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Fiction Atlas: The Lower East Side in Children's Fiction and Picture Books

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Where in the world are you reading about? Fiction finds its settings in all corners of the world (and some places only imagined in our minds) but there's something special about fiction set in a familiar city or neighborhood. I thought it might be useful to kick this series of posts off with a very local list. Working here at Seward Park Library, nestled on the Lower East Side, I get to experience the neighborhood first hand, and see it changing around me. The rich history and long memories of those who grew up on these streets has been the inspiration behind any number of books, including children's books to stage their stories here.

From picture books to middle grade chapter books — the main feature all these books share is their setting!

Same Sun Here by Silas House and Neela Vaswani (Candlewick, 2012)

Listed in the Children's Books 2012: 100 Books for Reading and Sharing! River, a Kentucky coal miner's son and Meena, and immigrant girl in New York City become penpals. Meena lives on the Lower East Side and the Seward Park Library plays a part, especially the Center for Reading and Writing! Delancy street's F train subway platform also gets a fantastic scene. Ages 9-12.

 

Dave at Night by Gail Carson Levine (HarperCollins, 1999)

Historical fiction set in 1926. A Lower East Side orphan gets sent to the Hebrew Home for Boys, but does his best to escape the home at night. This particular book features both the Lower East Side and Harlem for Dave's adventures. A great choice for MG readers needing a historical fiction piece and interested in this orphan Annie style of story, only with a boy for the protagonist. Ages 9-12.

 

 

The Doll Shop Downstairs by Zeldis Yona McDonough (Viking, 2009)

Historical fiction, just prior to WWI. Nine year old Anna helps her family come up with a way to save their Lower East Side doll repair shop when times get rough. Loosely based on the Madame Alexander doll history. The family's story continues in The Cats in the Doll Shop (Viking, 2011). Great stories for 7-9 years. 

 

 

All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor (Yearling, 1951)

Quite possibly the most well-known historical fiction series that features the Lower East Side! In this first story, our family of all girls goes through their day-to-day life with all the typical family struggles and issues of the time. The library mentioned here isn't Seward Park — but a lot of readers associate our building with the books! The first volume is still readily available, but the other titles: All-of-a-Kind Family Downtown, More All-of-a-Kind Family, All-of-a-Kind Family Uptown, and Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family — these can be harder to find! Ages 9-12.

City of Orphans by Avi (Atheneum, 2011)

It's 1893, times are hard, especially if you are a poor immigrant family living in the tenements on the Lower East Side. Thirteen-year-old Maks is a newsboy who's just trying to take care of his family and help his new friend Willa. But when his sister is framed for a crime, it's up to him to play sleuth and find the true culprit. Delightfully vivid! Readers will recognize familiar streets and iconic places. Ages 9-12.

 

 

 

What Zeesie Saw on Delancey Street by Elsa Okon Rael (Simon & Schuster, 1996)

Historical fiction picture book, taking place during the 1930s. Seven-year-old Zeesie is attending her first Package Party with her parents. She's incredibly excited and curious about all the goings on. But some of her discoveries bring her to consider the value of giving and receiving. A marvelous window into LES Jewish society at that point in history with lively illustrations. This author also has written two other picture books set in historical LES history: Rivka's First Thanksgiving and When Zaydeh Danced on Eldridge Street. (Ages 5-9)

Immigrant Girl: Becky of Eldridge Street by Brett Harvey, illustrated by Brenda Kogan Ray (Holiday House, 1987)

Becky is a new immigrant from Russian in 1910. This book chronicles her family's experiences in their new life on the Lower East Side. I've included this book for the sake of being thorough, but the massive blocks of text and lack of compelling artwork make this a less than desirable picture book for anything but the history of the area it presents. Ages 9-12.

The Castle on Hester Street by Linda Heller, illustrated by Boris Kulikov (Simon & Schuster, 1982)

A delightfully wrought picture book that juxtaposes a grandfather's fabulous tall tales with the no-nonsense truth from the child's grandmother. The differences between the two stories is marked, but also touching. A great introductory book for children learning about the immigrant history in general and LES history in particular. Ages 5-7. 

 

The Inquisitor's Apprentice by Chris Moriarty (Harcourt, 2011)

And now for something completely different. Alternate historical fantasy. This middle grade story is set in an alternate version of New York City at the turn of the century (20th century). Sacha Kessler is a nice Jewish boy growing up on the LES, but his inborn ability to see magic forces him to become an apprentice to the city's inquisitor. While Moriarty has included some changes and fabulous storylines involving magic, she has a sharp understanding of what historical New York City was like at that time and has done a decent job of being accurate about the placement of streets and landmarks of the time. The second book in this series, The Watcher in the Shadows is due out this May! (Ages 9-14)

What other children's books can you think of that take place on the Lower East Side? Please share them in the comments!

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