For kids—and writers of kids' books—New York City is magic. The sights and streets of NYC have been inspiring literary folk from the time of Herman Melville, but as much as short stories and novels make the City come to life, there's something about children's literature that brings out the special spell of the five boroughs' attractions. Maybe it's the attempt to look at things through a young person's eyes: to capture the wonder of the lions at the Public Library, the dizzying heights of the Empire State Building, the artifacts of The Metropolitan Museum of Art; or to imagine the stories behind a fearsome statue here, a forgotten bar there, even a lonely phone booth. There's way too many books to fit in this article, so feel free to look beyond to follow All-of-a-Kind Family around the Lower East Side, or the characters in Nikki Grimes' Harlem-based stories. Pick up Stuart Little to remind yourself of the model boat races (which still take place Saturdays at 10am) in Central Park's Conservatory Water. Read Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me, a surreal time warp that conjures the City through the eyes of a latchkey kid. For our own series of book-related itineraries, read on.
Note: Curious George, Margret and H. A. Rey's great creation and a longtime favorite children's book character, is the official family ambassador for New York City. A modern-day story featuring the lovable monkey, Curious George in the Big City, is included in this slideshow. For more on all there is to see and do with kids in NYC, visit nycgo.com/family.
Better Nate Than Ever, Tim Federle
This sly coming-of-age tale of a 13-year-old suburban Pittsburgher who runs off to New York City to try to make it on Broadway (kids, don't try this) is a paean to the theater world. It inevitably starts with an institution familiar to many new arrivals: the Port Authority. From there, Nate is off to an audition for a role in E.T.: The Musical—see our Broadway guide for a list of what's actually on this time of year—at Ripley Grier Studios, just blocks away down Eighth Avenue. He pops into a discount clothes warehouse at 39th Street and Eighth Avenue, takes comfort in chains like White Castle and Duane Reade and preps himself for (read: worries about) his chance at the big time. Later, he wanders past Madison Square Garden and the General Post Office, admiring the “mammoth stairway straight out of that triumphant scene in Rocky” (he is, after all, from Pennsylvania) on his journey to catch up with his aunt, who works at a (fictional) Aw Shucks oyster house on Houston Street. She lives, as do 2.2 million others, in the wonderful borough of Queens, which in the book is called the home for “everyone-who-almost-made-it-but-didn't.” This takes him past more familiar sights (though not to Nate; his friend back home, Libby, acts as tour guide over the phone to tell him that the skinny, angled building at the bottom of Madison Square Park is the Flatiron Building), and IDs for him The Public Theater. But his eventual destination is back home. Until the sequel, of course.
Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh
Published 50 years ago, Harriet the Spy might surprise you on a re-reading, for, well, how off-putting its main character can be. But it also might inspire you to do some detective work of your own, putting yourself in Harriet's role—spy instructions (“spies should not get caught!”) and “spy route” included. Where to begin? Most of the action in the book takes place in the streets between Harriet's home—a three-story townhouse on East 87th Street—and her school at the bottom of Carl Schurz Park, home to Gracie Mansion. We know her tiny bathroom window overlooks a park across the street, or at least it did 50 years ago, so that's a start in figuring out which one was her house—by most accounts, it was no. 558 (though that's not actually, as the book says, a “few blocks from East End Avenue”). The school is easier, as she frequently walks through Carl Schurz to reach the “Gregory School,” on East End Avenue across from the park. The institution right there, founded, as the text goes, by a woman around the turn of the 20th century? Elite bastion Chapin (though Chapin doesn't allow boys in the lower school, as Gregory does). Other destinations: Harriet makes an early excursion out to her housekeeper Ole Golly's home in the Rockaways; she takes notes in her journal while sipping an egg cream at a neighborhood luncheonette (Lexington Candy Shop, which has been around for nearly a century and has the requisite countertop cited); and there's some action at Dei Santis' Italian grocery store on York Avenue. For the closest thing, pass by Ottomanelli Brothers, a neighborhood standby since the early 1900s. But really, just wander the streets, trying very hard to listen in on conversations—and not get caught.
Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Rick Riordan
This five-volume series of young adult adventure books maps Greek mythology onto modern-day New York City (well, the entire US, really, but we'll stick to what's local). Your task, if you choose it: follow Percy and friends from their schools in the City, MS54 among them, and Camp Half-Blood out on Long Island on their encounters with gods and monsters. First stop, from The Lightning Thief, would be antiquities in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the middle schoolers examine a 13-foot stele with a sphinx at the top (it's in gallery 154), from ancient Greece. Olympus itself is on the secret 600th floor of the Empire State Building, but you'll have to content yourself with feeling like a Greek god from the 86th or 102nd floor. The final tome, The Last Olympian, is the most NYC-centric of the series, mapping out a circuit of statues where you'll be activating automatons to help you kill some flying pigs (don't ask). There's William Seward in Madison Square Park, Hermes looming over Grand Central Terminal and Pomona outside the Plaza Hotel in Grand Army Plaza. A whole host of other places show up, from the Williamsburg Bridge to Battery Park. For the energy to do all this running around, consider putting into action what the prankster Stoll brothers talk about: raiding Dylan's Candy Bar.
Experience the world of Percy Jackson at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, where The Lightning Thief has been turned into an Off-Broadway musical (July 21–August 22).
From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, E.L. Konigsburg
Most of the Mixed-Up Files takes place in various rooms of NYC's biggest museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art: two young runaways, Claudia and Jamie, use its halls as a base camp and set out to learn everything they can about each gallery. That's one way around New York City real estate problems! Head straight to the French and English Furniture rooms of the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts wing, to see the lounge chair and writing table made for Marie Antoinette (gallery 546) that capture Claudia's eye, and then on to the room from the Hôtel de Varengeville (gallery 525). Elsewhere you can look for the sarcophagus in which a violin case is hidden; the tapestry behind which they stow a book bag; and the urn in which a trumpet case is covertly placed. Then make your way around the Egyptian galleries, looking out for mummies and a certain bronze statue of a cat. A few things that play big roles can no longer be seen or never could be, like the mythical Michelangelo statue or the fountain of the museum's restaurant where the kids took baths—that's since been renovated. As wondrous as the Met is, the kids do exit for various purposes, and so should you. They try to do research in the main New York Public Library but wind up at the branch on West 53rd Street (that would be the Donnell Library Center, once the second-busiest branch and now in the midst of renovations that will see it reopened in 2015); poke into an Olivetti typewriter hotbed that was on Fifth Avenue, at no. 548; watch skaters at the Rink at Rockefeller Center; rent a post office box at Grand Central; and wait on line for a tour through the United Nations.
Picture Books, Part I: Classics
Some beloved picture books for the younger set provide a far-ranging itinerary. Everyone's favorite hotel dweller, Eloise, can guide you on a tour through the lavish Plaza Hotel, so there's no need to be a guest to check out the lobby, Palm Court or the Eloise Shop. Head downtown for a beatnik send-up of Eloise, Sandra Scoppettone's Suzuki Beane, in which a girl who sleeps on the floor of a Bleecker Street apartment drops references about art, cafés, Ginsberg and other things that make the Village what it was—and is. Back from the Plaza, it's a quick shot to hit the Upper East Side, home of Bemelmans Bar in the Carlyle Hotel. Ludwig Bemelmans, author of the Madeline series (actually Paris-based), is celebrated there, his drawings visible on murals in the cabaret space. Farther uptown, imagine yourself at the house that Lyle the Crocodile called home in Bernard Waber's The House on East 88th Street (neighbors of Harriet the Spy!)—though Lyle liked to spend time entertaining passersby and nosing around for Turkish caviar. For that delicacy head back to Midtown: either Caviar Russe or Petrossian will do just fine, thanks. Another destination is remote, but the journey there is much the pleasure. The lighthouse from Hildegarde Swift's The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge sits under the George Washington Bridge. The splendid isolation of what's officially known as Jeffrey's Hook Lighthouse is an NYC anomaly. For company, visit during the October festival that celebrates the book.
The Cricket in Times Square, George Selden
An old-fashioned tale, The Cricket in Times Square follows the travails of a newcomer to town, one Chester Cricket, who befriends Tucker Mouse and Harry Cat during his time living at a newsstand in the Times Square subway station. Unfortunately, a number of yesteryear establishments that play big roles in the book, like Nedick's lunch counter and Loft's candy store, have gone the way of the dodo bird (the hot dog–oriented Nedick's was revived about a decade ago, but all three new locations closed relatively quickly). But they do conjure the world of underground establishments, so consider checking out some modern-day incarnations, like this Williamsburg newsstand. Not every scene is subterranean, nor even around Times Square, as these small animals are mobile. Harry Cat takes in an open-air chamber concert in Washington Square Park, and you can do the same on some summer evenings. And Chester, along with his overseer, Mario, whose parents own the newsstand, goes in search of a birdcage down in Chinatown, where he visits Sai Fong Chinese Novelties—if you're looking for similar knickknacks, Pearl River Mart should suffice—and munches on a fine Chinese meal (find some of our recommendations here).
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Judy Blume
Blume's Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing (and its sequel, Superfudge) could make a lot more use of its NYC backdrop—as it is, the fact that the dad is in advertising and that the author grew up in neighboring Elizabeth, New Jersey, seem the biggest reasons it's set here—but it does offer a few on-location jaunts. There is, of course, the apartment Peter Hatcher and his family live in, a building at 25 W. 68th St. that has “one of the best elevators” in the City. Feel free to admire the 1925 mid-rise, though you can't enter to see the lift—and note that it doesn't reach to a 12th floor, where the Hatchers supposedly reside. From there, take the kids to Heckscher Playground, where Peter's little brother, that scamp Fudge, has a dastardly fall while under the (un)watchful eyes of Peter and friends. Or bike across Central Park, as Peter and his friends do, and have a shopping spree at Bloomingdale's, where Peter's mom takes the boys to buy shoes. After that, it's a couple of blocks north to Burger Heaven (Hamburger Heaven in the book), at 62nd and Lexington, for cheeseburgers and milkshakes. And while you may not get to star in your own commercial, like Fudge does, you can see plenty of them in the context of original TV broadcasts at the nearby Paley Center for Media.
The Night Tourist, Katherine Marsh
This dark kids' mystery, along the lines of the Orpheus myth meets The Sixth Sense, should kindle more than just your middle schooler's imagination. Really, an entire weekend's itinerary could be devoted to tracing young Jack Perdu's steps once he gets off the train from New Haven and befriends Euri in the Whispering Gallery of Grand Central Terminal. Who knew that Track 61 led nine stories down to the Underworld, that the Circle Line (don't pay that ferryman!) was the way across the River Styx or that the White Horse Tavern has a dead poets' society meeting around 2am each night? Well, we might have guessed that last one; after all, the spirit of Dylan Thomas does not go gentle into that good night. Euri guides Jack as he visits the last place he remembers being with his mom (who died eight years earlier), Central Park's Bethesda Fountain—with its Angel of the Waters statue—and generally tries to avoid detection as one of the living. Hard to do at one place where ghosts would obviously congregate: Chumleys, the beloved, shuttered Bedford Street speakeasy recently rumored to be coming back. Elsewhere, Euri and Jack sled down Pilgrim Hill; listen to a lecture by Fiorello La Guardia at the New York Public Library; take in a most unusual play at the St. James Theatre; and make a mad dash for the world of the living on a trip out of the 79th Street Boat Basin. It's enough to send your head spinning, in which case, there's always the New York Psychoanalytic Society, also featured in the book.
Picture Books, Part II: Future Classics
A handful of illustrated kids' books published over the last, say, 15 years look destined to become NYC classics. One, Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems, arguably already is—at least to denizens of Park Slope. Young Trixie accompanies her dad along blocks of brownstones and through Prospect Park to an unassuming Laundromat at 358 Sixth Ave. (corner of 5th Street), with actual pictures pointing the way. If you want to see whether she's reunited with Knuffle Bunny after the plushie is left behind, read the book (or take a wild guess—it's a kids' story, after all). Also in Brooklyn, Melanie Hope Greenberg's Mermaids on Parade serves as an up-close guide to the fabled Mermaid Parade on Coney Island, which takes place each June. A similar ode to a neighborhood and its institutions can be found in Bryan Collier's Uptown. In this case, the action centers around 125th Street, bouncing from the Apollo Theater and the Lenox Lounge (soon to reopen on 128th Street) up to famed Rucker Park and a spot for late-night chicken and waffles: the always-hopping Amy Ruth's. Finally, the Upper West Side gets some love from Lois Wyse and Molly Rose Goldman's How to Take Your Grandmother to the Museum and The Lonely Phone Booth, by Peter Ackerman. The former is a veritable guided tour of the American Museum of Natural History—the dinosaur halls, African mammals, the Hall of Ocean Life and, naturally, the gift shop—while the latter pays homage to one of the last remaining operational telephone booths in New York City, at the corner of West 100th Street and West End Avenue. Go see it before it, too, is uprooted.
Curious George in the Big City, originated by Margret and H. A. Rey
This holiday adventure follows George and the man with the yellow hat (mostly George, once he's off and running) on a City itinerary that's straight out of a visitor's wish list come December. Things start off well enough with a gift-buying jaunt to an unnamed department store, clearly Macy's, by the red awnings on the storefront. But soon George, curious to the end, gets into some mischief and is separated from his friend. After a trip on a subway and a longing look at a pretzel vendor, George finds himself up on the antenna tower of the Empire State Building (off-limits to us non-monkeys). That lookout proves fruitless, as do stops at Radio City (home to the Christmas Spectacular), the Guggenheim, The Rink at Rockefeller Center and the lions of the New York Public Library. Finally, it's back to Macy's, where George and the man with the yellow hat are reunited. If you have the same adventure with your family, try to stay together—after all, you wouldn't want anyone to miss out on the fun.