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Children's Literature @ NYPL, NYC Neighborhoods

Fiction Atlas: Harlem in Children's Fiction and Picture Books


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. This week I thought I'd tackle another famous neighborhood of Manhattan, but now we're traveling uptown to Harlem.

Originally founded by the Dutch in 1658, it was named after a Netherlands village (Haarlem). The character of this stretch of Northern Manhattan, however is most known as a center of African-American commerce and art and residence. Harlem has its share of troubles, and the decades since the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s have seen many shifts in the community and the economic prosperity of those who live and work there. Despite gentrification, Harlem still remains a vivid neighborhood with significant landmarks that are a part of history. Harlem's story is one told in music and struggle and living in the urban jungle and the stories connected with the area reflect that.

Harlem: A Poem by Walter Dean Myers, Pictures by Christopher Myers (Scholastic Press, 1997)

April is poetry month, so it is fitting that the first title on my list is a collection of poetry. There can be no debate that out of the authors on my list, Walter Dean Myers is one of the most prolific and powerful. Myers grew up in Harlem and has never forgotten his roots in this iconic neighborhood. He paints vivid images with his words that describe the world he grew up in. The people, the places, the experience of growing up black in the city are all a part of the poetry in this amazing book. This book was a Caldecott Honor (1998) and a Coretta Scott King Award for Illustrator Honor (1998). Myers is an extremely prolific author with books for both children and teens — this list represents just a few of his titles, all of them set in Harlem. The Young Landlords (1979), The Dream Bearer (2003), The Cruisers (2010) The Cruisers: Checkmate (2011) and 145th Street (2012). Find out more about this amazing writer and Ambassador for Young Peoples' Literature. Ages 9 and up.

Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold (Crown Books, 1991)

There are a handful of picture books I've discovered that are set in Harlem. This particular title is one of two that remains among the most well-known and lauded. Tar Beach is a favorite for teacher reading lists and book lists featuring New York City. Cassie Louise Lightfoot is a an eight-year-old living in 1939 Harlem. She dreams of flying around her neighborhood, including her own rooftop (the "tar beach" of the title). This lushly illustrated picture book captures not only the whimsical elements of a child's dreams, but touches on the more earthly realities of African-American struggles in a society where her father cannot join the union and struggles to find work. This book is a Caldecott Honor book (1992), a winner of the Coretta Scott King Award for Illustrator (1992) and the Ezra Jack Keats Book Award for New Writer (1993). Faith Ringgold created a companion picture book to her original story: Cassie's Word Quilt (2002), where our young protagonist from Tar Beach takes readers on a tour of her apartment and neighborhood in Harlem. (Ages 4 and Up). Check out Faith Ringgold's blog.

Uptown by Bryan Collier (Henry Holt and Co., 2000)

This is the other picture book that has remained popular and a regular "go-to" book for teachers and librarians looking for New York City books. For a gorgeous picture book tour of Harlem, look no further than Collier's Uptown. Readers are shown around the neighborhood by a young boy narrator who describes different places, sights and sounds that are a part of his daily life. The brownstones, the Harlem River, and the Harlem boys' choir are just a few of the elements. Boldly illustrated in the artist's notable watercolor and collage artwork. If you need a picture book encapsulating this neighborhood, this just might be the best selection for a young audience read-aloud. Uptown is a winner of the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award (2001). Ages 4-8. Look for Collier's artistic touch in other books, including Visiting Langston by Willie Perdomo (2002). Check out Bryan Collier's website.

A Song for Harlem by Pat McKissack (Viking, 2007)

It's 1928 and Lilly Belle Turner finds herself transported from rural Tennessee to urban Harlem when she wins a writing contest. Participating in a young writer's program run by Zora Neale Hurston, Lily Belle comes to appreciate the deeper power of words. As she struggles to acclimate herself to the sights and sounds of the city, readers get to experience 1920's Harlem in the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance. Ages 9-12. Similar in theme is Celeste's Harlem Renaissance by Eleanora Tate (Little Brown and Company, 2007). A country girl sent to the big city to live with her actress aunt, Celeste experiences both the splendor and grit of Harlem in 1921. Ages 9-12.



Jazmin's Notebook by Nikki Grimes (Dial, 1998)

Moving a little farther up in time, we find a similar cover composition but a dramatically different set of events. In 1960's Harlem, Jazmin and her older sister Cece have been through a lot in life already. Jazmin finds way to stay strong through her writing, using it as an outlet to deal with her grief over her father's death and her feelings regarding the crime and drugs running rampant through her neighborhood. Sitting on her stoop in Harlem she experiences it all and records it in her notebook. A year in the life of a girl who finds a way to survive along with her sister and finds the words to express it. A Coretta Scott King Honor Book (1999). Ages 9-12. Check out Nikki Grimes' website.




Sweet Music in Harlem by Debbie A. Taylor (Lee and Low, 2004)

This charming picture book is inspired by an actual iconic jazz photo taken in Harlem in 1958. A young boy is searching Harlem for his Uncle Click's famous hat — because his uncle is about to get photographed for a newspaper. His search inadvertantly leads to a gathering of musicians for one remarkable photo. Along the way, CJ manages to give readers a visual tour of 1950s Harlem. Ages 4 and up.





Happy Feet: The Savoy Ballroom Lindy Hoppers and Me by Richard Michelson (Harcourt, 2006)

Happy's favorite story is how the Savoy ballroom was opened on the night he was born: March 12, 1926. He loves to hear his father talk about the dancing and music at the iconic Harlem landmark and dreams of one day being able to dance at the Savoy himself. Ages 5-12.





My Feet are Laughing by Lissette Norman, illustrated by Frank Morrison (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006)

A more modern look at Harlem through poetry. Written in the voice of Sadie, a young Dominican American girl growing up in Harlem with her mother and sister, Sadie describes her life and interests and her dreams of being a poet someday. Lively poems paired with dynamic paintings give this book quite a special touch. Sadie has lots to say about her life and her home in Harlem. A 2007 Bank Street - Best Children's Book of the Year. Ages 9-12.



Sugar Plum Ballerinas: Plum Fantastic! by Whoopi Goldberg and Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Nancy Cato and Maryn Roos (Jump at the Sun, 2008)

This modern series of stories for young readers is centered around a ballet school in Harlem. In the first book, Alexandrea Petrokova Johnson does not want to leave her friends or go to ballet school. But her ballet-minded mother goes ahead and enrolls her at the Nutcracker School of Ballet in Harlem despite Al's feelings on the subject. Now Al is the new ballerina on the block and has to learn how to cope with her new home in the city and while making new friends. There are six books out in this series to date: Toeshoe Trouble (2009), Perfectly Prima (2010), Terrible Terrel (2010), Sugar Plums to the Rescue (2011) and Dancing Diva (2012). Ages 5-12.

The Steel Pan Man of Harlem by Colin Bootman (Carolrhoda Books, 2009)

Not currently in our collections, but we're hoping to remedy that! I couldn't resist including this little fantasy picture book set in Harlem. Essentially, this is the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, only set in 1930s Harlem. A delightfully different take on a story that's well-knownbut not quite like this! Ages 5 and Up.

That's a wrap! What other children's books can you think of that take place in Harlem? Please share them in the comments!


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Harlem on the pages!

Interested readers should also consider the picture book "Me and Uncle Romie" by Claire Hartfield. Though it is fiction, it features real information about Romare Bearden and how Harlem inspired his art and life. The illustrations were created by Jerome Lagarrigue, a Coretta Scott King award winner. A warm, lovely story with great non-fiction content!


I recommend a book by Jim West called Libellus de Numeros (The Book of Math) that my 11-year-old daughter just finished reading. The story is about Alex, a young precocious girl, who mysteriously gets transported to a strange world where Latin and Math combine in formulas and equations with magical effects. With a cruel council leading the only safe city of its kind in this world, she will have to prove her worth to stay as well as help this city as it is the target for two evil wizards who seek to destroy the city and its ruling council. To help the city and also get back home, she will need the help of the greatest mathematician of all time, Archimedes. In a world where math is magic, Alex wishes she paid more attention in math class. A Goodread 5-star review said: "The storyline inspires a hunger for knowledge and a 'can do' attitude - a strong message of empowerment for young readers. I’m sure that this book will be interesting to read for both, boys and girls, as well as adult readers. Libellus de Numeros means 'Book of Numbers' and it's a magical textbook in the story. Math and science are wonderfully incorporated into a captivating plot: Latin and math are presented as exciting tools to make 'magic' and while Latin is often used as a language of magic the addition of math is definitely a fresh approach. "The main heroine Alex is a very relatable character for young people, especially girls. I love that she has her flaws and goes through struggles all too familiar to a lot of young people. Alex is an authentic female role model - a very courageous girl, who is not afraid to stand up for herself and others and who is able to learn fast how to use knowledge to her best advantage. "She can definitely do everything that boys can and I find this to be a very powerful message that is needed in our modern society. Furthermore, it was a pleasure to read through the pages of a well-formatted eBook. Highly recommended!"

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