THE VANDERBEEKERS OF 141ST STREET
By Karina Yan Glaser
Big families abound in classic children’s literature. Back in the 1940s and ’50s, Eleanor Estes’s four lively Moffats and Elizabeth Enright’s four enterprising Melendy children, the six scrappy siblings of Sydney Taylor’s “All of a Kind Family,” and the thinly fictionalized Gilbreth offspring in “Cheaper by the Dozen" charmed children and adults alike. These books featured feisty white protagonists in urban or suburban settings, inventively solving problems by applying kid logic with hilarious and poignant results. And while they endure as paragons of the children’s canon, today’s metropolitan world of rising rents, shrinking spaces and culturally diverse neighbors can make those older titles feel incredibly quaint. Enter the Vanderbeekers of 141st Street. They are a biracial family with five kids and three pets residing on two floors of “a humble red brownstone with a weathervane” in Harlem. And just like that, everything old is new again.
Papa, a computer technician and part-time building superintendent, and Mama, a professional pastry chef, cheerfully preside over their large brood of curious, spirited children: 12-year-old twins Isa and Jessie, 9-year-old Oliver, 6-year-old Hyacinth and 4-year-old Laney. They know all their neighbors by name, including a retired couple, a family who own the local bakery and Mr. Vanhooten, Isa’s violin teacher. The cherished brownstone, drawn and diagrammed throughout the book, is a creaking, clanking, whistling haven of delights that evokes the pre-World War II New York City brownstone of Enright’s Melendy family. (The Vanderbeeker’s “Roof of Epic Proportions,” a shared space where serious sibling meetings are convened, channels the spirit of the Melendy clan’s “Office,” a top-floor playroom off limits to adults.) When Isa muses, “Do you think the brownstone loves us?” there is no doubt that the children view the building as the eighth Vanderbeeker.
Alas, there is a snake in this domestic paradise, and his name is Mr. Beiderman. “The Beiderman,” as the children call him, is the family’s landlord and the only person utterly immune to their many charms. When their parents reveal that Mr. Beiderman is not renewing their lease 11 days before Christmas, the children commence “Operation Beiderman,” a complicated, multipronged initiative to convince the landlord to let them stay. They try everything from bringing him breakfast to giving him jazz records and holiday-themed placemats, but all attempts fail spectacularly. Then there is the mystery of why Mr. Beiderman hasn’t set foot outside his top-floor apartment since the Vanderbeekers moved in. What happened six years ago that made Mr. Beiderman so hateful? Like Dickens’s Scrooge, Mr. Beiderman is mean because he’s sad, and once the compassionate Vanderbeekers uncover his tragic secret, they are finally able to melt his frozen heart and usher in their own happy Christmas ending.
This is Karina Yan Glaser’s debut novel, and her contemporary family narrative preserves the winsome tone and innocence of the aforementioned classics while updating them with a rich, modern diversity of characters, settings and problems. Instead of labeling the cultural or ethnic backgrounds of her characters outright, Glaser plants subtle hints in dialogue, descriptions and names that could suggest a number of possibilities. For example, while we learn that the Vanderbeekers are “a biracial family,” Glaser never explicitly says which races. Instead she sticks to eye color, foot size and hair: “Isa inherited her mother’s stick-straight black hair, which Isaalways wore in a sleek ponytail”; her twin, Jessie, has “Papa’s wild, untamable hair.” Oliver has “Mama’s dark eyes” while Hyacinth got “Papa’s large feet.” This technique allows an array of young readers to come to the text and see themselves, their families and friends
Between the diversity of the folks on the block and the charming, soft-focus details, Glaser’s 141st Street often feels like Sesame Street, and that’s not a coincidence — Jessie makes the same observation to Isa as they wander though the neighborhood. At Christmas dinner, Papa passionately gives a toast dedicated to the good neighbors who have nurtured his children: “I have always believed that raising kids means more than just being a good parent and trying to do the right things,” adding that “It means surrounding your kids with amazing people who can bring science experiments and jam cookies, laughter and joy, and beautiful experiences into their lives.”
Glaser’s warmhearted story highlights a cold truth: What is often missing in the busy lives of today’s plugged-in, checked-out families is a sense of community. In the vast village of New York City, she suggests, what it takes to raise a child can still be found on one square block.