A trip around the city with Ayun Halliday
The All of a Kind Family Series by Sydney Taylor
As an Episcopal only child in 1970s Indiana, I was fascinated by these stories of a large Jewish family living in a Lower East Side tenement, back in the days of horse carts and bathing dresses with bloomers. I thought of them at Coney Island a couple of years ago, when I saw a bunch of Hasidic school girls frolicking in the surf in their long dark skirts and black tights. My main memories of these books have to do with the middle sister, Sarah, getting her ears pierced with a sewing needle and then going around with waxed threads in the holes until they healed up to the point where she could handle earrings. (She went straight to dangly ones – no posts). Also her total panic when she misplaced a library book. I think these two events were unrelated. There were many beloved books from my childhood that I hoped would hold a similar place in my daughter’s heart. The All-Of-A-Kind Family series is the only one to really succeed in that department. Kid wouldn’t touch Where the Lilies Bloom with a ten foot hickory stick, but she shared my fascination for Ella, Henny, Sarah, Gertie, and whatever the hell the other one’s name was. I love that they sell these in the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
This too was an object of wow-this-kid’s-life-is-really-different-than-my-life fascination. Peter was not only black, as were his mother, and – in the sequel, Peter’s Chair – his little sister, he lived on an upper floor of a brownstone and was sent out to play, not in some self-contained yard, but on a car-free snowy street. And now guess whose children live on the upper floor of a brownstone. Guess whose mother spends the first hours of the year’s first hotly anticipated blizzard every February galumphing up and down Fulton Mall, trawling for snow pants and snow boots …Peter’s mother was much better prepared than I. One of the better stories that Captain Kangaroo read aloud to his TV audience…
Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack by M.E. Kerr
I just read this all the way through for the first time and it was so good! I remember being intrigued by the title as a precocious 10 year old poking around the YA section of the Nora Branch library, but surmised it was probably about a boy who played hockey, a subject of no interest to me at the time. Now it is of great interest (the book, not hockey), as it takes place a short block from my home. In fact, the main character goes into great detail describing his branch library, which is now my branch library. If I were the Brooklyn Heights Branch, I would make a much bigger deal about having played such a significant role in Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack. One thing I really like about this book (besides the familiar cover of the vintage paperback, purchased for 99 cents at a library sale in Wellfleet, Mass) is the way Dinky and her friend hang out in a local diner. My 13 year old daughter, who goes to school in the East Village, hangs out in Joe Junior. It makes me want to call a do-over!
I Stink by Kate and Jim McMullan
Not a chestnut from my childhood, but a favorite of my son’s when he was little. There’s no explicit setting, but I’m pretty sure it’s NYC because that garbage truck has plenty of loud mouthed ‘tude, boasting about all the gross stuff he’s compacted, and how bad ass he is for hauling it away while the city sleeps. I can totally picture him getting drunk and holding forth in some ridiculous Lower East Side lounge, thinking he’s impressing models…
The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright
Another one that I loved loved loved as a child. The idea of four siblings electing to pool their allowance, taking turns so that once a month, each of them gets a big pile of dough to blow in the manner of their choosing spoke to both my sense of thrift, the isolation of my only childhood, and my lust for special occasions. Obviously any kid has fantasies of autonomy, but unlike me, these kids had a wide variety of choices and the ability to get there on public transit – the non-girlie sister went to the museum and the girlie-sister went to a fancy salon and the little brother, who if memory serves is like seven, went to the circus all by himself. Whereas I wasn’t even allowed to walk to Target (or Airway as it was then known) because there were no sidewalks and my mother was afraid I’d get hit by a car. Were I to have a Saturday, I’d have to get her to drive me to the mall so I could buy an Orange Julius and wander around Spencer Gifts.
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
Yet another autonomous, feral New York child marching around the city in service of her own mysterious agenda. Growing up, no one I knew had a nanny, so it was a little difficult for me to wrap my head around the Harriet-Old Golly relationship. Now I know lots of nannies, and it is weird, even for someone as peripherally involved as me, when the kids get so old that the nanny’s services are no longer required. The audiobook is on pretty heavy rotation here. I have to say it’s not one of my faves – the reader is perky where I think dryness would serve better. Her intonations make the Old Golly stuff come off all cutesy-bootsy, rather than complex and depressing. I should read it again to get that damn audiobook out of my head.
Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins One of the last books I read aloud to Milo. He is a bigger fan than I… the baby sister seemed rather conveniently well behaved to me. The cockroaches were my favorite characters. And having lived in a prewar building on 79th and West End Ave, I can totally picture that laundry room that’s the portal to the Underland. Hmm. I never thought about it before, because I left that building before my children were born, and have had to rely on outside laundromats every since, but I bet the laundry room of a big building is kind of a worrisome place to send one’s children unescorted. But not for the kind of reasons that make it into best selling children’s books.
The Lonely Doll by Dare Wright
FREAK. OUT. I loved bears and hated dolls so I was always rooting for Mr. Bear to give it to Edith with the hair brush. I couldn’t figure out to whom that irresistibly glamorous dressing table Edith was punished for getting into belonged. Obviously, Mr. Bear had some sort of secret adult life. Now that I’m more mature, I enjoying thinking of Dare Wright sprawled on her belly to capture that shot of Edith and Little Bear walking over the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s crazy that they’re the only ones in the shot. I’m imagining the publishing equivalent of a bitchy, head set wearing P.A., telling pedestrians they’ll have to use the Manhattan Bridge instead. And people craning their necks to get a look at the celebs and it’s just a teddy and this long haired doll in a pervy little dress and a pea coat.
From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler by E L Konigsburg
Again with the autonomy! Notable in my childhood for the full page drawing of a boy and girl bathing – nude! – in a fountain. Racy, but appealing. I’d have been up for doing this at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, if I’d had a sibling to run away with … I’d have been way too chicken to be locked up alone at night with the mummy and the Hieronymous Bosch painting I made a point of studying on every visit. I’d kind of like to send Inky and Milo off to see if it’s still possible for 2 kids to live undetected at the Met. Maybe we could fund a documentary on Kickstarter. It’d be more Exit Through the Gift Shop than Night at the Museum. Incidentally, my 80 year old father forgot to bring anything to read on a recent visit from Indiana, and rather than spending any money in one of New York City’s many excellent bookstores, he absconded with my kids’ copy of The Mixed Up Files, a loss I felt more deeply than they.
An offer you can’t refuse: Hey Fuse #8 readers….I’ve spent more than half my life trying to remember the title of a review copy that my mother brought home from the Indianapolis Star in the mid to late 70s. It was about a boy named Ari who moves to Coney Island and he meets up with this kid named Moxie who shows him how to hang out at Astroland all day, when they should be in school (if memory serves). The cover had a cartoon of a blond boy with a big nose and a yarmulke wearing shorts as he sits on a stoop. You tell me that title and I will send you a free ZG2NYC.
I’m still smiling imagining the I Stink truck trying to pick up models on the Lower East Side. In any case, thanks so much for stopping by and for the memories, Ayun. And sadly, that Astroland title doesn’t ring any bells. But if folks leave comments here with the answer for Ayun, I’ll be sure she gets them.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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