Posted December 20th 2012 at 4:00 pm by
in Book Reviews

Kids, Books, and Imagining Cities

If I had my druthers, I would read children’s books only. Nothing else so completely indulges my imagination and senses. Sadly, now that my children are nearly grown, I lack the pretext that I am reading to them. But when they were little, each night, curled up together in their beds, we went places — stomping and romping at the Royal Rumpus of Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things; fleeing a jungle’s angry elephants and ducking to avoid wily space aliens on the way to school in Mark Teague’s Secret Shortcut, and, in Stay Away from the Junkyard, a book for which I paid twenty five cents at a yard sale, discovering a wonderland built by the neighborhood scrap collector who everyone considered a scary misfit. Maybe I’m simple minded, but our nightly reads unlocked my passion for glorious and overlooked places, and they did so more surely than any grown-up treatise I’ve ever read. To this day, I’ve got my fingers crossed that some smart benefactor will sponsor a worldwide contest spurring artists to re-imagine junkyards as amusement parks.

An illustration in Ezra Jack Keats' "A Snowy Day". Image credit:

I most love children’s books about cities; like cities themselves, they offer a deep drink of energy and possibility, a chance to observe the smallest and most delightful details of built environments; to fully witness the crazy, wonderful and unseen in places. As an African American mother always on the lookout for positive images of children of color, I often turned to books about cities because they were the most likely to provide imaginative fodder for my children to explore who they might become.

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When my kids were young, Ezra Jack Keats’s books were my favorite. They brilliantly capture the sensory drama and overlooked beauty of cities. Keats grew up in a struggling family in tough East New York (Brooklyn) as a nerdy misfit. He loved cities: “[a]ll the beauty that other people see in country life, I find taking walks and seeing the multitudes of people … I was a city kid. I wouldn’t think of setting [my stories] anywhere I didn’t know.”  The gritty neighborhoods of his books have a joyful and warm sensibility – intensely colorful streets have whimsical chalk-drawn hopscotch games; bright graffiti features names of Keats’s own friends and torn fragments of wall posters reveal kind eyes watching over playing children. Keats’s buildings have dim, narrow hallways and apartments inhabited by friendly tenants. Brief glimpses inside the apartments show interesting lives full of tiny, unexpected pleasures. Often there is weather—inky skies, crackling lightening, rain and, of course, snow. Many times the weather perfectly mirrors the internal lives of his characters, seamless connecting, as cities are wont to do, the natural and built environments with the humans who live in them. Keats’s most well-known and beloved book, Caldecott Award winner, A Snowy Day captures every delicious sight and sound of Peter’s walk through city streets after a snowstorm.

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In “A Letter to Amy,” Peter, one of my favorite Keats characters, is caught in a rainstorm on his way to mail a letter to his special friend. As Peter worries about what his friends will think about a girl at his party, lightening and thunder erupt and a strong gust of wind blows the letter from his hand. When he unexpectedly runs into Amy and hurts her feelings, his image on the rain-slicked sidewalk in his bright yellow rain coat is blurred and downcast. Despite the encounter on the sidewalk, and having to brave a situation in which she will be the only girl, Amy does show up at Peter’s party. At first a skeptical boy reacts: “A girl, – ugh!” But she turns out to be the highlight. She has brought her parrot who she has taught to say “Happy Birthday, Peter.”

For years, I assumed Keats was black; why else would so many of his characters be?  Then I learned that he was a nice Jewish guy from Brooklyn and I began to ponder how he had come to write about his own experience using black and brown characters. For example, like Peter, Keats was taunted for being friends with girls, and was bullied like another of his protagonists, Louie in Goggles, for being nerdy. I later read his reflections on his stories and learned that Keats consciously saw his characters as universal and, yet, necessarily of color. While their minority identity suggests Keats’s own sense of being an outsider, maybe because he could see himself in them, his characters aren’t shadow beings, the one brown or black face inserted into the crowd. In Letter to Amy, Amy is brave and she cries, Louie in Goggles is frightened of the big boys, but keeps his wits about him and outsmarts them. And this is what I most wanted my kids to see in their storybooks: fully realized black and brown people.

An illustration in Ezra Jack Keats' "A Letter to Amy". Image credit:

The first children’s book that Keats both illustrated and wrote, A Snowy Day was quite controversial when published in 1962 as the first major children’s book in the US to feature a black protagonist. A Life Magazine photo strip of a plucky young black child was Keats’s inspiration. After waiting 22 years for the chance to use it, Keats decided to write and illustrate a book on his own.  A few years before, Helen Kay wrote a children’s book with a black protagonist, but her publisher insisted that she turn the character into a poor white child. But Keats felt strongly that Peter not be “a white child colored brown. I wanted him to be in the book on his own, not through the benevolence of white children or anyone else … My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along.” In the heady early days of the civil rights movement, his publisher went along, even deciding to print Snowy Day as an expensive full color book.

As my children got older, we set aside picture books for chapter books. Luckily, several outstanding series are set in cities. Gregor the Overlander, Suzanne Collins’s five-volume urban Alice In Wonderland, is my favorite. If you’ve read it, you know that the otherworld portal is not a rabbit hole but an air vent in the laundry room of an upper-Manhattan highrise. In that other-world, 12-year-old Gregor soars on the back of his shrewd bat companion, Ares, and battles alongside the heroic warrior princess, Luxa to defend her vast and beautiful subterranean fortress-city, Regalia. The enemy is the vicious and conniving rats; our heroes have help from a dull-witted and loyal cockroach couple and the surly, dangerous and brilliant rat turncoat, Ripred. In the Gregor books, though we explore the mysterious cityscapes of the underground world, we spend much more time with the characters: bats with intelligence and dignity; cockroaches that speak in endearing monosyllables; Ripred’s scarred warrior philosopher who seeks peace so no one else endures his unspeakable pain.

Collins’s Gregor, in a much subtler way than Keats’ Peter, looks at race: his obviously working class, stable two-parent family lives in a polyglot multi-family building. It appears that his parents send him south each summer to stay with his grandmother. They talk to him with the loving sternness and insistence on formal respect that is reminiscent of a black parenting style. Is Gregor black?  In five volumes, Collins never specifies, though once offhandedly describing his baby sister’s, Boots’s arm as brown and her hair as tightly curled, she drops two tantalizing hints.

Whether overt or subtle, what I loved about these wonderful books about cities is the full-blooded way in which they captured the dense crush of shared human experience, and the quirky individuality of people, that you find in urban places.

Post by Dayna Cunningham. Dayna is the Executive Director of MIT CoLab.

3 responses to “Kids, Books, and Imagining Cities”

  1. Heather says:

    What a lovely post. Having spent much of the winter break catching up on what my daughter reads, it’s so nice to know that there are other parents thinking about the way that authors represent the lives of black/brown children, and about the ways that race is treated subtly or overtly in children’s/ YA literature. Thank you!

  2. Heather,

    It is great to know that this was helpful. My sense is that many parents of color spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to aid their young children’s identity formation in a world that often presents them with hostile images. I have amassed quite a collection of young children’s books with children of color — Asian American, American Indian, Latino and African American — as protagonists. Now that my kids are in college and high school, they are urging me to pass it on, but I refuse. I am holding on to it for the next generation. Perhaps sometime I will publish a list on CoLab Radio.

  3. Heather says:

    Please do! The task of finding more books as my daughter has gotten older (she’s a tween now) has become increasingly challenging. Right now she’s enjoying Rick Riordan’s Red Pyramid Series, the two books from Kirsten Miller (Inside the Shadow City and the Empress’s Tomb), among others. Among these adventure stories, what I’m finding is that It’s not often that the lead character is a girl of color, which is an interesting commentary in itself.