By Laura Vila
Viking Children’s Books (a division of Penguin)
On shelves now
I think you’d be shocked if you saw the number of books out there about the history of Manhattan written with small children in mind. Here I sit at my reference desk in the heart of New York City, and when a parent comes up to me with this request my heart just plummets. What options do I have? Mind my races. There’s How Little Lori Visited Times Square, but it’s not really the most up-to-date title I could hand them. There’s This is New York, but the same problem applies. Well what about all those picture books about the cool places to see IN New York? All well and good but when you stop and think of it, none of these books are really talking about the island’s history. They’re more about how cool the Statue of Liberty is, really. Finally Laura Vila, spotting a wide gaping gap in our nation’s collections, has hurry scurried to the rescue with her colorful and eclectic Building Manhattan. It may not be the be all and end all of NYC history picture book texts, but it’s a darn good place to start.
Vila’s look at the island contains a smooth narrative, uninterrupted by footnotes or factoids. "Long ago, before maps or words were used, a little island formed." Slowly the reader discovers the subsequent arrivals to the island. Animals came. Then the Lenape. After that the Dutch settled in and were followed by the English. New York became a colony and then a state. After that, immigrants came in waves. Technology allowed them to build enormous bridges, buildings and roads. Manhattan quickly became a center of tourism and the city continued to grow. "It grew and it grew and people still come. The building of Manhattan is never done." Backmatter includes a lovely little Time Line that offers two and three sentence facts on each section. There’s even a small Bibliography of further sources where the author gleaned her facts about the city.
Vila’s an excellent choice of illustrator for this kind of story because what she really excels in is overwhelming the senses. Any stray visitor to Times Square today could get a headache just standing in one place staring. New York’s plethora of hype, energy, enthusiasm, and color needs an accompanying illustrator who understands and can synthesize its vibrant scream for attention. Something along the lines of Robert Neubecker’s Wow! City! What’s great about Vila is that right from the start she gets that. Even her peaceful scenes of greenery long before the arrival of the Europeans is a remarkable overlapping of circles, images, and landscapes. Her animals look reminiscent of Shaun Tan’s The Rabbits (apropos when you consider that the island’s invaders are just around the corner). Animals, as it turns out, are enormously prevalent in this book. From cats to rats to mice to dogs, Vila recognizes that humans have not been the only immigrants to this particular burg. You can always find some kind of tiny creature’s head popping out of a cart or a pocket if you just look closely enough. In detail, Vila excels.
She isn’t afraid of mixing up a person’s perspective if it serves the story either. One minute you’re looking down on a city scene. The next you’re on the ground looking up as though through a fish-eye lens, the towers and people milling around in circles. The cover says it all, cleverly showing the history with the older sections of the city on the bottom and the newest, tallest towers at the top. And then there are the colors. They mix, they meld, they outline and define. Vila’s use of yellows, reds, and blues are particularly prevalent, giving the city a bright open and airy feel. A person could easily stare at these images for hours and never grow tired of them.
New York is, above all else, a diverse community and so I do wish that I’d seen a bit more of that in the book. Vila mentions the Lenape in a two-page spread and then they disappear without another word. I didn’t really want to see bloodshed in a picture book for the young, but maybe a quick mention of how the Dutch at least "took over" the land wouldn’t have been out of place. And when it came to immigrants to New York I did want to see ethnicities represented other than just Europeans. The Great Migration of African-Americans from the South would have fit in nicely with the city’s rise, for example. Her subsequent shots of New York residents are diverse, so that’s good. I just get a little tired about teaching our kids about white people 24/7.
All in all, a splendid addition to any library’s collection that requires a little more Manhattan history. Of course, a person might question how many people would actually want a history of Manhattan. It is just a single city in an otherwise pretty large country. But if you consider New York the gateway to America (and many do) then it stands to reason that a book relaying its history would and should exist somewhere for younger children. Inarguably beautiful, I would have tweaked it here and there, but there are certainly few books to compare it to.
On shelves now.
- Want to see more? Check out this page-by-page guide of the book.
- Heck, for that matter check out all these additional materials available to help you teach New York history to children.
The bookflap says that this is Ms. Vila’s first book. Visit her website, however, and you will see others listed. Perhaps these are unpublished. It is unclear.