Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Perspective on controversies

Thinking people always contest with one another as to whether they have all the facts, whether they are interpreting the facts correctly, or whether the facts are relevant to the decisions that need to be made. Unfortunately, we are often not well schooled in the mechanisms and cadences of effective dispute. Emotion becomes the energy behind a debate. Rationality, willingness to accept the incompleteness of our knowledge and humility give way to overconfidence and hubris. Sometimes it is science - what do we really know about global warming versus the wild claims from both sides? Sometimes is it economics - what are the appropriate actions to take in the wake of an asset bubble deflation? Almost always it is really just opinion and loud shouts.

It is refreshing sometimes to look back on past debates. Not how they were resolved, though that is of course interesting. Rather, what is interesting is what we have forgotten about how they began and what was thought to be known at the time with complete certainty.

Brian Switek has an interesting blog post, Ancient Armored Whales, on a long ago and long forgotten debate from the turn of the last century when paleontologists debated heatedly with one another as to whether ancient whales were armored. It makes us smile now, but these were not stupid people. Just overconfident in their facts or their interpretations. We can only smile if we are confident we have learned the lesson of humility about our facts and interpretations. Nothing I see suggests that we have.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Natalie Babbitt

Born July 28, 1932 in Dayton, Ohio

Natalie Babbitt is an American author who seems as if she would make a wonderful neighbor or conversation companion. One of those people with whom you would like to spend a summer evening out on the front porch, ice tea in hand, talking slowly and comfortably about this and that. Deeply thoughtful and with strong opinions but also a person open to changing her mind as she continually reinterprets evidence and her life experience. Someone very humble about her fame and accomplishments. Someone deeply engaged and passionate about the story itself rather than necessarily its deeper meanings.

Her fame rests almost solely upon a single remarkable book, Tuck Everlasting but her other books have a life of their own. She is one of those authors who follow particular interests - a single idea may give rise to a complete novel. While there are some themes and characteristics that flow from one work to another, Babbitt is not a mill; each book has its own nature and distinct features. She explores and experiments all the time.

Babbitt has had an interesting career, producing fifteen picture books and novels of her own as well as eleven others where she has illustrated the single book for children written by her husband and ten collections of poems by Valerie Worth. There is something of an arc to her work, from art to story to art.

Born during the Great Depression, she grew up in Ohio with her older sister and her parents in the challenging circumstances afflicting all Americans of that age and that left its mark on that generation. "Plagued as we were by the 1930s Depression, there were many things we didn't have. Looking back, I know, now, that we had all the things that really matter."

Her father was a businessman with a great love of the English language whose daily conversation and playfulness with words was transmitted to his daughter. Her mother, an artist turned homemaker, likewise enjoyed books, reading to her regularly and particularly encouraging her daughter's interest in art and illustration. These interests came to together in a fixed plan at an early age.

I became a writer more or less by accident. It was certainly not part of my plan, a plan quite settled when I was nine. That year, my mother sent away for a very nice edition of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, and I fell in love at once with John Tenniel's pictures because they were beautiful and funny both at once. I was used to pictures that were beautiful and sweet, or cartooned and funny, but this was a new combination. It made a deep impression on me. I had already decided to be an artist, and now, thanks to Tenniel, I knew what sort of artist: I would be an illustrator of children's books, and I would draw funny, beautiful pictures in pen and ink.

Finishing high school, Babbitt attended Smith College in Massachusetts where she graduated in 1954 with a degree in art and where she also met her husband, Samuel Fisher Babbitt whom she married the year she graduated and with whom she had two sons and a daughter.

Initially, Babbitt's time and attention were completely focused on her new family. Eventually though she returned to her nine-year old self's plan. Her husband had early aspired to be a writer before eventually becoming a university administrator. One of his stories was a tale for children, The Forty-Ninth Magician. Natalie Babbitt took up pen and ink once again after so many years and illustrated the book. The Forty-Ninth Magician was published in 1966. Having enjoyed this re-engagement with art, Natalie Babbitt discovered that she needed a fresh supply of manuscripts. With her husband now moving into education and out of writing books, Babbitt solved the problem by writing her own stories.

Her first book was a picture book which she wrote and illustrated, Dick Foote and the Shark, which came out in 1967. For the next ten years, she published a new book on average, each year. Among these were seven novels for children, three books which she illustrated for Valerie Worth and a further picture book by herself.

Babbitt's first book for independent readers and older was The Search for Delicious. This was quickly followed by six further stories in quick succession, each unique from the other and all self-illustrated; Kneeknock Rise, The Something, Goody Hall, The Devil's Story Book, Tuck Everlasting, The Eyes of the Amyrillis, and Herbert Rowbarge.

By the late seventies, Babbitt was beginning to show a predilection, despite her success as a writer, of returning to her art roots. She illustrated a series of poetry books by Valerie Worth. Through the eighties and nineties there have been fewer novels and the illustrations for any and all her works have becoming more and more developed moving from simple pen and ink illustrations initially to beautiful paintings. The artist has returned to her studio.

Nearly half of Babbitt's own works (eight out of seventeen) are still in print though only Tuck Everlasting would attract particularly significant name recognition. Interestingly, Tuck Everlasting was one of those books that almost completely escaped the attention of the various awards committees the year it was published in 1975. It managed to scrape up a Horn Book Fanfare award but that was it. This is akin to great movies that never won an Oscar Best Picture such as The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Citizen Kane, Psycho, Vertigo, Fargo, E.T., etc..

Tuck Everlasting routinely shows up on lists of the 100 best children's books. So popular has it been that, despite only receiving one award the year it was published, Tuck Everlasting is Number Eight on TTMD's list of all time favorite children's books which is compiled from awards citations but also from frequency of mentions from Library Lists, Academic citations, and from independent sources (such as enthusiastic amateurs, newspaper readers, NEA, etc.) Only twenty-eight of the top 100 hundred books were written since 1975, and Tuck Everlasting is one of that select few.

Tuck Everlasting is the story of a young girl, Winnie, who discovers seventeen-year-old Jesse Tuck drinking from a spring hidden on her family's property. Winnie learns that Jesse Tuck and his family are an ageless pioneering family who originally discovered the spring and its magical property. Those that drink from it neither age nor die. Their discovery of what seems at first to be a heaven sent gift is quickly revealed to them as a mixed blessing. It is the potential gift which Winnie must consider. The ending is one of the most satisfyingly poignant in children's literature.

Like Hugh Lofting, Babbitt's success and appeal to children is in part based on the fact that she writes a terrifically gripping story but also in that she never writes down to them. I suspect that many parents appreciate Tuck Everlasting because it is one of the few children's books that introduce children to the idea of death in a fashion that neither belabors the issue nor reduces it to inconsequentiality.

I think the real appeal of Tuck Everlasting though, other than that it is so felicitously written, is that it does not patronize children and is probably one of the first books that they will have encountered that invites them not just to read and absorb but to consider something philosophically. Children are invited to think about the nature and morality of death in its own fashion and context and to arrive at conclusions of their own.

A little bit of mystery, a little bit of fantasy, a little bit of romance, a little bit of adventure. These are all the spices that go into a recipe that is really rather unique and distinctive. Combine this with a respectful regard for children as readers and thinkers, a light humor, and a gentle invasive writing style and you have a recipe for a great book.

There are a few elements that do show up with some reliability in Babbitt books. Just as Tuck Everlasting harkens back to the Greek myth of Eos and Tithonus, there are elements of folklore and ancient myth in many of Babbitt's stories. A light humor also is a staple even when she is dealing with the most serious of subjects. Finally there is simply the idiosyncratic choice of her subjects: Death, Pirates, Self-Deception, Linguistic Argumentation - you never know quite where she will head next.

Rather than go through each of her other books, all of which are worth a read, let me end with some selections from Babbitt herself in various essays. Think of yourself on that front porch, ice tea in hand, enjoying the conversation.

On stories and teaching

But when we're children, we are the odd man out. Some of the reason for this is that we don't know how to communicate our feelings very well, except through actions, but our actions are very often misinterpreted, and we are not very often treated like people. We are treated mostly like lumps of clay to be molded, blank pages to be written on, unformed and in continual need of being taught.

Ah, there's the rub. In continual need of being taught. If there is one thing wrong with books written for children -- most from the nineteenth century and too many written since -- it is exactly that: too many adults saying to themselves that a children's book is a tool for teaching.

When I was a child, I hated stories that tried to teach me things. Mostly those things were moral things: "You'd better be good or else." This is one reason why I loved Alice in Wonderland so much. It didn't --and doesn't -- have anything to teach except, maybe, that adults are extremely silly.

Books that are too nice

Another thing I've brought out of my childhood into this strange little island called Children's Book Land is an impatience with a story that presents an all-pink world. My life, and the lives of all the children I knew, was never all pink. Mine was free of genuine grief in that no one I loved died until I was well into my teens. But I knew about grief from observing it in less lucky friends, and I knew about poverty and disabilities, too, in the same way. I had, if not grief, certainly sorrows of my own, and plenty of unsolvable problems. And more than anything else, I had all the frustrations of being powerless. So did we all. And then, since World War II began for the United States when I was in the fourth grade, I also knew about nationally sanctioned hatred of other countries and fear of enemy bombers. Our grammar school was a testing place for air-raid sirens, and so we all knew about that particular fear. We dealt with it, one way or another, but we knew the world wasn't all pink. I resented books that tried to tell me it was, and if I came across one, I wouldn't finish it.

But as adults we seem to be afraid, some of us, of telling the truth. We seem to feel we need to protect children from anything that will show that their all-pink world has a lumpy underbelly with discolored spots on it. We'd rather tell them that everything's perfect and keep the truth for later, when they're teenagers, maybe, at which point we seem to think it's time to throw despair at them as a kind of rite of passage. I like to call it the "last chance for gas before the thruway" syndrome.

And yet, if we can look back at our child selves, honestly and openly, we find every time that we knew the hard stuff, the bad stuff, was there. There wasn't any way to protect us from it. So perky little stories with cute little pictures were very often anathema. At least they were to me. I insisted on happy endings, but they had to be happy endings that followed logically from the action of the story. Anything else was irritating.

On earnestness in writing

Earnestness to me means solemn, humorless sincerity; whereas seriousness means honesty -- and honesty, in this case, means showing as many sides of life as you can. There is always a humorous side, even if the humor is rueful. . . .

Earnestness doesn't get us very far. At its worst it only increases a feeling of being pressed, stressed, and driven. But humor can take us a long way. It doesn't have to be a pie-in-the-face kind of humor, though there's certainly a place for that. What it does have to be, for me, anyway, is an acknowledgment, rueful or otherwise, of the craziness of humanity. Lewis Carroll understood it perfectly, and expressed it in ways that made me laugh out loud when I was nine years old. Nine-year-olds don't have a lot of rue in their natures. That comes later. I wouldn't have been especially moved and amused by a quote from Mark Twain which I now keep nearby at all times: "When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained."

On her rules for writing

Here are three things, then, that my own inner child keeps reminding me to be careful about: don't preach, don't be dishonest, and don't be earnest. Maybe that sounds as if there isn't a lot that you can do in a story for children. But yes, there is one thing that is the single most important thing of all: you can tell an entertaining story. I don't seem to have any more ideas for entertaining stories, I'm sorry to say. Not stories, anyway, for those very special people who are in what is clearly the last, best, greatest year of childhood -- the fifth grade. After the age of ten or eleven, if you ask me, things don't get really good again until you're thirty. So I'm concentrating on picture books now. I always liked picture-making better than story-making, anyway. When I was picture-book age, I never thought about growing up to be a book illustrator, the way I did in fifth grade. No, as I recall, when I was four years old I wanted to be a pirate. But I was just as demanding then, where books were concerned, as I was six or seven years later. I disliked The Little Engine That Could and loved Millions of Cats (both Putnam). Which is to say that I loved books that didn't preach, weren't dishonest, and never sounded earnest.

As I said before, I know now that I was not unique. So when I remember myself as the kind of child I really was, I know I am describing, to a very large extent, all children. I will conclude with a quote about the child within, from The Rebel Angels by Canadian writer Robertson Davies, which says it better than anyone else ever said it.

'What really shapes and conditions and makes us is somebody only a few of us ever have the courage to face: and that is the child you once were, long before formal education ever got its claws into you -- that impatient, all-demanding child who wants love and power and can't get enough of either and who goes on raging and weeping in your spirit till at last your eyes are closed and all the fools say, "Doesn't he look peaceful?" It is those pent-up, craving children who make all the wars and all the horrors and all the art and all the beauty and discovery in life, because they are trying to achieve what lay beyond their grasp before they were five years old.'

All from an essay Drawing on the Child Within from Horn Book May/June 1993

On writing and celebrity

The point I'm trying to make is that storytellers and picture-makers had better not get themselves confused with their product.

We'd better not believe that we ourselves are some kind of beacon to readers. If something we have created somehow becomes a beacon, then we'd better remember it didn't do that all by itself. It had a whole lot of help from teachers and librarians. It would not, in fact, have attracted even a dimwitted night moth, let alone a bright fifth-grader, if someone hadn't held it up to be seen. People say a lot of nice things to me about Tuck Everlasting (Farrar), and I'm grateful for every word. But the fact is that I know perfectly well, from the letters I get from the children themselves, that very few of them would ever get past chapter two without a gentle but firm push from their teachers.

So here's where I stand on all this: Pictures and stories can be wonderful, and life would be very dreary without them. We are lucky to be living at a moment in time when there is a great accumulated wealth of good books for our children. But so great is the accumulated wealth, that, finally, those of us who are making the new stories and the new pictures don't matter. I will repeat that: we don't matter. Childhood is so brief — so achingly brief and there isn't nearly enough time for the children to get around to what's already there for them to look at and to read. If there were no new pictures and stories for the next fifty years, children would notice no lack at all. Think about it. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is still going strong after 128 years; Treasure Island after 110. The Wind in the Willows is eighty-five years old; Winnie-the-Pooh is sixty-seven; Millions of Cats (Putnam) is sixty-five; and Mary Poppins is fifty-nine. Even Charlotte's Web (Harper), which somehow seems new, is forty-one years old this year, and Where the Wild Things Are (Harper) is thirty. I'm not saying that we want the children to know only the older, proven books, but on the other hand we don't want them to miss those books, either. So we don't need the four or five thousand new books that make their appearance every year. We simply don't need them.

So no one should try to make celebrities out of us.

From an essay Drawing on the Child Within from Horn Book September/October 1994

On using children's books for moral instruction

I don't believe in using fiction to teach anything except the appreciation of fiction. At least, not to children. It seems to me that there is enough difficulty getting them to read in the first place, and the more lessons you clog up reading with, the more of a lesson you make of it. Book discussions are a good thing because everyone needs help in learning to read critically -- or, perhaps I should say, in learning to .think critically. And if a given piece of fiction deals with a particular problem of being human, then it is only natural that the problem be dealt with in the discussion. I know that Tuck Everlasting suggests some moral problems, and it's perfectly reasonable to talk about those in a book discussion. But, you know, it's interesting to see, from the letters I get, which of those problems really interest the children. Curiously, no child has ever written to me about whether or not Mae Tuck should have killed the man in the yellow suit. They always write about whether or not Winnie Foster should have drunk the spring water and gone off with the fascinating Jesse Tuck. I suppose they feel that the man in the yellow suit, like the Wicked Witch of the West, needed killing, and so it's all right. The killing has bothered some grownups, but the children don't seem to turn a hair over it. They also do not write to me about whether Winnie did the right thing in helping Mae Tuck escape from jail. . . .

I think the single most attractive quality to the stories that have lasted is that their heroes and heroines defy authority and not only get away with it but also create positive and happy endings thereby. To defy authority is to be socially irresponsible, isn't it? But, you see, children are small and surrounded by rules and restrictions and caveats and coercion. Their longing for independence and self-determination is very strong. So is their passion for justice, which they see little enough of, by their lights, in the world around them. If we leave them alone to identify with Alice and with Peter, and with Mary and Colin, and with all the other storybook rebels, we are allowing the books to work the magic of identification, and spread the balm of good therapy on their bruises. A good children's book says to the reader, "Yes, Virginia, you can escape the pinches of your life and, for a little time, make a difference in the world, even if it is only vicarious." If we turn children's stories into handbooks for proper behavior, we will subvert their purpose and destroy their magic, and do the one other thing which is the saddest of all: make of reading a chore, a drag, just another lesson. And when that happens, the joy of reading evaporates. . . .

Yes, our society is messy; yes, our children need to learn to care for each other and to be, in short, socially responsible. But in all our zeal, I hope we can find a way to teach them without destroying more than we create. I hope our teachers will find a way to keep on reading great children's stories aloud in their classrooms for no other reason than the joy those stories will bring. I hope the subsequent book discussions will stick to the questions raised by the stories themselves and not get guided, uncomfortably, down other paths. Because if we weigh the stories down with the baggage of unrelated lessons, they will sink and disappear. And then there will be a lot of lamentation in the children's book section of that great library up in heaven, where, I like to imagine, Lewis Carroll and J. M. Barrie and E. B. White and Beatrix Potter and Arnold Lobel and Arthur Rackham and Margot Zemach and all the others who have added so much to our lives meet every morning for milk and cookies and have a good time talking shop.
A good story is sufficient unto the day. It is complete as it stands. If it has something to teach, let it teach in its own sufficiency. Let it keep its magic and fulfill its purpose. In other words, let it be.

From an essay Protecting Children's Literature from Horn Book November/December 1990.

On investing effort

It was . . . the best lesson I learned in four years of college: to wit, you have to work hard to do good work. I had always done what came easily, and what came easily had always been good enough. It was not good enough at Smith, and would never be good enough again.

From Something About the Author Autobiography Series

This book list is divided into three sections:

(1) Picture Books

(2) Books for Independent Readers

(3) Natalie Babbitt Bibliography

The list begins below with Picture Books, but you can use the following link to skip directly to the Independent Readers or the Natalie Babbitt Bibliography sections.

Go to books for Independent Readers

Go to the Natalie Babbitt Bibliography

Picture Books

All the Small Poems and Fourteen More by Valerie Worth and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt Suggested

Peacock and Other Poems by Valerie Worth and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt Suggested

Independent Reader

Tuck Everlasting written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt Highly Recommended

Devil's Storybook written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt Recommended

The Eyes of the Amaryllis written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt Recommended

Jack Plank Tells Tales written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt Recommended

The Search for Delicious written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt Suggested

Kneeknock Rise written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt Suggested

Goody Hall written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt Suggested

Natalie Babbitt Bibliography

The Forty-Ninth Magician by Samuel Fisher Babbitt and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1966

Dick Foote and the Shark written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1967

Phoebe's Revolt written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1968

The Search for Delicious written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1969

Kneeknock Rise written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1970

The Something written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1970

Goody Hall written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1971

Small Poems by Valerie Worth and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1972

The Devil's Story Book written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1974

Tuck Everlasting written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1975

More Small Poems by Valerie Worth and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1976

The Eyes of the Amaryllis written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1977

Still More Small Poems by Valerie Worth and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1978

Curlicues: The Fortunes of Two Pug Dogs by Valerie Worth and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1980

Herbert Rowbarge written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1982

Small Poems Again by Valerie Worth and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1985

Other Small Poems Again by Valerie Worth and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1986

The Devil's Other Storybook written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1987

All the Small Poems by Valerie Worth and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1987

Nellie: A Cat on Her Own written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1989

Bub; or, The Very Best Thing written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1994

All the Small Poems and Fourteen More by Valerie Worth and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1994

Ouch!: A Tale from Grimm by Grimm and illustrated by Fred Marcellino 1998

Elsie Times Eight written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 2001

Peacock and Other Poems by Valerie Worth and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 2002

Jack Plank Tells Tales written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 2007

A hopeful sentiment

Robert Ardrey, African Genesis

Our predatory animal origin represents for mankind its last best hope. Had we been born of a fallen angel, then the contemporary predicament would lie as far beyond solution as it would lie beyond explanation. Our wars and our atrocities, our crimes and our quarrels, our tyrannies and our injustices could be ascribed to nothing other than singular human achievement. And we should be left with a clear-cut portrait of man as a degenerate creature endowed at birth with virtue's treasury whose only notable talent has been his capacity to squander it.

But we were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments? Or our treaties whatever they may be worth; our symphonies however seldom they may be played; our peaceful acres, however frequently they may be converted into battlefields; our dreams however rarely they may be accomplished. The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk but how magnificently he has risen. We are known among the stars by our poems, not our corpses.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Urban Living

The human race passed a significant milestone this past year (or maybe in the past five years, because of difficulties in measurement and definition it is challenging to say exactly when). More than half of the world's six billion people now live in cities. This is pretty momentous.

Despite an idealization of the bucolic countryside with shaded glades and an easier pace of life, cities, since their inception some five thousand years ago, have exercised an inexorable pull of people from the country to urban life. The frank truth is that the myth of the noble savage and the free-loving native in a natural Eden are precisely that; a myth. Over the long haul, and usually even the short haul, city living, despite the sacrifices and the adjustments to personal habits that it requires, has been by far the better bargain for most people. People live longer in the city, enjoy better health, are richer, have greater gender equity, enjoy greater access to education and cultural resources, have lower infant mortality, etc. Not every single person, to be sure, but overall, the lesson is just about iron clad. Forget about going west: go to the city to seek your fortune.

City living is a technological, cultural, economic and political outcome not a function of the size of your country. Australia, a continent sized country with 20 million people, is more urbanized (91%) than the Netherlands with 16 million people on a virtual sliver of land where urbanization is measured at 90%. This despite Australia having 465 times as much land.

Modern man exited Africa about 75-100,000 years ago. The first walled towns or villages showed up around ten thousand years ago (Jericho in Israel at nearly five thousand years is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world). Cities showed up first in the Middle East; Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Persia then began appearing in Asia and Europe.

So - a hundred thousand years for the emergence of modern man; ten thousand years for the first towns; and last year for most people to now be living in a city. Progress of a sort.

What's so special then about cities that everyone seems to want to live in one? Well, there are the obvious reasons mentioned above which might be best summarized as opportunity and development. With one or two occasional (and usually temporary), exceptions there is a high correlation between the basic measures of well-being and the degree of a country's urbanization.

Why is this? Cities exist because of a capacity to generate surplus wealth (whether measured in baskets of grain, gold, or credits in a ledger). For most of our history as humans, we have been prey to weather, natural disasters, disease, and endemic warfare at a tribal level. That endemic warfare was in turn a function of insufficient productivity, people did not have enough to eat and so they sought to take what they needed from others.

With the first surpluses, people needed for the first time to band together to protect those surpluses. They began to have the capacity to plan not just for the next season's harvest but for things longer term. Roads, irrigation, permanent dwellings, etc. Planning required greater social cooperation and coordination. Urban dwellers moved beyond egalitarian familial decision making or close communal decisions based on the extended tribe. They had to develop new and more efficient forms of collective decision making involving people beyond their immediate family or tribe.

At the same time, with greater surpluses, cities were not only able to create larger more efficient forms of decision making, planning, and execution, but they also created the environment for new and more ideas and skills (such as writing) to be transmitted between individuals and from one generation and the next. More ideas among more people inevitably led to new ideas, new inventions.

The process of urbanization is therefore tightly bound up with the development of new forms of government (and gracious knows we have tried a lot of those), new forms of economy (trade, manufacturing and now the knowledge economy), new forms of technological development and new forms of cultural expression.

The archaeological evidence of early cities shows that this was not an easy or inevitably virtuous cycle. Concentrated power (politics) with larger and more concentrated wealth (economy and technology) led to a greater capacity for both improvement but also disaster. Greater concentrations of wealth in towns and cities made them natural targets for quick programs of income redistribution by foragers, farmers and passing raiders. This is of course why most early cities are in part characterized by defensive walls. Members not of the community had to be kept out because they were not part of the communal miracle of productivity and were likely to want to take the fruits of that productivity without exerting the disciplines required to create it.

Cities have not had an easy time but they have a winning promise to those willing to adapt to the disciplines and regulations required to make communal living among strangers feasible. For all that cities have attracted violent attention and have created the capacity to inflict destruction (through larger armies and advanced technology), it is clear that, despite our assumptions of an earlier Eden, the rural existence of foragers and farmers was far more violent. Evidence from the historical record as well as contemporary anthropological studies indicate that mortality among forager and agricultural communities from inflicted violence seems to uniformly range from a low of 5% to levels of 30%, i.e. 30% of all people died from some form of inflicted violence (punishment, war, personal attack, etc.). In most OECD countries over the past one hundred years, despite world wars, regional conflicts and what often seem to us as excessive levels of criminal violence, the mortality rate from violence is in the very low single digits. Almost everyone can anticipate dying from old age or disease.

Cities are a marked level of improvement for virtually all people on virtually all measures. Yet we seem to have an exceptionally ambivalent view of urbanization. We romanticize the rural past. We often directly or indirectly demonize the city.

Partly this is an artifact of history. Writers of children's books of the 1930's and earlier and through the 1960's had mostly grown up in rural and small town America. (America's urbanization stands at 76% and the big transition from country to city occurred between the World Wars and shortly thereafter.) Though they practiced their craft in the cities, they took as their subjects the idyllic recollection of their youth. Think of Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Huck Finn in particular has attracted all sorts of dissertations as an emblem of the noble savage being suffocated by civilization and town living. Think of the works of Robert McCloskey (Lentil, Homer Price, Blueberries for Sal, One Morning in Maine, etc.) and Virginia Lee Burton (Katie and the Big Snow, The Little House, Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel) all of which idolize rural or small town living. Granted McCloskey did have a nice portrayal of Boston in Make Way for Ducklings and Burton to some extent of San Francisco with Maybelle the Cable Car. But the ratio sort of tells the story.

More contemporary authors deal with cities in a somewhat more favorable light but still often in a markedly ambivalent manner. Cities might be good but we aren't sure about that. If you look at a list of the most commonly cited children's books among librarians, teachers, parents, etc. among the top one hundred titles, about a third are set in the country or small towns and/or depict the countryside in a very positive fashion (e.g. The Secret Garden, The Little House, Little House on the Prairie, My Side of the Mountain, Pippi Longstocking, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Blueberries for Sal, etc.)

Slightly less than 15% depict cities in a positive light, even making a fairly generous allowance for what is positive or considered urban (e.g. Mr. Popper's Penguins, Madeline, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Cricket in Times Square, All-of-a-Kind Family, etc.)

Given how critical cities are and have been to our progress and well being, surely they deserve a better shake than this. This is not to undercut country and small town living by any means. But what are some of the books that are set in the city and that celebrate the advantages of city living? Below is a cut at some of those tales.

Enjoy these representations of city living and let us know of others that you and your children might have enjoyed.

This book list is divided into three sections:

(1) Picture Books

(2) Books for Independent Readers

(3) Young Adults

The list begins below with Picture Books, but you can use the following link to skip directly to the Independent Readers or the Young Adults sections.

Go to books for Independent Readers

Go to books for Young Adults

Picture Books

Make Way for Ducklings written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey Highly Recommended

The Gardener by Sarah Stewart and illustrated by David Small Highly Recommended

Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile written and illustrated by Bernard Waber Highly Recommended

House on East Eighty-Eighth Street written and illustrated by Bernard Waber Highly Recommended

The Adventures of Taxi Dog by Debra Barracca and Sal Barracca and illustrated by Mark Buehner Recommended

Peppe the Lamplighter by Elisa Bartone and illustrated by Ted Lewin Recommended

Madeline written and illustrated by Ludwig Bemelmans Recommended

C Is for City by Nikki Grimes and illustrated by Pat Cummings Recommended

Alphabet City by Stephen Johnson Recommended

The Journey by Sarah Stewart and illustrated by David Small Recommended

City Mouse-Country Mouse and Two More Mouse Tales from Aesop by Aesop and illustrated by John Wallner Suggested

Urban Roosts written and illustrated by Barbara Bash Suggested

Madeline in London written and illustrated by Ludwig Bemelmans Suggested

The Little House written and illustrated by Virginia Lee Burton Suggested

Katy and the Big Snow written and illustrated by Virginia Lee Burton Suggested

Abuela by Arthur Dorros and illustrated by Elisa Kleven Suggested

Good Night New York City by Adam Gamble and illustrated by Joe Veno Suggested

Sky Boys by Deborah Hopkinson and illustrated by James E. Ransome Suggested

My New York Holiday written and illustrated by Kathy Jakobsen Suggested

Taxi by Betsy Maestro and Giulio Maestro Suggested

This Is London written and illustrated by Miroslav Sasek Suggested

New York Is English, Chattanooga Is Creek written and illustrated by Christopher Raschka Suggested

You Can't Take a Balloon into the Metropolitan Museum by Jacqueline Preiss Weitzman and illustrated by Robin Preiss-Glasser Suggested

Sky Scrape/City Scape edited by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Ken Condon Suggested

The Wheels on the Bus illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky Suggested

Trashy Town by Andrea Zimmerman and David Clemesha and illustrated by Dan Yaccarino Suggested

Independent Reader

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum and illustrated by W. W. (ILT) Denslow Highly Recommended

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett and illustrated by Tasha Tudor Highly Recommended

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl and illustrated by Quentin Blake Highly Recommended

The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden and illustrated by Garth Williams Highly Recommended

All-Of-A-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor Highly Recommended

Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers and illustrated by Mary Shepard Highly Recommended

Stuart Little by E. B. White and illustrated by Garth Williams Highly Recommended

A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond and illustrated by Peggy Fortnum Recommended

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg Recommended

Underground by David MacAulay Recommended

Sahara Special by Esme Raji Codell Suggested

The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright Suggested

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh Suggested

Snow in August by Pete Hamill Suggested

The Best of Nancy Drew Classic Collection by Carolyn Keene Suggested

Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown by Maud Hart Lovelace Suggested

145th Street by Walter Dean Myers Suggested

Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer and illustrated by Valenti Angelo Suggested

Child of the Owl by Laurence Yep Suggested

Rats by Paul Zindel Suggested

Young Adult

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith Recommended