Summer Reading in the City: What To Get, What To Give
It’s June, the month when every conversation among parents of school-age children in New York begins, “so, any plans to get out of the city this summer?” In our family June is when you start stockpiling books: one pile of summer reading, ideally to be enjoyed in a shady spot somewhere outside the Five Boroughs, and one pile to bring as gifts for the out-of-town friends whose shady spots we will gratefully be visiting when the heat takes hold.
In Japan, where my husband was born, when you go visiting far from home you always bring omiyage, a gift of your hometown specialty. Every area in Japan is famous for some local product: a curiously shaped sweet, a special kind of seaweed. If we lived in Vermont we could bring everyone a bottle of syrup. (Though if we lived in Vermont people would come to visit us in the summer, instead of the other way round.) When you live in Manhattan, it’s a challenge to come up with good omiyage-not much local produce right here, unless you count bagels. So we’ve settled on books, rather than food, as a way to share the flavors of our city.
For your own children or the children of your summer hosts, then, a brief list of titles to give or keep, starting with the youngest bookworms:
ABC NYC: A Book About Seeing New York City (Abrams, 2005)
123 NYC: A Counting Book of New York City (Abrams, 2007)
By Joanne Dugan
Photographer Joanne Dugan presents two delightful explorations of the city. Her alphabet book zooms between micro and macro, between actual letters and the words they begin: the letter B scratched into a brick on an 18th Street storefront, the Chrysler Building soaring and sparkling to represent C. W is for water tower, with a photo that captures at least 10 and has had my children scanning the skyline and counting them ever since. The counting sequel is a quiz for locals-can you identify those five bridges, or those six skyscrapers? The spread with nine sculptures led to a field trip to the 14th Street subway station in search of more whimsical bronzes by Tom Otterness.
By Christoph Niemann (Greenwillow, 2010)
New from New Yorker cover artist Christoph Niemann, a love letter to the New York City subway system, rats and all. Two boys and their father, not much more than whitewashed stick figures, escape a rainy day by spending it underground, looping and detouring through the colorful spaghetti of the subway lines. Slightly stilted text is more than compensated by bold gouache paintings that are simple enough for children and witty enough for adults without condescending or pandering to either. Niemann is the creator of the whimsical “Abstract City” blog for the New York Times, and of the cult hit I Lego N.Y.
SEE THE CITY: The Journey of Manhattan Unfurled
By Matteo Pericoli (Knopf, 2004)
In 2000 Matteo Pericoli completed a two-year project: drawing the Manhattan skyline, all the way around. Two 37-foot scrolls, of the east side and the west, detailed every block, every building, every bridge in unfussy pen-and-ink with a frieze of waves below. Their cumulative power is quietly stunning. Pericoli republished his work for young readers several years later, adding a reflective personal narrative as well as handwritten notes that dance above the drawings. The book itself is a piece of art, opening in two directions to encompass east and west. Locals will enjoy pointing out their own home stretch of coastline, and budding artists will be inspired.
FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER
By E.L. Konigsburg (1967)
E.L. Konigsburg’s classic is required reading for NYC residents and visitors alike. It’s a mystery, a rite-of-passage tale, and a tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that no one has topped before or since. Claudia, 11, and her little brother Jamie, 9, run away from their suburban home and hide out at the Met, carefully chosen by Claudia for its size, comfort, and beauty. They sleep in a sixteenth-century bed, bathe in the fountain and collect its coins to buy meals, and solve a mystery involving Michelangelo. The museum has changed somewhat over the last four decades, but if you ask at the information desk they’ll give you a “Mixed-Up Files” guide to the galleries, with a message from the author.
WHEN YOU REACH ME
By Rebecca Stead (Random House, 2009)
Rebecca Stead’s stunning second novel won this year’s Newbery Medal and has enthralled both my daughter’s fourth-grade classmates and a significant number of their parents and teachers. Drawing on influences as disparate as Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and the game show classic The $20,000 Pyramid, Stead delivers a gritty portrait of life on the far Upper West Side circa 1979, correct in every familiar detail, and then makes it all wonderfully strange with a time-traveling puzzle of a plot. Sixth-grade heroine Miranda is indeed a miracle of understated, believably bewildered common sense. Read this one yourself before you pass it on to the kids.
Not enough to get you through a whole summer, clearly. Please add your own city favorites in the Comments section below, and happy reading.
Photo by Janice P. Nimura
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