Urbanist Grades for Books for Babies

With a 1-year-old daughter, I’ve read more books for babies in the past year than I have during the rest of my years combined. In fact, not only have I read many books written for babies and toddlers, I have read them repeatedly, sometimes over and over and over again in the same afternoon, becoming a bit too intimately familiar with their contents. As an urbanist and a father, I have some thoughts.

While many books for babies are set in rural or domestic environments about which little need be said (I’m looking at you, Each Peach Pear Plumb and Goodnight Moon), many others feature ambiguously urban settings. It turns out, some of these cities are good and some are bad. Here are five city-oriented children’s books that spring to mind, along with my frank assessment of their urbanist credentials. 

The Snowy Day and Whistle for Willie, by Ezra Jack Keats

A pair of books set in what is presumably New York City about a young boy named Peter, these two books are classics for good reason. Peter has lots of fun out in the city, exploring parks, meeting friends, whacking trees with sticks, chalking sidewalks and twirling around lampposts like he’s Gene Kelly. These books have a Sesame Street vibe, another classic bit of urban children’s material. 

Both set a high bar in praising innocent urban exploration, and probably had even greater impact back in the 1960s when they were written. Give them to your urbanist baby immediately!

Grade: A+

City Sounds, by Jean Marzollo, illustrated by Sophia Latto

Wow, I was excited when I picked up this book from a Little Free Library in Mac-Groveland. It begins on a park bench where a little girl asks her grandpa about his favorite sounds.

It turns out this grandpa is straight-up Joe Soucheray! He goes on to list such stupid sounds as honking horns and revving engines. Not one normal, human, non-motorized, non-aggravating sound does this old man mention to his young, impressionable daughter. No laughter, nor a trickling creek, music or a distant crowd, nor the singing of birds, nor a breeze gently blowing through the leaves enters the mind of this addled crank. Then, for no apparent reason, he plays the harmonica; the end. 

This book is terrible. This man hates cities and does not deserve to sit on a park bench in the sunshine.

Grade: F

1-2-3 Go, by Fisher-Price

This is a counting book in which nearly everything you count is a fossil-fueled vehicle. The one train that appears (five train cars) is not even a passenger train. The only non-motorized thing that “goes” are eight bicycle riders and 10 sailboats.

And what does the book say? “Eight bike riders go up the hill; we drive so fast it seems they’re standing still.” 

What the heck is that? Get out of here with this dumb book.

Grade: D

Worm Weather, by Jean Taft

One of the best urbanist books for babies you can find, Worm Weather manages to tell a riveting tale of an urban encounter with a rainstorm without one single mention of a motor vehicle. From the very beginning when crowds of feet scamper down the sidewalk as the first drops of drizzle fall, to the very end when the kiddos are sprawled out in the park, this is the city where I want to live. It peaks in the middle when the family ducks inside an amazing pizza joint.

This is an urban vision (again, presumably New York City) that’s nothing but sidewalks, pizza and parkland. Not only that, it embraces supposedly inclement weather. I love it!  

Grade: A+

Mr. Paint Pig, by Richard Scarry

While I’m fond of animals dressed up as postal workers, I have a lot of problems with the gender roles in Richard Scarry’s Busytown. Don’t get me started! Scarry started this series in 1963. Even so, the book relishes and reinforces gendered domesticity. Other than it seeming to taste good, I don’t know why my daughter is drawn to this book.  

Another problem with Mr. Paint Pig is his lack of creativity. If you count the farmer’s tractor, half of the things he paints are motor vehicles! Why not paint a cart or a sign or a fence or something? The city has many more paintable things besides vans and convertibles, sir. 

Grade: C

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.