The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser, 297 pp, RL 4
The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street
Cover art by Karl James Mountford
Map by Jennifer Thermes
Interior illustrations by Karina Yan Glaser
Purchased at Barnes & Noble
I have always been fascinated by New York City. As a kid, the books that left the deepest impressions on me were set there (Eloise, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Harriet the Spy) and, as I got older, it seemed like all the things I loved (Saturday Night Live, the best bookstores, the world of publishing) were there, too. It wasn't until my daughter moved to New York City for graduate school in 2017 - when this book debuted - that I really got to visit the city. So, with my daughter living a mere ten blocks from the Vanderbeekers, it seemed like the perfect time to read Karina Yan Glaser's superb book as I flew to see her receive her master's degree.
Realistic fiction is not my favorite genre of kid's books and when I do read it, these days it tends to be because the characters and story are mirrors for mostly Latinx student population at the school where I am the librarian. While The Vanerbeeker's of 141st Street doesn't fit this bill, with a cast of biracial (although it's not clear exactly which races, but does it really matter? As Ilana says on Broad City, "Statistically, we're headed toward an age where everybody's going to be, like, caramel and queer.") siblings, it is a great window for my students. And, it's a great story!
The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street reminds me of a contemporary, urban version of a favorite real-life-family-fiction series of mine, The Penderwicks, and, happily, this family is very unplugged, despite the fact that Mr. Vanderbeeker is a computer technician. At twelve-years old, twins Isa, passionate and talented violinist, and Jessie, inventive science lover, are seeming opposites and best friends. Nine-year old Oliver is the only boy and therefore gets his own room, a closet with a loft bed and endless bookshelves, built by an attentive uncle, and perfect as he is a voracious reader. Six-year old shy Hyacinth is a future Etsy shop owner with a seemingly endless supply of craft supplies, and almost-five-year-old Laney is comic relief. Their story begins on Friday, December 20, when their parents (mom is a professional baker and dad repairs computers) tell their brood that their landlord will not be renewing their lease and they have until the end of the month to find a new home.
Having lived in their brownstone (which, thankfully for West coast, suburban and rural readers, Glaser describes and illustrates, both outside and in) for as long as they can remember, the children spring into action, devising scheme after scheme to convince their reclusive landlord, Mr. Beiderman, to change his mind. Using all their talents and enlisting their neighbors and community for help, the children also try to learn more about the man who lives on the third floor of their apartment building. A tricky task, Glaser does a wonderful job of keeping the Vanderbeeker parents involved in the story while also giving the children the space to pursue their secret project in a way that does not feel forced. I was especially impressed with Glaser's resolution and the moving reasons behind Mr. Beiderman's decision to evict the Vanderbeekers as well as the authentic and emotionally rewarding conclusion.
The neighborhood setting, close connections the siblings share and their varied and genuine creative talents make this memorable story one that readers will return to. Happily, you can get the second book now, with the third coming in September of this year, with books 4 and 5 coming in 2020 and 2022! AND! The marvelous Amy Poehler optioned the movie rights last year!
While I only have three kids, not five like the Vanderbeekers, I have a house full of animals like them - and like the Glaser family! Currently, we have four box turtles, three cats and two dogs, but we also had four house rabbits at one time and I have been poring over Glaser's Instagram account where she shares fantastic shots of her furry family, including Izzy, the inspiration for the Vanderbeeker's bunny, Paganini. I do miss my bunnies...