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

16 thoughts on “Urbanist Grades for Books for Babies

  1. Dana DeMasterDanaD

    I am a big fan of Night Riders by Matt Furie. There are no words, just beautiful pictures of a frog and mouse go on a nighttime bike ride.


    And, Richard Scarry’s gender roles aside, we did enjoy Cars and Trucks and Things that Go. Lots of non–cars and trucks and heavier on other things that go.

  2. Ivan Bialostosky

    Books set in a city are hard to find. Check out:
    Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems
    Ezra Jack Keats has a bunch of other great urban books too.

    When your kiddo is a bit older, check out:
    Small in the City by Sydney Smith
    Walking the City with Jane by Susan Hughes
    Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena
    The Umbrella by Taro Yashima

  3. Pat ThompsonPat Thompson

    These might have to wait just a little while for Ruthie but…
    A Chair for My Mother by Vera B Williams
    The Adventures of Taxi Dog by Debra Barracca (yes, a car, but shared use)
    Every book by Miroslav Sasek (mid-century, definitely some cars but also lots of not cars, too… just appreciation of cities)
    Nothing Ever Happens on My Block by Ellen Raskin

  4. Kate Derickson

    I loved reading Little Blue Truck Leads the Way but it is essentially about a traffic jam. My kids liked seeing all the people who lived in high rises and on the sidewalks though. Last Stop on Market Street, Tar Beach and a book about the life of Basquiat (forget the name) are all wonderful for slightly older kids.

  5. Mathias

    Bear About Town by Stella Blackstone is favorite board book in our house. Not a single mention of a motor vehicle in the entire book.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      Also Squeak, Rumble, Whomp, Whomp, Whomp by Wynton Marsalis (has trucks and motorcycles, but also train and set in New Orleans) and Lizard from the Park by Mark Pett (boy takes a dinosaur around NYC).

  6. Mike Hess

    The Train Ride by June Crebbin – nice story about intercity rail and its written with a poem-like repetitive dialog that little kids love, nice illustrations. who needs a car when you can walk to the station, board a train and go off to see grandma in her city?

  7. Deborah Schlick

    When Everything Was Everything — by Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay — not a book about generic cityness, but a book about a specific city — Saint Paul — told from the eyes of a child who arrived as a refugee. Street names, addresses, churches and markets. And a local author to boot. Also — one of my very favorites to give as a gift — Most People by Michael Leannah, It is set in a city and it is about the people living in a city. Illustrations feature people on sidewalks, in parks and on rooftops. And a reminder in scary and divisive times that “most people in the world know that most people are very good.” It focuses on the feature of city living I most appreciate: the people who surround me.

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