Leonard Marcus, author of the new book Storied City: A Children's Book Walking Tour Guide to New York City (Dutton), as well as many other books focusing on children's book authors and artists, including Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, spoke with PW Daily about the seeds for his new book. He is currently working on a sequel to his Author Talks, this time focusing on writers of fantasy for children, as well as a history of children's book publishing in the U.S.
PW: How did you first formulate the idea of a literary walking tour?
Leonard Marcus: I think it's an idea I'd had for a long time. When I first moved to the city, I wrote articles for the South Street Seaport, and included pieces for children about its heyday, in the early 19th century. One thing led to another. As I became more active as a [book] reviewer, I became more aware of books that had New York City as a backdrop.
In the time since 1995, when I curated an exhibit of New York-themed children's books for the Donnell [Library], more and more books were being published with New York City as a backdrop. I became aware that New York is a place that people come to fulfill their hopes and dreams, and it's a natural place to set a book. The city is full of references to story and to storytelling.
PW: Has anything like this ever been done before?
LM: Not focusing on New York. A book called Heidi's Alp offers a tour of Europe with literary settings of children's books, and there was a book published by Three Rivers last year that travels all over the globe, telling about children's book-related cites. But it seemed there were so many books about New York, it made sense to focus on that.
PW: How did you decide which literary places to highlight? Do you find yourself making note of any New York City landmark that you come upon in your readings?
LM: It was a process of working from both ends toward the middle. Certain books everyone knows about -- Eloise, Harriet the Spy. I started to collect books, as best I could, by neighborhood and borough. Well, Harriet is in Yorktown, what other books are set in Yorktown? Lyle Crocodile [who likes "waving to the mayor" and therefore needed to be near Gracie Mansion]. Louise Fitzhugh lived only blocks from where Harriet lived in the book [Fitzhugh's residence was 524 East 85th Street when she created her heroine, whom Marcus deduces in his book must have lived at 558 East 87th Street]. Ezra Jack Keats lived [in Yorkville] and spent time in the Webster Branch of the New York Public Library, and painted a mural for the children's room.
Bits and pieces came together in relation to a particular neighborhood or place. I liked having different variations on a theme. In the case of Harriet, you can go to the actual place where someone lived and then see where an artist went to research other children's books. When I looked at Fitzhugh's apartment -- she lived in a walk-up -- right across the street you could see a view of the rear of an apartment house. I happened to be there at night when everyone's lights were on, and it may not be the case that [that provided the model for Harriet ], but it was perfect for spying.
I would also pick up bits and pieces from other people. My dentist was near Gramercy Park, and the history of the park was in his office. I think that's how I found out about the Parisian courtesan who became a teacher and would lead the little girls around the park six times each day, just as the teacher did in Madeline. And Bemelmans lived [on Gramercy Park at the time he was creating Madeline] and knew the lore of the neighborhood. Even though Madeline is quintessentially French, the story owes something to the history of Gramercy Park.
PW: Your book also tells the story of how McCloskey modeled the stars of his Make Way for Ducklings on Long Island ducks, rather than those of Boston Commons.
LM: I don't usually get into chauvinism of any kind. But it's a point of pride that the Boston story should have roots in New York City. One story I left out was concerning Blueberries for Sal [which is set in Maine], for which McCloskey went to Central Park to draw the bears.
PW: Were there any other places or anecdotes that you couldn't include, for whatever reason?
LM: The childhood home of Paul Zindel in Staten Island [from The Pigman ]. I went to great lengths to find it. I went to the hall of records there to look at old maps of his neighborhood, called Travis. Everyone thought there were no houses where he grew up. It turned out that a highway had been built in the meantime so there was no house left. As it happened, Travis was this place that time forgot, when Paul Zindel was growing up there. The one thing left over from those days, to give readers an idea of the better aspects of his childhood, is a Fourth of July parade still held there. I was flabbergasted to see that the neighborhood Web site lists the parade's starting point as pretty much exactly where his house once stood.
There was no story I left out because it was too racy or disturbing. Obviously there are places that I wouldn't take children on a walking tour. I wouldn't want to send them to the Harlem convenience store where the shooting took place in Walter Dean Myers's Monster. On the other hand, as I thought about [Myers's] 145th Street: Short Stories, it reminded me very much of Romare Beardon's [painting] The Block. I posed my question to Walter Dean Myers, "Did you think of your collection of stories as in some way being inspired by The Block?" He agreed. I was excited to make that connection in the book, for readers. That's one way books can illuminate each other. Storied City brings books together that enhance the experience of the other because they're about the same places.
PW: Do you have plans to create similar booklovers' tours for other cities?
LM: Let's say that I would love to do that. I have three or four others in mind. It's a great way to learn about a place. [The research for this book] took me to parts of the city that I'd never been before. I've always loved walking around the city with no agenda, no destination in mind, to see what I could see.
PW: Do you have any favorite anecdote from the book?
LM: I liked talking about the [Michelangelo] sculptures. The cultural services office of the French Embassy had a sculpture tentatively identified as a Michelangelo in 1996 which parallels the Konigsburg debate [about a reputed Michelangelo sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum] in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler published in 1967 -- way before anyone was thinking about the real marble sculpture down the street [at the Embassy]. I contacted Konigsburg and asked her if it was coincidence, and she said it was. What happened in the mid-'90s couldn't be closer to what happened in her book. That's what happens in New York, and that's why people write about New York. It's such a full place that you're bound to have these seemingly impossible confluences of the real and the imaginary, and the two run together in wonderful ways.
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| This article originally appeared in the May 20, 2003 issue of PW Daily for Booksellers. For more information about PW Daily, including a sample and subscription information, click here. |