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Classic Books That Inspired The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street
By Karina Yan Glaser
Many people who have read The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2017) have asked me if I’m from a big family. The Vanderbeeker family is large: five kids, two parents, a dog, a cat, and a rabbit—all in a New York City apartment! I come from a small family and grew up in the suburbs of California. So what inspired me to write about a family and a setting so different from my own upbringing?
My first experience with large families came from children’s literature, books written by authors I read as a child: Sydney Taylor, Elizabeth Enright, and Eleanor Estes. All-of-a-Kind Family (Wilcox & Follett 1951), The Saturdays (Henry Holt 1941), and The Moffats (Harcourt Brace 1941) make lonely kids long for a house filled with rambunctious siblings. My parents came to the United States right before I was born. Like many immigrant families, we were isolated in our differentness and often kept to ourselves. But when I read those stories, with the sounds of life echoing throughout them, I yearned to have that in my own home.
The New York City depicted in the books I loved is exciting and vibrant. In The Saturdays, the Melendy siblings decide to pool allowances each week, one child per week spending the whole amount for a Saturday adventure in the city. I remember reading about 10-year-old Randy, who chose to spend her Saturday strolling down Fifth Avenue and visiting an art gallery. Oh, to be let loose in New York City at age 10! Where would I have gone? What would I have done?
I left the California suburbs in 1998 for New York City. Four years ago, walking along Striver’s Row, one of Harlem’s historic streets, I looked at the row of brownstones standing shoulder-to-shoulder on north side of the street. It was a beautiful fall day, and all the books I read as a child came rushing back to me in a wave of memories. I looked at the buildings and imagined the Melendy family rushing out one of the brownstones, and the All-of-a-Kind family skipping along the sidewalk in their starched white aprons over dark woolen dresses. And I wondered, wasn’t it time for another book about a big New York City family? I paused in my walk and imagined five kids on a brownstone stoop, but instead of girls in starched aprons I saw Isa, Jessie, Oliver, Hyacinth, and Laney. The Vanderbeeker family was born.
Today as I walk the streets of Harlem with my two daughters and our dog Ginger Pye, I cherish the ways our neighbors nod or smile and wish us a good day. I love that my kids high-five the crossing guard and play a game of “You’re it!” with our building superintendent (a game that has been going on for years). This is the neighborhood I am lucky to live in; this is the neighborhood I tried to capture in The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street.
“Isn’t it nice to have a family to share your troubles?” asks a woman who works in the library in All-of-a-Kind Family. When one of the siblings discovers that the woman has no siblings, they all feel sorry for her. “Isn’t that lonesome?” they ask.
I wonder how the All-of-a-Kind children would feel about Isa, Jessie, Oliver, Hyacinth, and Laney. One thing I know for sure is that no one could ever be lonely or bored with the Vanderbeekers around.
Text and images are courtesy of Karina Yan Glaser and may not be used without her express written consent.