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Urban Kids Books - A Mom's Top Picks
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Kristin Kolb is the editor of Tidepool, an online news service for the Northwest that is a project of Sightline Institute.

When I became a parent three years ago, I started noticing how many kids books are about farms and animals I’ve, honestly, never seen in my 32 years. It was relatively hard to find good books that tell the story of the typical daily experience of a child—and a parent—traffic, crowds, and, well, city life.

I lived in a duplex in central Vancouver, BC, when I became a mother, and I wanted to read stories to my daughter that resembled the world she was absorbing—books about living in an apartment and riding the bus and navigating busy neighborhoods, not Old MacDonald or a Big Bad (probably endangered) Wolf.

I’m still on a quest for the best city books for kids. But here’s my starter list, largely for the toddler set.

wowcit.jpeg Wow! City! By Robert Neubecker

This richly illustrated book tells the story of a little girl and her father exploring Manhattan: They take the subway, ride the bus, walk through Central Park, watch people, and even a see a parade in Chinatown. Even though Izzy is only a toddler, it reminds me of how I felt when I first visited New York at age 17: “Wow!? There’s even a mysterious dog hiding in every picture—similar to the “Where’s Waldo?? game. Neubecker is a frequent contributor to Slate.

madlenka.jpg Madlenka by Peter Sis

Peter Sis is a one of the absolute greats of contemporary children’s literature (honest—he’s a MacArthur "genius grant" recipient). His illustrations are masterful, intricate, and gorgeous. Among his recent works are challenging biographies of Darwin and Galileo, told in about 200 words with rich diagrams and drawings.

Madlenka tells the tale of Sis’ daughter, who marks the occasion of losing her first tooth with a walk around her city block. But her journey is really a trip around the world—she celebrates with a Latin American grocer, a French baker, an Indian immigrant who sells newspapers at his kiosk, and more.

The subsequent Madlenka’s Dog, wherein our heroine walks her imaginary dog around her block (and around the world again), is equally wonderful.

ezra.jpgApt. 3 by Ezra Jack Keats

Ezra Jack Keats wrote several books about city life. My favorite is Apt. 3, the story of two brothers exploring the mysterious noises of their apartment building—snoring, fighting, babies crying, and a harmonica playing. Their adventure leads to a new and unusual friendship.

hello.jpgHello Hello By Dan Zanes

A great tale of neighborhood diversity Hello, Hello, is one of Dan Zanes’ original songs put to print with fun illustrations of a city neighborhood filled with different animals, like moths and roosters and raccoons, greeting each other in Mandarin, Farsi, Spanish, German, Japanese, English—you name it. Zanes is known as the “the Elvis of the toddler set? with an empire of books and CDs and even a spot on Sesame Street.

picturesque.jpg Picturescape by Elisa Gutierrez

This local Vancouver author offers no text, just dreamy illustrations of a trip to the Vancouver Art Museum and the imaginings of a child viewing Emily Carr’s paintings of British Columbia for the first time. This is pure Cascadia in lush images of longhouses, fjords, kayaks, and the intensity and excitement of downtown Vancouver. I found this book at Magpie, a treasure-filled magazine store on Commercial Drive in Vancouver.

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On a slightly more grandiose scale, I have to recommend Uno's Garden by Graeme Base, which I recently bought for a friend's 5-year-old, based on the recommendation at Anthropik call it "primitivism for preschoolers", which it is in a way. Its story uses a kind of "count the different creatures" device through the narrative to teach kids about the nature of exponential increases of human population on an ecosystem. But rather than ending on some radical primitivist note after the human city collapses, lessons are learned and the city is reconfigured to blend harmoniously with nature. The artwork is wonderful.

Posted by: Gyrus on 4 Jan 07

Great list! Thank you.

Some other possibilities:

Vera B. Williams's A Chair for my Mother has a real feel of the city about it, and though you don't see the city background, I also suggest you check out her "More, More, More," Said the Baby, which is a permanent favorite at our house - we've worn out several copies.

Maira Kalman's books are inspiring for all ages. I recommend beginning with Max Makes a Million. Max is a New York dog, but his dream is to live in Paris and be a poet. Kalman's illustrations are brilliant, and her text catches the rhythm of busy streets.

And if I can end with a moment of self-promotion, Think Cool Thoughts is a story about a city summer when it was so hot that chocolate bars melted before you could eat them, and the nights were even hotter than the days. A little girl and her family end up sleeping on the roof to beat the heat. (You can listen to it read aloud, here.)

Posted by: Elizabeth Perry on 4 Jan 07

Great list - I need to get a few of these for my kids. My all-time favorite children's book set in the city is Happy Birthday Mr. Kang by Susan L. Roth. The story is about a Chinese immigrant coming to terms with his American-ness, and the setting is the Lower East Side of NYC. Great story and great feel for the urban environment.

Posted by: Patrick on 5 Jan 07

philadelphia author derrick gantt has a series of multicultural/urban children's books designed to address the lack of diversity and cultural relevance in early reading texts.

Posted by: jen kardux on 5 Jan 07

Thanks for all the recommendations! The only city book that we have so far is called Sunny and it's about a little boy who lives in the city. To be honest I'm not crazy about the book & neither is my 16 mo. old son, named Sunny. The reason I'm telling you about it is because it comes with a cd of songs that is incredible. So so so good. Totally worth buying the book for the music.

Posted by: Myndy Kinzie on 12 Jan 07



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