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Fiction Atlas: Brooklyn in Children's Fiction and Picture Books (Part I)

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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. Let's take a trip out of Manhattan for now, and into the lively borough of Brooklyn! This is one of the most storied areas that make up New York City.

Settlers from the Dutch West India Company first founded the Village of Bruckelen in 1646, though the Lenape Native Americans had lived on the land that makes up the county for hundreds of years before that. The Battle of Brooklyn was first major battle of the American Revolutionary war after independence was declared and while Washington did not win that battle, his strategic withdrawal of troops and supplies across the East River is still seen as one of his triumphs in the war.

Brooklyn remained a singular city and county until it voted in 1896 to merge with the other four boroughs and become what we know today as New York City. From the streets of Park Slope, to the homes Red Hook, to the amusements of Coney Island, there's a varied landscape and rich history in Brooklyn. A melting pot of cultures and ethnicities in one community that continues to be home to new immigrants, artists, authors, and lately hipsters. In the past decade, Brooklyn has become the "go to" destination for individuals who want to be where things are "happening." A borough with a reputation for being tough, rough and with an unapolagetic personality all its own.

With such a rich trove of books to choose from, I'm breaking this list into two parts. Part I will feature Picture books and Part II will feature chapter books.

B is for Brooklyn by Selina Alko (Henry Holt, 2012)

Let's kick off with an alphabet book! While not every letter features something undeniably from Brooklyn, this lovely collage art picture book showcases many of the sights, sounds and tastes of the borough. Great for parents who want to introduce their children to a book that expresses so much of their neighborhood. Ages 0-5.

 

Brooklyn Pops Up by Brooklyn Public Library, Pamela Thomas, David Carter (Little Simon, 2000)

Yes folks, there is an actual pop-up book for Brooklyn—and it's a good one! A marvelous visual feast of a pop-up book with contributions by some amazing artists and paper engineers. Includes Maurice Sendak, David A. Carter, Robert Sabuda and many more. A real treat for booklovers that showcases Brooklyn in spectacular dimensional detail. Ages 4 and up.

 

Flying Over Brooklyn by Myron Uhlberg, illustrated by Gerald Fitzgerald (Peachtree Publishers, 1999)

A young boy who yearns to fly finds the wind lifting him up over the snowfall in Brooklyn. He flies around the borough, visiting many of the notable landmarks (Ebbets Field, Coney Island, etc.) He wakes to wonder if his magical flight over the city was just a dream... and finds there has been a huge snowfall! The author based the book in part on his own memories of the Blizzard of 1947—when Brooklyn was buried in snowdrifts 7 to 8 feet high. A great winter weather read, and a magical journey that might be worth pairing with Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold. Ages 4-8.

Didi and Daddy on the Promenade by Marilyn Singer, illustrated by Mary-Louise Gay (Clarion, 2001)

Didi can't wait to take her father to one of her favorite places—the Brooklyn Promenade! A great father-daughter book as the two share an outing together along a busy promenade. The cheerful illustrations and the bouncy prose make this a good choice for sharing with younger readers and giving them a taste of Brooklyn. Ages 2-6

Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale by Mo Willems (Hyperion, 2004)

I'm guessing a lot of people will recognize the title, the author or both. Mo Willems has certainly made a name for himself in children's literature in the the last decade. Knuffle Bunny is delightful simply as the story of a toddler who loses her favorite toy but can't communicate the loss to her father. The award-winning combination of drawn illustrations with photographic backgrounds makes it a particularly notable book. The reason it's on my list here, however, is that all those photographs were taken in Brooklyn neighborhoods. Our entire adventure takes place on the streets of Brooklyn, even if the place is never formally mentioned. Knuffle Bunny won a Caldecott honor for 2005. Be sure to check out Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity (Hyperion, 2004) which also uses photographs of Brooklyn as its background. The third book: Knuffle Bunny Free: An Unexpected Diversion (Hyperion, 2010) doesn't take place in Brooklyn, but if you read the first two, it's worth checking out the third. Ages 0-6.

In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak (HarperCollins, c1970)

This Caldecott Honor 1971 book tales a very symbolic and surreal tale of Mickey who falls out of his bed and into a bakery. There he has to convince the bakers that he's not milk, and helps them get milk for the morning cake. Like Mo Willems, Sendak never actually mentions Brooklyn in the book, but the illustrated landscapes bear a marked resemblance to Brooklyn neighborhoods and buildings. Ages 4-8.

 

Mermaids on Parade by Melanie Hope Greenberg (Putnam, 2008)

Who doesn't think of Coney Island when you mention Brooklyn? This book not only features an iconic location, but one of it's most notable annual events, the Mermaid Parade. Combining a sense of old carnival sparkle with kid friendly vividness and heart, Melanie Hope Greenberg brings the parade to life. A young girl can't wait to dress up like mermaid and join in the celebration at the annual parade. The book gives readers a tour of the Cony Island Park along the parade route (although recent renovations may change some parts of the park) and also includes some of the traditions and history of the mermaid parade. A great book for mermaid and Coney Island fans alike! Ages 2-8.

Other Coney Island picture books include: Hattie and the Wild Waves by Barbara Cooney (Viking, 1990) A turn of the century story of a German immigrant girl pursuing her dreams of painting. Custard and Mustard: Carlos in Coney Island by Maureen Sullivan, illustrated by Alison Josephs (Mojo Inkworks, 2009) Carlos, the French Bulldog takes the subway to Coney Island for a sensory adventure! The Rose Horse by Deborah Lee Rose, illustrated by Greg Shed (Harcourt, 1995) Turn of the century picture book about a Jewish immigrant family living on Coney Island with a carousel horse woodcarver. Feivel's Flying Horses by Heidi Smith Hyde, illustrated by Johanna Van der Sterre (Kar-Ben, 2010) Set in the 1880s, an immigrant woodcarver makes horses for the carousel.

Dad, Jackie and Me by Myron Uhlberg, illustrated by Colin Bootman (Peachtree, 2005)

It's the Summer of 1947 in Brooklyn. The Dodgers have just signed a new first baseman, Jackie Robinson, and baseball history is about to be made! Ebbets Field, the Brooklyn Dodgers and Jackie Robinson are all an intrinsic part of Brooklyn's past, and there are a handful of picture books that set out to capture that past. This title by Myron Uhlberg pulls on his own past memories of growing up in Brooklyn. A boy sparks up a new relationship with his deaf father over love of baseball and Jackie Robinson. It's a touching and heartfelt story that does more than detail nonfiction facts, it plucks at the heartstrings and hums with memories. A great book for the Brooklyn baseball fan. Ages 5-12.

Other Dodger titles for Brooklyn baseball fans include: Brooklyn Dodger Days by Richard Rosenblum (Atheneum, 1991). This book vividly describes a baseball game from the Summer of 1946 between the Dodgers and the Giants. Play Ball, Jackie! by Stephen Krensky, illustrated by Joe Morse (Millbrook, 2011) A boy in the stands wonders why there is so much anger and controversy around Jackie Robinson. Jackie's Bat by Marybeth Lorbiecki, illustrated by Brian Pinkney (Simon and Schuster, 2006). Here we can read a fictionalized account of how Jackie Robinson broke through professional baseball's color barrier. The Shot Heard Round the World by Phil Bildner (Simon and Schuster, 2005) It's the Summer of 1951, the Dodgers vs. the Giants for the pennant! This picture book recounts one of the most exhilarating games in history.

Twenty-One Elephants by Phil Bildner, illustrated by LeUyen Pham (Simon and Schuster, 2004)

We certainly can't forget the Brooklyn Bridge! One of the most famous events in the bridge history is when an enterprising P.T. Barnum had an idea how to get some publicity, and assure the public the Brooklyn Bridge was safe to cross. In this fictionalized account, a young girl named Hannah figures out the way to convince people the bridge is safe with Barnum's help. For another picture book on the same topic, be sure to check out Twenty-one Elephants and Still Standing by April Jones Prince (Houghton Mifflin, 2005).

The Honeybee Man by Lela Nargi and Kyrsten Brooker (Schwartz and Wade, 2011)

Oh the characters you'll meet in Brooklyn! Lela Nargi brings us the story of a Brooklyn beekeeper and his bee family. Every morning Fred climbs the three flights of stairs to his apartment rooftop to care for his bees. The surrounding community loves Fred's local honey and look forward to tasting the new batch. A great way to talk about some unusual careers in the city. Stop down at a local Greenmarket and you're sure to find some actual city beekeepers in your neighborhood! Ages 4-12.

Tales of a Gambling Grandma  by Dayul Kaur Khalsa (Tundra Books, 1986)

I suspect most grandmothers don't teach their granddaughters how to play poker. But in this story of an eccentric Jewish Grandmother is a marvelous tale of a little girl's best friend and the time they spend with each other in Brooklyn. An off-beat story of family and friendship that is sure to charm adult readers as well as children. Ages 9-12

Some other characters you'll meet in Brooklyn include: Beautiful Yetta by Daniel Pinkwater, illustrated by Jill Pinkwater (Feiwel & Friends, 2010) A Yiddish speaking chicken gets lost in Brooklyn until some spanish speaking parrots befriend her and help her out. The Seltzer Man by Ken Rush (MacMillan, 1993) Two girls get a chance to learn about another time in Brooklyn when they encounter a Seltzer man on his last rounds before he retires. We'll Ride Elephants Through Brooklyn by Susan L. Roth (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1989) A girl describes an special, over the top celebration she'll have for her Grandfather when he gets better. And Fancy Aunt Jess by Amy Hest (Morrow Books, 1990) A young girl enjoys the day on an outing with her Aunt Jess in Brooklyn.

I'm certain there are plenty of Brooklyn picture books I haven't mentioned here! What are some of your favorites? Please share!

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