Although I grew up in Central New Jersey, a little over an hour from Manhattan, our family rarely went into New York. We saw the Statue of Liberty when I was young—so young that all I remember is climbing all those many stairs; afterwards, my parents stopped at Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of one of the World Trade Center towers. My father, sightseeing in a t-shirt that warm summer day, was turned away from dining because he wasn’t wearing a tie. It was the 1970’s. Today my memories of 9/11 and the architectural marvel of the Twin Towers are mixed with the shame I felt upon seeing my father denied admittance.
Apart from that one visit to the Statue of Liberty and a crazy spontaneous trip to Rockefeller Center one Thanksgiving when I was in middle school, we didn’t go into New York. Everything I knew about New York I learned from Children’s books. These are some of my favorites:
Bernard Waber’s splendid Lyle, Lyle Crocodile features a lovable (yes: Lovable Lyle is another title in the series) crocodile who is more roommate or house-guest than pet. Crocodile or not, he has real personality. The illustrations in The House on East 88th Street recreates New York’s Upper East Side with a verisimilitude I didn’t recognize until I became an adult. Everything I know about New York brownstones I learned from Lyle.
Ruth Chew’s 1972 Magic in the Park taught me everything I needed to know about city parks. (It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t Central Park as I’d long thought, but Prospect Park in Brooklyn.) The childhood parks of my suburban hometown lacked ravens, pigeons, lakes, and islands; a magical tree was no more fantastic that a park big enough to hold a lake!
I haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy of Jean Stafford’s 1968 Elephi, the Cat with the High IQ to re-read it and verify, so I can’t confirm if this is actually set in Manhattan or any quintessential city. Does it really matter? It feels like New York. One GoodReads reviewer confirms it is “full of 1960s NYC period details” while an Amazon reviewer claims “New Yorkers will love the book.” I absorbed its epic New York Cityness without even realizing it. Today, as an adult, walking through my new hometown of Philadelphia, I’ll see cats surveying the world from curtained ledges above the street and think of Elephi. Regrettably, I assume this book is out of print since I’m having such difficulty finding it.
George Seldon’s classic 1960 The Cricket In Times Square? Meh. It was assigned reading in third or fourth grade.
And trendy sophisticated Eloise (Kay Thompson, 1955) always seemed too entitled for my working-class tastes.
The Number One Best All-Time Children’s Book set in New York? From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler of course!
This 1967 E.L. Konigsburg book remains a classic. Its descriptions are so strong I still can see them 30 years later: the children pack clothes in the violin cases which act as their luggage when they run away from home. Every time I see a museum fountain with coins I want to wade in and gather up the money. And when I visit certain museums, I am still seized by the thought of crossing the red velvet rope to lie upon famous beds in bedroom exhibits.
All those authors brought New York to me.
A new story—a movie, a cartoon—recreates New York with the versimulitude of these books. The Secret Life of Pets is well plotted, entertaining, highly visual, even laugh-aloud funny for adults sans children. Best of all is the animated cityscape, beautiful, skillfully displayed. (I can’t comment on the sewers.) Someday a child-grown-up will recognize the Brooklyn Bridge and think “there’s that bridge from The Secret Life of Pets.” And that’s a good thing.
When you can’t get to New York, let New York come to you through books and film.