Summer reading for city kids: 5 children's books that celebrate NYC and New Yorkers

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New York is a writer's city. Everywhere we go, there's inspiration. When my son was young and played in Union Square, I was moved to write The Elf of Union Square. Did elves always have to live in quaint, old-fashioned settings? Couldn't there be an urban elf lurking around our playground and Greenmarket? City kids have their own distinct experiences and cultural references, and the excellent kids' books below double as love letters to our rich, busy, complicated city. Read them this summer to your kids, or let them get lost in the pages themselves.

The Adventures of Taxi Dog by Debra and Sal Barracca, illustrated by Mark Buehner

Is there anyone more iconically NYC than a cabbie? Max is a stray dog who gets adopted by a taxi driver. Once these two streetwise New Yorkers find each other, they ride "uptown and down" in their roomy Checker cab, picking up a variety of colorful NYC fares – a professional singer who belts from the backseat, a very pregnant woman hailing a ride to the hospital, even juggling clowns with a chimp. Narrated in rhyme, the two friends hang out on the stoop, share a hot dog at the airport taxi stand, and enjoy the city's quirky pleasures and inhabitants.

Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold

Ringgold, a fine artist, grew up in Sugar Hill, and on hot summer nights she and her family climbed to the tar roof to picnic, play cards, and sleep. In this evocative Caldecott Honor book, part-memoir and part-fantasy, eight-year-old Cassie lifts off the roof and flies over the city – over the George Washington Bridge, which her father helped build, past the Union Building where he's currently working, and, in a kid's sweet dream, over an ice cream factory. Grounded in the economic and racial realities of the 1930s (her father can't join the union), the art and text soar, as do Cassie's hopes and dreams for her family.

Nana in the City by Lauren Castillo

Is the city a good place for a Nana? The young visitor in this Caldecott Honor book thinks the city is scary, with people pushing onto subways, ear-splitting noise, people living on the street, and graffiti looming with monsters. Then Nana knits the boy a red cape, and he sees the city through braver eyes. The park is fun! The loud noises include street musicians! And he and his Nana buy a street-cart pretzel for a man who's down on his luck. Though the city and sites are unnamed, the fun is in the finding. The two take the #1 train, visit Central Park, and even brave Times Square.

Dave at Night by Gail Carson Levine

Yiddishe Lower East Side meets Harlem Renaissance in this lively portrait of NYC in the 1920s. Dave lives on Ludlow Street where his stepmother is a garment worker and conversation is sprinkled with Yiddish. But when his father dies, he's sent to the Hebrew Home for Boys, an orphanage on 136th Street. Ever resourceful, Dave figures out how to scale the gates, and stumbles into a rent party, where he's introduced to jazz and invited to a swank soiree based on the parties of Harlem heiress A'lelia Walker. The story is picaresque and adventure-filled, with cameo appearances by Langston Hughes and other luminaries, and the bleak details of the orphanage are balanced by characters who are crusty but kind.

Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

This suspenseful novel by Newbery winner Stead keeps you wondering who's lying. When Georges's dad loses his job, they downsize from a house in Brooklyn to an apartment where Georges befriends some quirky kids who spy on their neighbors. But the reader is the real spy. Where's Georges's mom? Is there something he's not telling us? Brooklyn-kid detail abounds: Georges's old bedroom had a real fire escape bolted inside as a loft bed. Much of the spying happens by lobby-cam. And the kids watch a nest of parrots, descendants of birds who escaped from baggage in JFK.

Jan Carr is a children's book author who lives in NYC near USQ, and loves urban detail. Her most recent picture book, Toe Shoe Mouse, was inspired by a visit to the grand 19th century opera house that hosts the Paris Opera Ballet.


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