in Prague. I loved Krykorka's colorful mixed media illustrations and we get lots of perspectives of the city from the marketplace to the town square, out by the river, ice ponds surrounded by beautiful old building facades and some apartment interiors.  The illustrations are vibrant and Krykorka's brushstrokes create a city under constant siege from a very blustery snow storm. constant. Even the interiors are experiencing the effects of such a strong wind!

Want More?
There are two more carp-in-the-bathtub stories I have not read yet. One is also set in Prague, the other is about a Brooklyn Jewish family fattening their carp up for gefilte fish.

Visit the illustrator's website.
Read a review at Quill and Quire.
Oh, yes. You can indeed watch you tube videos of people with carps in their bathtubs. Some of them even have uplifting musical accompaniments evoking Jesus. People are so weird.


Christmas City: Great Joy

Title: Great Joy 
Author: Kate DiCamillo
Illustrator: Bagram Ibatoulline
32 pages
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Publ. Date: Oct. 9, 2007

It's a pretty safe bet that a book by Kate DiCamillo will be a winner and Great Joy is no exception.  The plot itself is fairly simple, but the power of the book lies in DiCamillo's skillful writing and extraordinary ability to provoke an emotional response in her readers by combining child-like wonder with a compassion for others. I'm not admitting anything, but this book might have made me cry. That's all I'm saying.

From her apartment window, young Frances watches an organ grinder with his monkey who plays every day on the same street corner. She wonders where they go at night, but her mother assures her, "everyone goes somewhere." Frances is unsatisfied with this response and seeks him out to discover he spends his nights on the same corner. On her way to church, Frances invites the man to come and watch her in the Christmas pageant. When he shows up just as Frances delivers her line, she cannot help but be inspired with, "Great Joy!"

I admit I have a soft spot for snowy winter cityscapes. Our entire view of the unnamed city in Great Joy is of a single street corner at "Fifth and Vine." We view this location from a number of vantage points: from the apartment window, the building stoop, the street, at day, at night and as such we are privy to a variety of perspectives. It's wonderful the way Frances can look out her window and see the world below, thoughtfully considering the lives of the people she sees. Both the text and Ibatoulline's gorgeous illustrations effectively communicate that the city is not a faceless void, but a place for intimacy, compassion and individual relationships to shine. Indeed the backdrop of bustling, ever-changing life brings Frances' and the organ grinder's humanity into sharp relief.
Needless to say, I highly recommend adding this book to your stack of Christmas reading. There is a religious element to the story, but it is not the focus and both religious and secular families will take much away from the book.

Want More?
Visit the author's website.
Watch an interview with the author as she talks about moving from novels to picture books. At Reading Rockets.


Holiday City: Jeannette Claus Saves Christmas

Title: Jeannette Claus Saves Christmas 
Author: Douglas Rees
Illustrator: Olivier Latyk
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publ. Date: October 5, 2010

Did you know that Santa has a daughter?


I'll just let that tidbit soak in for a bit.

Anyway. Her name is Jeannette and she is a little bit feisty and a very bit cute. One Christmas Eve when her dad has a cold, Jeannette insists on making the yearly round of gift deliveries to all the good little boys and girls. The team of very grumpy reindeer are none too happy about this and manage to strand her on a rooftop in the middle of the trip. Fortunately for Jeannette, this particular rooftop is in a big city where there lives an ample population of stray cats and dogs which she can rally around her. She harnesses a hodgepodge team of these domestic pets to her sleigh and together they lift off into the starry skies.

I admit the idea for this story is pretty cute, even though I can't list the book as among my favorite Christmas reads. (It also uses the word "stupid", which I really hate because it is a word I am constantly trying to get my kids to abandon.) It is rather unclear why the reindeer are so mean-spirited and the conflict with that team is left unresolved. Will the sleigh-team next year be cats and dogs or will Santa go back to the reindeer? It's probably not a detail that is particularly important, but it bothered me.

The city, however, is the crucial point of my reviews and in this book it is of course the only location where Jeannette could have assembled a new team so quickly. The digital illustrations are colorful, but rather uninspiring. In fairness, I did like their retro flavor and the perspective from the snowy rooftops with their water towers and fire escapes.

It might seem as if I don't recommend this book, but that is not the case. Jeannette Claus Saves Christmas is a fun story and both my boys enjoyed it and that is the material point. Pick up a copy at your local library.

Want More?
Visit the author's website.
View more of the illustrator's work. I really like this illustration of a colorful, snowy city.
Read a review at Miss Print.


Harbor City: Little Tug

Title: Little Tug
Author/Illustrator: Steven Savage
Pages: 32
Publisher: Neal Porter Press (Macmillan)
Publ. Date: October 2, 2012

On the heels of his 2011 Where's Walrus? (a favorite in our household), Savage offers up a story about the hero of the harbor-world illustrated in his signature retro-graphic style.

When I first saw the cover of Little Tug I was reminded of Little Toot and was actually expecting it to be a rewrite of that classic children's book. Thankfully it is much, much shorter!

It is hard not to glance at the cover and feel a surge of affection for the little tugboat, his cheery red paint color standing out against a backdrop of blues and greys. The plot (such as it is) begins in a predictable fashion: Little Tug helps the various Big Boats enter and dock in the harbor but when Little Tug gets tired out, the roles are reversed and the Big Boats come to his rescue. The text is blissfully sweet and simple and I dare you not to smile and the oh-so-adorable ending, perfect for bedtime.

As in another classic ship book, Harbor, by Donald Crews, the city necessarily remains in the background as Little Tug goes about his business. Savage immediately establishes the urban setting in the opening page spread when the red tug sails solo across the huge, darkened night harbor; the only lights are those twinkling on a long suspension bridge. The city represented is generic, though one would guess that Savage was inspired by New York City, his hometown and the setting of Where's Walrus?. I liked how Savage adds visual interest to the cityscapes by varying its representation: sometimes the buildings are low, other times they are lit up, sometimes darkened. He manages to add a great deal of visual interest into a landscape that at first appears to be quite simple.

Bottom line: this is a great book for toddlers and preschoolers. My three year old loved it and so will yours.

Want More?
Visit Steven Savage's website.
Read the review in the New York Times.
See more of the artwork at the publisher's page.
Watch the book trailer below. I dare you not to smile!


Big Kid says: I want to watch the book trailer.
Little Kid says: He swims!


Snowy City: The Great Horse-Less Carriage Race

Title:The Great Horse-Less Carriage Race
Author: Michael Dooling
Pages: 32
Publisher: Holiday House
Publ. Date: 9/1/02

On November 28, 1895 a group of ambitious drivers gathered together to show off their horseless carriage models in a 52 mile race across Chicago. The participants of America's First Automobile Race knew that the winner would earn positive publicity for his machine and the possibility of convincing the public that his carriage model was the wave of the future.

Half of the drivers are eliminated in the first paragraph of the story so it is convenient that Dooling begins rather than ends his book with a brief outline of the historical event and its participants (there is an end note about the fate of the winner as well).

Even though the race takes place in freezing, snowy weather and the carriages keep breaking down, Dooley's storytelling operates on a standard race plot structure: Frank pulls ahead, now Oskar pulls ahead, now things are looking better for Frank... you get the idea. Nonetheless, this particular race is an interesting subject for a picture book I suspect that it will keep most kids interested, even if for adults Dooley's storytelling lacks suspense and it is rather obvious from the outset who the hero of the race will be.

Dooley's sepia-toned illustrations thoughtfully evoke the historical time period. Chicago plays a significant role in the race but I would have liked to have felt its presence more. I was excited at the prospect of seeing "52 miles" worth of historical Chicago but unfortunately, for the most part, Chicago remains a grey streak in the background of scenes dominated by a vast white tundra-like route. A few times the drivers must stop in the city, absconding to tin smiths and blacksmiths for repairs during the race. I would have liked to have had a better sense of how and where these shops were located along the route. After all, stops to these conveniently located urban locations would not have been likely during a race through the country side. Other than the mention of the city and a brief scene in which trolley tracks come into play, the race could have been located anywhere.

Despite my somewhat critical review, I do recommend this book. If you kids are interested in history or cars and races, it is an interesting story. Anyone who is a fan of NASCAR will be amused by pit stops which take hours instead of seconds in addition to the length of time (7 hours) it takes to complete the race.

If you happen to be looking for a cars-in-a snowstorm themed book (and who isn't?), this will certainly fit the bill.

Want More?
Read more about America's First Automobile Race at Eyewitness to History.
Visit the author's website.
Read an interview with the author at Raychelle Writes.
Read the review at Kirkus.


Halloween City: The Trip

The Trip 
Author/Illustrator: Ezra Jack Keats
Publisher: Penguin Group
Pub. Date: 1978

The Trip by Ezra Jack Keats is one of the lesser known titles by this great children's book author/illustrator. I came across it quite by accident in our local library and was delighted to discover it just in time for Halloween. Frankly, I had all but dispaired of finding a good urban picture book with a Halloween element.

Louie has just moved into a new apartment. Since he doesn't have any friend yet so he retreats to his room and builds a diorama. Using his imagination, Louie flies through the miniature world he has constructed, meeting up with friends he misses. It is Halloween and and he takes his costumed friends on a plane trip through his former neighborhood. When his mom's voice and cries of "Trick or treat!" make their way through the wall of Louie's imagination, he ventures outside to discover some new friends waiting for him.

Keats' book works on so many levels, it is a shame it is out of print. It is story of friendship, of loneliness, artistic creativity and of the power of imagination all wrapped into one. Keats' trademark illustrative style shines as he transports us from a real world grounded by oil paints to the imaginary one of collage, photographs, crayon drawings and marbled skies.

As in all of Keats' books, the urban landscape is essential to the story's world. Skyscrapers full of windows are the backdrop for Louie's imaginary world and his apartment building frames his reality. The opening page reminds us just how much of the urban life revolves around street activity when Louie is disappointed to discover, "there weren't even any steps in front of the door to sit on." How is an urban kid to make friends if he has no stoop from which to survey the world!  When you see the world from this perspective Halloween becomes the perfect holiday to introduce him to the neighborhood. After all, is there any other holiday in which so much of the celebration takes place outside on the sidewalks?

Despite this book being out of print, I bet it The Trip is in many libraries around the country, thanks to its famous author. Check out a copy before Halloween. You won't be sorry you did.

Highly Recommended.

Want More?
Visit the official website of the Ezra Jack Keats foundation. Here is the page for The Trip.
In NYC, The Jewish Museum had Keats exhibit. You can read about his art here.
Louie appears in other Keats books, including Louie's Search, Louie and Regards to the Man in the Moon.
Watch some kids talk about the book:


Collaborative City: A Poem As Big As New York City

A Poem as Big as New York City: Little Kids Write About the Big Apple
Illustrator: Masha D'yans
Editors: Teachers and Writers Collaborative
Publisher: Universe Publishing (Rizzoli)
Pub. Date: September 4, 2012

I am so pleased to be able to tell you today about a very unique poetry book.

The Teachers & Writers Collaborative, an organization that helps children develop their creative writing skills, led a series of workshops in public schools and libraries across New York City. The children who participated worked on writing poems about what it's like to live in The Big Apple.  The resulting poems, "stacks of poems on hundreds of loose leaf pages" as adapter Melanie Maria Gooreaux described them in the introduction, were collected and edited to create one big poem. The result is the marvelous A Poem as Big as New York City: Little Kids Write About the Big Apple

The overall feeling of A Poem as Big as New York City is joyous. It is clear that the authors love their city. A smiling, curious anthropomorphous Poem is the thread that holds the poem's story together.  In the image below you can see the "Poem" illustrated as a graphic character formed out of words taken from the poem itself.

The Poem travels through the five boroughs of the city, narrating its journey, sometimes in the third person,
The poem walked by the East River and reached up
to touch a pink-and-white striped sky.
It passed by the Chrysler Building,
and it looked like a wealthy woman
who just couldn't hide her jewels.
and sometimes in the first person,
I jumped inside a parking meter
and heard the soul of New York City
crunching like quarters.
but always celebrating the uniqueness of the city: the sounds, sights, smells and even the taste.

The journey of the Poem somehow manages to be both magical and realistic, individual and collective. It celebrates the diversity of New York City's people, places and experiences. There's an exhilarating sense of movement throughout the lines as the reader is carried along with the Poem through the streets, underground and above the skyscrapers. I love the final image of the Poem in front of the New York Public Library. The Poem is reading a book, the cover of which is a diverse group of faces. It is as if one can never get enough; instead of being exhausted by the action and excitement, the Poem (and the reader) just wants more.

Masha D'yans's beautiful watercolor illustrations are both ethereal and vibrant, if that is possible, and effectively capture the jubliant quality of the poem. It is hard not to smile as we see the Poem lounge on the grass of Central Park, swing through the sky on the suspension lines of Brooklyn Bridge, and munch on a black and white cookie during a shopping trip. How she managed to make two black circles look like so inquisitive is a feat in and of itself.

The perfect final touch is the credit page at the end of the book in which the names of participating libraries and school are arranged to resemble a cityscape, as if to remind us that the children are what make up the the city.

I know this book will be loved by New York City residents and I hope it finds an audience beyond that because it's a great ambassador for the city.

Want More?
Visit the Teachers & Writers Collaborative website to learn about their writing workshops and programs.
Read other reviews at Great Kid BooksWhere the Best Books Are, and NC Teacher Stuff,
Visit the illustrator's website (you can see more artwork from the book here).

Special thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy of the book.


Autumnal City: Applesauce Season

Applesauce Season 
Author: Eden Ross Lipson
Illustrator: Mordicai Gerstein
Pub. Date: 08/04/09
Pub.: Roaring Book Press

Fall is marching on, but it's not too late to make applesauce!

A boy looks forward every year to fall, when his entire family gathers to make applesauce. The young narrator takes us through the entire journey, from market to kitchen to table describing how the applesauce changes throughout the season, how his family eats the applesauce and even how he imagines he will eat applesauce when he is grown up.

What I like most about Applesauce Season is there is no trip to a rural apple farm and absolutely no sense that this is a cause for mourning. The book opens thus:
We live in the city. There are no apple trees, but there are farmers' markets where there are lots of apples. Sometimes my grandmother goes to the market, sometimes my mom and dad go, sometimes my big sisters. If I don't have soccer, I go, too.
Obtaining apples from the farmers' market, freshly picked for urban families, is presented as a perfectly legitimate and joyful event.   The title page illustration are of the characters looking out at the cityscape dreaming of apples in anticipation, the young narrator races out of school to meet his grandma and a beautiful two page spread of the market with the cityscape in the background is lively and complete with dogs straining at their leashes. Gerstein's reputation as an illustrator is firmly established and the overall impression from his sparkling watercolors is good, old-fashioned cheer. In almost every single tableau, the people are  smiling, and it's hard not to join them by the time you've finished reading this book.

Big Kid says: (Taking book away) Let me see all those kinds of apples...
Little Kid says: I like red apples best.

Want More?
Visit the illustrator's website.
Read about the author at the NY Times: Remambering Eden Ross Lipson (includes artwork from this book).
Read a review at the NY Times or Waking Brain Cells.


Musical City: Max Found Two Sticks

Max Found Two Sticks
Author/Illustrator: Brian Pinkney
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publishing Date: 1994

When the wind blows two sticks in bored Max's direction one day, the young boy discovers they make wonderful drumsticks. Tapping the sticks on his thighs, boxes, trash cans and soda bottles, Max pounds out the rhythms of his neighborhood. When a marching band passes by, one of the band members sees Max's talent and tosses him a pair of real drumsticks. Max never misses a beat.

Pinkney's Max Found Two Sticks is an engaging story that should be on every child's reading list. Although Max stays in and around his brownstone stoop, Pinkey effectively captures the vibrancy of a neighborhood by merging the musical, natural and urban worlds with his energetic text and illustrations.

The text of the book reminded me of "call and response" songs. In this case, Max's response to everyone's question, "what are you doing with those sticks?" is to tap out a rhythm with his sticks. No doubt this book is used in music classes everywhere.

Want More?
Visit the author's website.
Miniature drummers might also enjoy Drum City.


Fruit City: The Invisible Man

The Invisible Man by Arthur Yorinks review The Invisible Man by Arthur Yorinks.

At his corner stand, Sy sells fruit to cure every ailment,  but when he self-medicates with some prunes Sy wakes up to find himself growing increasingly paler. The now invisible Sy is shunned by society, and worse still becomes the scapegoat for all of the world's unfortunate and unexplainable incidents! After stints in various occupations and a bit of jail time, Sy finally takes on a job as a magician's assistant. When a disappointed audience responds to his failure on stage by pummeling him with produce, Sy's faith in the healing power of fruit is restored.

The Invisible Man is a fun story, though not as mischievously absurd as I would have expected a children's picture book about invisibility to be. Yorinks seems to have decided that the idea of fruit with magical healing properties was all the cleverness one picture book could handle. That's a bit disappointing but Doug Cushman's illustrations add a some extra liveliness. The city is primarily represented through silhouetted skylines behind Sy's greengrocer stand, though a clever illustration of the invisible Sy wrapped in his bathrobe scaring a pigeon off his apartment windowsill adds an alternative perspective.

Most children at some point in their youthful careers imagine what it might be like to be invisible and this is an enjoyable enough book to search it out at the library.

Want More?
Yorinks Theater Group did a collaborative theater project with The Greene Space based on H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man.
Visit the illustrator's website.


Gigantic City: Wow! City!

Robert Neubecker's Wow! City! was an ALA Notable Book in 2004, but unfortunately is now out of print. This is too bad because it is a great book for toddlers who might be about to visit the city for the first time.

The book is huge, measuring 10 x 20 inches, when open. Although the illustrations are obviously inspired by New York City, the minimalist text is not city-specific. Each two page spread contains only two words:"Wow!" and whatever the featured sight is: "Wow! Taxi!" or Wow! Lights!", etc. Nuebecker's vibrant illustrations effectively convey the narrator's enthusiasm for the sights and sounds of her urban vacation. He varies the perspective from up close to far way and even through a car window.

Toddlers and preschoolers will love this one.

Want More?
Neubecker wrote a couple of other "Wow!" books, including Wow! Ocean! and Wow! America!
Watch an interview with the author.
Visit the author's website.


Poetic City: Mural on Second Avenue

Lilian Moore celebrates the city in a 2005 collection of poems, Mural on Second Avenue and Other City Poems. In contrast to the previous poetry collection I highlighted, Moore's short poems stay away from the more gritty aspects of the city. Fortunately, that doesn't make them less interesting. I've never considered myself an expert on poetry and have always felt a little unqualified to judge it but Moore received the Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children as well as many positive critical reviews of her work.

The subject matter in this collection ranges from the expected topics of seasons and bridges to the slightly amusing,"How to Go Around a Corner" and department store windows. The poems are all an easy length and mostly written in free verse. One of my favorites was "Forsythia Bush" because it reminded me of my own delight on discovering the beautiful forsythia during my first New York spring ten years ago.

There is nothing
like the sudden

one morning
without warning

into yellow
startles the street
into spring.

Each poem is accompanied by a lovely painted illustration by Roma Karas. The illustrations are clearly based on NYC (as is so often the case), but the poems are not city-specific.

Want More?
Read about Lilian Moore at The Poetry Foundation.
Visit Roma Karas' website.
Other Poetry Books you might like: Other poetry books you might like: A City Is, Sky Scrape/City Scape, City I Love, City Poems.


Poetic City: City Poems

Many parents are familiar with Lois Lenski's books about characters named "Small" or "Little" transportation devices: Cowboy Small, Fireman Small, Policeman Small or The Little Fire Engine, The Little Train, ... you get the idea. Plus, her characteristic line drawings grace many a children's book, including her own Newbery Winner, Strawberry Girl.

In 1971, three years before her death, Lenski published City Poems, a collection of previously published and new poems about -- you guessed it -- the city. I actually found this collection in the adult, rather than the children's section of the library, but it is certainly appropriate for the younger set, which I suspect is the target audience anyway.

Lenski's poems are simple and while I would be hard pressed to call them brilliant, my three year old was quite taken with them, especially (and unsurprisingly) the ones about cars, trucks, subways and taxis. The poems (about 100 in total) address a wide range of urban topics, from litter in the street and smells on the fire escape to libraries and playing ball with dad. Some are quite serious -- poems about gangs or slums -- while others are quite whimsical -- poems about hot dogs or the zoo's bear conversing with the children. While the poems are descriptive and detailed about life in the city, I was sometimes surprised at their straightforwardness, particularly when it came to poems with rather stark themes. For example, a deceptively simple poem about a traffic accident in which a boy on a bike is injured ends with the mundane question, "How did Mom get here?"

The collection is divided into sections such as "I Like the City", "People in the City" and "My Home in the City." The book is long out of print but you might be able to find a copy at your library. I would definitely suggest it for older children who are interested in city life and parents of small children can find some more playful poems, such as those about swings and whirlygigs and hot dogs, to recite aloud.

Want More?
Read another review at The Brookeshelf.
The Kirkus Reviews was not very flattering, and I think, a little unfair.
Other poetry books you might like: A City Is, Sky Scrape/City Scape, City I Love, Mural on Second Avenue and Other City Poems.


Mystery City: Ottoline and the Yellow Cat

I recently chose Chris Riddell's chapter book Ottoline and the Yellow Cat off the library shelves because of its whimsical cover (It's true! I judge!) and was delighted to see its setting was "Big City."

Ottoline Brown lives in Apartment 243 of the Pepperpot Building. Her parents are traveling the world and collecting interesting things (though they do keep in touch via postcards and sage tidbits of advice), and so Ottoline spends her days with the unusual Mr. Monroe. Mr. Monroe will probably remind the reader of Cousin It. One day, Ottoline notices a rash of burglaries around the city. Being a very good thinker, she sets out to solve them (with Mr. Monroe's help, of course). Along the way she encounters some shady feline and canine characters, but with a detailed and clever plan she sets a trap to catch the (ahem) cat burglar.

Chris Riddell crafts Ottoline's tale through a clever combination of text and intricate and amusing line drawings. Immediately I was put in mind of Eloise, but the narration of Ottoline's story relies much more on the drawings than Eloise's. The city setting is crucial to the story and adds the requisite air of mystery. There are plenty of intriguing, yet whimsical cityscapes, especially when Ottoline sets out at night, when her long shadow is dwarfed by towering buildings. A thieves' den in and old warehouse presents a quirky take on a hideaway you might see in an old 40s film noir, but a resident chihuahua named Fifi Fiesta Funny Face III, keeps us firmly in the world of children's books.

My sons and I really enjoyed Ottoline and the Yellow Cat as a read aloud, but it could easily be enjoyed by any child on his own, as long as they take plenty of time to examine the drawings.


Big Kid says: "Ottoline! Ottoline! Ottoline!"
Little Kid says: "Ottoline! Ottoline! Ottoline!"
(This was the chant they shouted every night when it was time for our read aloud.

Want More?
Visit the author's website.
Read more reviews at Annie and Aunt, Charlotte's Library, books4yourkids or  Kids Read.
There are more Ottoline books: Ottoline Goes to School and Ottoline at Sea.
Watch this you tube video of Chris Riddell drawing Ottoline:


Book List City: Guest Post

This week Tanya at books4yourkids.com interviewed yours truly about books and traveling. All week long she put together book lists on terrific cities so you can do a little armchair traveling with the kids. Hop on over there and take a look.


Thanks, Tanya! It was fun!


Familial City: Tar Beach

Summer is just around the corner and in cities everywhere, rooftops become outdoor gathering places for those in yard less apartments. Faith Ringgold's Caldecott Honor book Tar Beach is a magical story celebrating family, city life and a special bridge.

Much has already been written about this beautiful book (see Want More? section below) and there is every reason in the world to pick it up this summer and read it with your kids. The free-flowing story of Tar Beach was originally told via a quilt Ringgold crafted around the image of a family gathered around a late summer dinner on their rooftop. The term "tar beach" obviously refers to the blackness of the roof on which the narrator (a stand-in for a young Ringgold) relaxes and remembers her life in Harlem, New York City.

Our young protagonist, Cassie, alternates her narration between her imagined flights over the city and the George Washington Bridge (which she imagines wearing "like a giant diamond necklace") and a more realistic vision of her family's life in the city. There is her dad, who has a hard time finding construction work, her mom, full of laughter and tears, and her younger brother BeBe, who Cassie eventually takes with her on her nighttime flights.

It is hard to describe the beauty of this book. It is truly a love letter to the city and the freedom it offers. I hope you add it to your summer reading list.

Want More?
Visit the author's website.
Flying over the city is a popular motif in urban picture books: see any number of my bird book reviews, but also: Flying Over Brooklyn, Come Fly With Me, WingsThe Little Reindeer, The Tale of Hilda Louise and Abuela.
Enjoy another of my favorite rooftop books: At Night
Gathering Books has a blog post with links to educational resources about the book.
Watch this great Reading Rainbow episode, featuring New York City rooftops and a lovely reading of Tar Beach.  (If you search for Ringgold on You Tube, you will find several videos of her discussing her book and quilt.)


Musical City: Cats' Night Out

I have been wanting to read Cats' Night Out since it was first published in 2010, but it wasn't until the illustrator, Jon Klassen, achieved much deserved fame for I Want My Hat Back that my local library bought a copy of it, despite the fact that it won the Canadian Governor General's Literary Award (Canada's answer to the Caldecott).

Imagine a 1920s urban cat dance party and you will fit right into the world of Caroline Stutson's poetic feline adventure. In fact, I was so taken with the smooth jazz-like rhyme of Stutson's Cats' Night Out that it wasn't until the second reading that I even noticed this was a skip counting book (or maybe I'm just not very observant). Each time we turn the page pairs of cats on nighttime rooftops waltz, tango, foxtrot and samba their way through a impromptu swanky outdoor fĂȘte.

Unlike many urban picture book cats, these cats don't have to sneak around. There is no cautious slinking through alley ways and behind trash cans.  These cats hang out in locations where you might instead be expecting to see birds: on laundry lines hung from fire escapes, on telephone wires and billboards, skeleton-like scaffolding, in trees and even atop traffic lights. In fact, I couldn't even find a single bird. The city comes off as slightly mysterious, draped in fog and muted colored lights which offer the type of partial illumination you might expect in a smoky speak-easy. Klassen's felines are grooving out and you can see the look on their faces. These are some seriously cool cats. 

Sure, this is a great book to introduce counting and music concepts, but what you'll really love is the atmosphere.

Little Kid says: Those cats are dancing! Let's dance, mom!

Want More?
Read all my reviews of Cat-in-the-City books.
Check out the author's website.
Visit the illustrator's website.
Read Betsy Bird's more extensive review (and see some artwork) at Fuse #8.


Where Am I?

As one of the the 6 readers of this blog you are probably wondering what's happened to me. Well, the true answer is "nothing."

My youngest has stopped napping, thus cutting way back on my free time -- if any parent can be so bold as to claim she has such a thing as free time.

I do plan on continuing with the blog, but my posts will be fairly infrequent for the time being. I am hopeful that once September arrives and both boys are in school full time there will be more time to write review posts. I still have stacks of books I want to share with you, including a number of books set in London and another handful of books set in Paris.

I hope to see you soon.


Dog City: Rosa Moves to Town

I have been dreaming of the day when I would cross paths with a picture book set in Stockholm! I have at last found one, and may even have found a few more -- but will not be certain until my holds come in at the library.

The canine titular character in Barbro Lindgren's Rosa Moves to Town has just moved to the city, which is "not at all like their old home." On her walks Rosa discovers all sorts of interesting dogs, babies, and  intriguing discarded item on the pavement. Rosa's interest in small objects is her downfall, however. She ingests part of a dog toy and must undergo surgery at the veterinarian hospital. The surgery is successful

Given that it is set in one of my favorite cities, I can't help but wish this was a better book, although in fairness it is possible something might have been lost in the translation. The story is a bit disjointed but dog lovers and dog owners will probably find something to enjoy. (Full disclosure: I am not a dog lover.) I did like the way the book opened by drawing our attention to a part of the city that people ignore, but is fascinating for dogs: the sidewalk. From Rosa's perspective: the "chewing gum, pebbles, corks and stale hot-dog buns -- now that was fun!"

Eva Eriksson's colored pencil illustrations are appealing and I adore the opening image of Stockholm across the water. Most of the illustrations are closeups of the dogs but there is a nice one of Rosa on a walk in Gamla stan.

If you love dogs or just really, really want a picture book set in Stockholm, you might want to check Rosa Moves to Town out from the library.

Want More?
Playing by the Book has a great round-up of Swedish picture books in English translation.


Green City: Central Park Serenade

I wonder in how many homes outside of New York City a book like Laura Godwin's Central Park Serenade finds itself? Do libraries in Phoenix or Dallas order a copy for their collections? By now this is a moot point, as the book is out of print. It must still find its way into the hands of many children around NYC, though, since I see the Brooklyn Library has 18 copies, several of which are currently checked out.

But, I babble.

Central Park Serenade is a serene book. Needless to say, it is a survey of the parks many features, from the horse-drawn carriages to the zoo to the sailing of toy boats. Barry Root's sunshine-filled illustrations (they made me want to start singing, "All in a golden afternoon...") follow a boy carrying his boat through the park as he passes many notable sites and activities, some grand, like the zoo, others small, like the ice cream carts. The text And the pigeons coo/And the big dogs bark/And the noises echo through the park is repeated throughout the rhyming text. There is a focus on the people and sounds of the park, rather than the inanimate sights: parents, drummers, baseball players, etc., which I appreciated -- after all the city park is what it is because of the people who bring it to life.

The end pages contain a map of the park. Maps are always a big hit with my boys. There are also many pictures with buses and taxis, also an important feature for my little guys. Personally, I was immediately struck by the fact that the protagonist of the narrative lives in an apartment in which his bedroom overlooks Central Park. That is some serious real estate. I wonder how many other New York parents notice the real estate in picture books. My own sons are still blissfully aware that their own view is not exactly going to bring in the big money.

I hope Central Park Serenade finds an audience outside of New York City as many of the experiences depicted are not limited to Central Park. Plus, I imagine kids in the country would enjoy seeing what a city park is like.

Want More?
Try the picture book The Pirate in Central Park.
Early Chapter Books about Pee-Wee and his squirrel friends having adventures in Central Park are quite delightful. I reviewed the series here.
Read a book about Pale Male in Central Park. I reviewed three of them.

Little Kid says: Read the bus page, again.


Pediferous City: Betty Lou Blue

Before I go any further, I must confess that I recently found several typos in recent posts in which I accidentally used "your" instead of "you're". This is so embarrassing! So if you noticed that error and said to yourself, "I can't believe she did that. Tsk, tsk, tsk," rest assured I do know the difference between "your" and "you're." Sometimes when typing we all make mistakes, but that does not diminish my embarrassment! Argh! I hope I have corrected them all now, but if you ever see such an error, by all means, point it out to me!

Betty Lou Blue has gigantic feet and although her mother assures her that beauty comes from within, it's hard to get past the teasing she must endure from bullies like Jimmy Jack Jones. One day, during a sudden snow storm, Betty Lou must decide whether or not to use the power of her snowshoe-like feet for good or leave her tormentors to their fate. This is a children's book so you can guess her choice.

I'm not a very good judge of poetry, but Nancy Crocker's rhyming text seems adequate. However,  it is Boris Kulikov's vibrant and appealing illustrations which make checking out this book worthwhile. There is something so magical about watching the snow fall over the city -- everything looks instantly clean and fresh. The kids in this book do what all city kids do as soon as the snow starts to come down: they head to the park. There isn't anything in the text that necessarily sets the story in the city, but the choice to do so works very well. The image of Betty Lou gazing out the upper story window at the swiftly falling snow collecting on rooftops and window grates is one every city dweller can relate to.

I thought Betty Lou Blue conveyed a useful message in an imaginative way and if your library has it on the shelves, it would be a cozy winter read. Not that NYC is experiencing winter this year, we just skipped right to an endless early spring.

Want More?
Read an interview with the author at Seven Impossible Things.
Visit the illustrator's website or the author's website.
Read a review with some of the poetry at Big A little a.
I also enjoyed the Kulikov-illustrated book, The Castle on Hester Street.

Little Kid says: They are stuck in the snow.


Subway City: Friday's Journey

My kids have some sort of superhuman radar when it comes to locating books about trains. One of the books they insisted on bringing home from the library a while back was Friday's Journey. It just happened to be set in the city, too.

In Ken Rush's Friday's Journey, Chris' parents are divorced and his dad has come to pick him up for their Friday journey, which is a subway ride to Dad's place, where he spends the weekend. During the train ride, Chris imagines the places the train could take him: places he used to go with both his parents. In the end, he realizes he can still enjoy those places just with Dad.

The story fell a little short for me, but I imagine it has a place among the targeted audience. However, there are a number of specific subway experiences that my young listeners grabbed on to, which is why I'm including a review on this blog. For example: the distant lights of the subway in the tunnel, the experience of watching the tracks out the front window, the screeching noise of the train stopping in the station. The city is obviously New York City, but it is never mentioned by name and because of the book's theme of living with divorced parents this book will find an audience outside the local one.

Want More?
My favorite book about a dad and his sons riding the subway is the ingenious Subway by Christopher Niemann.

Little Kid says: Where is that train going?


Imaginary City: Cookiebot!

In Katie Van Camp's CookieBot!: A Harry and Horsie Adventure a not-so innocent attempt to sneak a cookie from the cookie jar unleashes the fearsome, gigantic, uncontrollable cookie-loving robot, CookieBot! With CookieBot out of control and heading toward the Empire Sweets Cafe, Harry's only hope is his best friend and soft, cuddly companion, Horsie. Will they save the city? Will they get a glass of milk? Read and find out!

The story does not reveal if Harry and Horsie's real life home is in the city, but that information is really not very important. Although there are nods to New York City, the city in CookieBot! is pure imagination. After all, any good futuristic science fiction tale with an over sized villain takes place in the city, right? Think Godzilla! Think... okay, I can't think of any more, but my point is that in our popular imagination, giant robots do not crash through the woods or the flower garden. They terrorize innocent urban populations who run down streets flanked by skyscrapers!

How can one not enjoy the ultra-cool modern retro style of Lincoln Agnew's illustrations? The restrained yet bold color palette in no way feels limiting, instead reminding one of awesome B movies, pop art and old school comic books. The city, though a result of a young boy's imagination, is rich with details like scrolled iron work, mish-mashed bricks and flashing light bulbs. The humorous text on the street signs and billboards adds further dimension to the story.

CookieBot!: A Harry and Horsie Adventure is so much fun. It's a great read aloud for parents like me who love to ham it up and great for kids like mine who are into mayhem. Enjoy!

Want More?
Read the first adventure, Harry and Horsie (in which we see, yes, Harry lives in the city).
Visit the author's website.
Visit the illustrator's website.
This book reminded me of another retro-robot-in-the-city (I smell a new picture book genre in the making!) book I reviewed: Oh No!
Watch the trailer.
Big Kid says: Awesome! Little Kid says: Read it, again! Again!


Panel City: Shouting Out About Books!

Yesterday I had the very great pleasure of being on a panel at the New York Public Library in which the discussion centered on the different ways book professionals (authors, illustrators, librarians, booksellers, etc.) communicate about books.

"Hold it right there!" you are thinking, "Why were you included in panel of book professionals?"

Okay, you got me.  It's true that in no way do I consider myself a book professional. I was there as the "parent blogger" representative. And as a parent blogger, I communicate to others -- presumably other parents -- about books.

I enjoyed the experience and as usually happens when book lovers gather to discuss books, there was not enough time to discuss... um, well... books. One of the topics which fell victim to the clock was how exactly parent bloggers tell the public about books. 

Fortunately I have a blog where I can engage in the very self-indulgent act of talking about whatever I wish (fortunately you are able, at this point, to click away from this site if I'm too boring). So here's a few thoughts I had rolling around in my head:

1. One of the terms that kept getting tossed around was that that book professionals are "gatekeepers." While I agree that this is true for librarians and others, I don't consider myself, as a parent blogger, a gatekeeper to the world of books. When trying to decided on a catchy phrase that would describe how I feel about the parent blogger position, I decided I liked the term, "signpost."

I'm imagining one of those large hands with the pointer finger like this:

Or maybe a signpost that leads you different ways, when I write posts about different kinds of books (just to confuse you):

A signpost points you in a specific direction(s), but you, as the traveler can choose to go one way or another: pick up one book or another. Unlike a gatekeeper, I don't decided which books are available for you to choose (e.g. at the library or in a bookstore). 

2. I don't write, what I consider to be reviews, on my parent blog. Over here at Storied Cities, that's another matter, but on my parent blog when I recommend a book a write a soundbite for it. This is for a several reasons: a) because I don't really want to write lengthy reviews covering plot points and other details; b) others have already written reviews, which are easy to find if someone wants more info on a particular book (ah, the magic of Google); c) checking out a book from the library is risk-free. I don't encourage people to spend $20 on a book they haven't read yet, good review or not; d) parents coming to my blog are not (for the most part) coming specifically for book recommendations (more on this in Point 3); and finally e) surfers of the internet and many parents with small children about to spill a cup of milk all over the new couch like brevity (a description which does not apply to this post!).

3.) Even though parents are not generally coming to my parent blog for book recommendations, parent blogs are an important way of communicating about books and here's why:
  • Parents (as opposed to children) are the ones who check out and buy picture books, early readers and - to a certain extent - middle grade fiction. I don't pretend to know anything about the publishing industry, but I imagine it is the parents' wallets that put kids books on best sellers list. If I'm wrong, please tell me in the comment section, I love to be corrected and learn new things!
  • Parents who come to a blog such as mine are coming for things to do with their kids. My site traffic tells me that my Indoor and Educational Activities are what bring readers to my blog, yet guess what? My book posts are the most commented upon (on?) posts! My recent post, on how to find children's book has quickly become one of my most popular posts, receiving more hits in a week than some posts receive in a year!  I am incredibly flattered that so many readers referred to the post on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. All of this means:
  • Parents are interested in finding books other than Dr. Seuss, Goodnight Moon, etc. but they don't necessarily go to book blogs to do so. Book blogs aren't necessarily read by a large parent audience (this is a generalization, obviously there are parents, like me. who read blogs dedicated to books), but blogs about a variety of parent-related issues are aimed solely at the children's book buyer: PARENTS.
So the main message is that book pros can communicate to parents (the gatekeepers for children!) through venues not entirely dedicated to books. Libraries, schools and bookstores will always remain the most important ways to find books, but don't forget that talking about books for children can also be done alongside talk about homemade catapults, math games and getting the kids to eat a healthful breakfast!

I would love to hear more from you about this! Do you think parent blogs or other blogs written my non-book professionals have a place in the book conversation? Maybe since I'm not trained in book reviews I should stick to sippy cups? How can librarian, schools, author/illustrators and bookstores work with bloggers to promote books?

Please add to the conversation in the comments section of this post.


Pigeon City: Cuckoo Feathers

A few months ago I hand wrote a review for Cuckoo Feathers, and then I lost it. Argh. So I have been putting off this post in the hopes I might just come across my notes. Sadly, the time has come for me to give up my search and consequently the review that follows might not be quite as thorough as my original.

Phylis Reynolds Naylor's Cuckoo Feathers is a story that could only take place in the city. It's Chicago this time. When we meet Sarah she is bored with white: white food and the the color of her skin. She wants to be an interesting color like her friend, Peter. Sarah's mom is an artist and comes up with a clever way of showing Sarah and Peter that their respective skin colors are much more that just "white" and "brown." While the friends are painting, a few pigeons show up. Sarah and her friends come to think of the pigeons as theirs and so when the pigeons decides to roost in a neighboring windowsill, a bit of jealousy ensues. When a third, aggressive pigeon shows up, Sarah, her old and new friends work together to find a solution.

Families who live in apartment buildings will recognize the form of community portrayed in this book: friends can watch each other across air shafts and fire escapes, neighbors can hear each other in the hallways, diversity is the norm. It is also nice to have a story about watching animal life which does not take place in the park (or the country). Marcy Ramsey's line drawn illustrations are a nice addition.

Cuckoo Feathers is an entertaining book and the story reads smoothly. It is part of a series of books about Sarah, called "Simply Sarah." It makes a nice read aloud, or an early chapter book for young readers. Extra sensitive children may be a little upset at a certain egg dropping scene, but I think Naylor handles the situation well.

Want More?
Read a general review of Simply Sarah at A Year of Reading.
Try the other Simply Sarah books: Anyone Can Eat Squid!, Patches and Scratches, and Eating Enchiladas.
Read an interview with the author.

Big Kid says: Don't take that one back to the library.

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