Armchair Traveling with StoriedCities.com

Kansas City, MO Public Library

I didn't make my first trip abroad until I was in my thirties and, a decade later, I have had only two more adventures - to London and a return visit to Italy. This time of year, especially when I am ringing up travel guides to locations all over the world for customers, I get a bit wistful and dreamy and satisfy my wanderlust with a little armchair traveling. There are so many wonderful kid's books that feature foreign locales - fiction and nonfiction, picture book, chapter book, middle grade novel, young adult - that I thought I'd do a week of posts featuring these titles. I decided to turn to Erica, author of the fantastic book blog Storied Cities for help. Erica, who also has a parenting blog called What We Do All Day is mom to two boys, ages 7 and 3. She describes her  book blog as featuring "decidedly urban illustrated and chapter books for children." Fortunately, her background in theater prepared her for hours and hours of dramatic read alouds to her sons. Stay tuned this week for Erica's book lists (with a few contributions from me) featuring kid's books set in London, Paris, Italy and New York City!

But first, I have been enthralled and intrigued by Storied Cities for quite a while now. When I finally figured out a way to feature Erica's breadth of knowledge at books4yourkids.com, I couldn't resist asking her a few questions about her experiences traveling and her interest in kid's books set in cities.

You are clearly a person with a passion, an interest and the desire to share your knowledge with others. Can you describe the moment when you had the idea to start Storied Cities.com

I used to have a feature on my parenting blog called "Urban Picture Books", in which in would feature a children's book set in the city. I started doing that because it seemed like every picture book I picked up to read was set on a farm or in a big sprawling house. Where were pictures of kids in apartment buildings with fire escape gardens? Once I started looking I found quite a few. However, I was becoming frustrated not only because I wanted to feature more books than was practical on that blog, but that blog's audience did not seem very interested in the posts. Starting Storied Cities gave me the freedom to write as many reviews as I wanted, but also to attract the book blogging community, which otherwise would not be very interested in a general parenting blog.  I actually think it is rather odd for me to have a what is considered a book review blog because I don't feel as though writing reviews is something that comes naturally to me, but I like communicating about books I love, so I continue to plug away at it.

What is your travel experience? Where have you been and what are your favorite cities?

I've been around Europe several times, and I lived in England for a year but my favorite trip abroad was a trip to Norway and Sweden with three of my cousins. I was able to meet some of my Swedish relatives and really get to know my cousins. It's so hard to chose favorite cities! But I love Oslo, Stockholm and Florence, Italy. Unfortunately, these are not cities I often find featured in children's picture books. 

Did you travel as a child and what are your memories of those times?

As a child my parents did not take me to cities on vacations. We almost always went camping! We did visit San Francisco frequently since it was the closest big city to my home town and my mother took me to the theater and ballet. I'll always remember the closeness of the streets and the trouble we had finding parking! The city always seemed someplace exciting and of course I still think of cities as centers of culture because of those early trips to the theater. I also spend a few summers in Minneapolis, because that is my mother's home town. Never in a million years did I think I would end up living in New York City, but here I am and I love it.

You have two children, ages 7 and 3, have you traveled with them and what was it like? (If you have traveled with them, do you read books to prepare for the trip?)

I haven't taken my sons (ages 7 and 3) on vacations to big cities. We've been to Montreal, but that's as close as it gets to an urban holiday for us. Since we live in New York City, we prefer to vacations in the country as a contrast to our everyday living. Also, since I am a SAHM, I prefer vacations in which I will have lots of help with the kids, otherwise it is not much of a vacation for me. So we go to where friends and family are. I was so scared of the kids being bored the first time we took an airplane I bought a ton of new books to bring along, including many about airplanes.

How do you find your books to review?

I find books for the blog both deliberately and accidentally. I absolutely love choosing a book off the library shelves and discovering that it has an urban setting, but this does not happen as often as I like.  While I appreciate books which deliberately introduce the reader to city life (S. Rubbino's A Walk in London and a Walk in New York are excellent examples),  I have a predilection for books which are set in the city incidentally. For Example, What Happens on Wednesdays, in which the setting is drawn from the Carrol Gardens neighborhood in Brooklyn, is a story about a girl's daily relationship with her parents; it's not about Brooklyn. Another one of my favorite accidental finds is Loopy, about a girl who looses her favorite stuffed toy. The first type of book is easy to find in the card catalog, since it's easy to plug "Paris" or "London" into the computer. The second type is more difficult to find and I focus on it for that very reason. 

I have also found that certain subjects tend to have an abundance of city settings. For example, many books on immigrants are set in New York or San Francisco, books about artists tend to be set in Paris, books about Jazz like NYC or New Orleans. Also, superhero books favor urban settings, for obvious reasons. Following the careers of authors or illustrators can be helpful in finding books, too. Certain illustrators favor urban cities: Melanie Hope Greenberg, who wrote about a classic Brooklyn summer experience in Mermaids on Parade, R. Gregory Christie, who illustrates a lot of books about African-Americans in the city, like Hot City, Barbara McClintock has several books in Paris and two set in London. I also read a lot of book blogs and look at publisher's websites for clues. It is surprising to me that many reviews of books set in the city do not actually take note of this fact and so my reviews focus on the book's relationship to its urban setting. 

I know you have reviewed quite a few non-fiction books. Can you talk a bit about the differences you find between a straightforward non-fiction picture book and one that makes the topic into more of a story (maybe using the various Pale Male books you've reviewed?) How do your kids respond to these different books? As a parent reading out loud, sometimes I have a harder time reading those that don't have a narrative.

I do try to include some non-fiction books on my site. Some non-fiction books lend themselves easily to stories. These tend to be about specific events, such as the Great Northeastern Blizzard of 1888, the crossing of P.T. Barnum's elephants over the Brooklyn Bridge or the appearance of a red tailed hawk on a luxury 5th Avenue building named Pale Male. I like to read aloud non-fiction books which structured around a story (often quite fictionalized as is the case in ) to my kids, but since my 7 year old has been an avid solo reader for a few years now, I tend to let him read more fact-oriented books by himself. With a book like Take a City Nature Walk, I might read it through first myself and then hand it over with the suggestion that he find some ideas in it he would like to investigate further. 

As your kids get older, how do you see your familial reading habits evolving?

My kids have always demanded a lot of reading time, and I am happy to oblige. My seven year old rarely requests picture book read alouds any more (although he often listens in when I read to his brother) but we still read from a chapter book every night. My 3 year old has the patience to sit through these chapter books, too, although I have no doubt 90 % of it goes over his head. When my kids are not in school I read to them throughout the day whenever they request it, but as they get older and both of them are in school full time, I imagine we will have a more specific dedicated reading time in the evening.

Erica, Thanks so much for your blog, for taking the time to answer these questions, and especially for sharing your knowledge with us in this interview and the fantastic book lists!


Storied Cities said...

It was my pleasure. I'll link up to the post soon. I love that picture of the library - Woah!

Tanya said...

Thanks for all your work putting this together! Maybe next summer we can tackle books about the more exotic cities around the world...

I love that picture, too! Almost makes me want to visit Kansas City, MO....

melanie hope greenberg said...

Thanks so much for mentioning my book MERMAIDS ON PARADE. I paint my own experiences that I think children (of all ages) can enjoy. I am thrilled that Erica has picked up on them.

Tanya said...

You are welcome. Happy to provide some additional attention for your work! Thanks for reading.