It is probably inevitable The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, a new book about a large family living in New York City, is about real estate.*
Karina Yan Glaser’s charming middle-grade contemporary opens about a week before Christmas when the Vanderbeekers learn that they are about to be kicked out of their beloved Harlem brownstone apartment. The Vanderbeekers are a biracial family—Asian and white—composed of two harried parents, a trio of eccentric pets, and five children. The eldest are twelve-year old twin girls—thoughtful violinist Isa and impulsive engineer Jessie—followed by nine-year-old basketball playing Oliver, shy six-year-old Hyacinth, maker of crafts, and four-year-old Laney.
The Vanderbeekers have deep roots on 141st Street. Père Vanderbeeker has always lived on the block, and the children have solidified the clan’s presence.
The Vanderbeekers’ home—a humble red brownstone with a weathervane that spun on windy days—sat in the exact middle of the street. The brownstone stood out not because of its architecture, but because of the constant hum of activity that burst out of it. Among the many people that visited the Vanderbeeker household there was quite a bit of disagreement about what it was like, but general agreement about what it was NOT:
The Vanderbeeker household is, in its way, a hub of community life. While the parents scramble to pack up and find housing, the children devise several strategems to convince their reclusive landlord, whom they call “the Biederman,” to allow them to stay. Each ploy, each scheme, makes use of a Vanderbeeker’s particular talent and character; it showcases their place in the world, but also provides a snapshot of life in their larger community.
I loved it. I was happy to find a realistic, warm book about a close-knit biracial clan living in a multiethnic New York City. I was delighted that the Vanderbeekers could reflect something of my daughter’s experiences growing up in Manhattan. And, well, I found the novel tremendously comforting. For the next few weeks, I started looking for children’s books about big families who live in rambling houses.
The stories I wanted to read had a few things in common: The families in these novels were almost always made up of one responsible sister—usually the eldest—an artistic sibling, a scientific one, and a young sibling who didn’t understand everything that was going on but arrived at simple solutions for ongoing family problems. The books were all written in the third person, with each section closely following one child as they pursued their talents and were allowed to ramble about making music or constructing elaborate structures unheeded and unsupervised by adults.
I read the Vanderbeekers, I read Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks, I read Elizabeth Enright’s The Saturdays and The Four-Story Mistake, about the Melendy family. I just started Eleanor Estes’s The Moffats, and of course, I have on hand Sydney Taylor’s portrait of a turn-of-the-century New York Jewish household in All-of-a-Kind Family.
As I went through—go through—these books, I have tried to think about why they are so familiar and comforting. I did not grow up in a knock-down house. I didn’t run wild. I never called secret meetings with my sisters and brothers to figure out how to manage my clueless parents or our problems. The feelings these books evoke could almost be mistaken for nostalgia—until I remind myself that I didn’t grow up this way at all.
There is a magical quality to the spaces that the children in these books inhabit. The Vanderbeeker children, for instance, creep out of their windows to meet on the brownstone’s roof:
The tiles made the rooftop welcoming and soundproof. Nevertheless the kids knew to tread in the same manner they did when visiting one another’s bedrooms late at night without waking their parents. They were certain the Biederman could not hear them, because he would definitely have said something about it. And not in a nice way, either.
Jessie Vanderbeeker has also equipped the roof with a Rube Goldberg-esque contraption that allows the children to pour water down through a series of seesaws, wind chimes, and spokes, to create a soft melody. It’s a nice touch, both beautiful and whimsical, and it reinforces the feeling of an old-fashioned kind of childhood.
When I try to pinpoint what I find reassuring about this book—all of these books—I consider that it is this image of the siblings meeting secretly in the spaces that they’ve created. Even if the kids struggle to find a place in the larger world, there is at least assurance of a place within a family—where the crushing fights get resolved, where adolescence shakes up certain assumptions but one’s birth order and the love of one’s brothers and sisters stays more or less constant. The structure of family is ballast.
And that is further reinforced by the physical spaces of the kids’ covert meetings. One reason I find the Vanderbeekers and the Penderwicks and Melendys so compelling is because these books also show the ways that children have power in their environment. The four Penderwick sisters can, after all, help their friend James, who wants to go to a prestigious music school. The Vanderbeekers can lure their reclusive landlord back into the community. The Melendys even discover a secret room in their attic, in the children’s space.
“Look how it goes: up to here, and then across to there, and then down again. And look, there’s a kind of a bulge on that side. Like a hinge!”
“Like a hinge,” repeated Rush, light dawning. “Creepers, Ran! Do you suppose it could be a door?”
In dream interpretation, they say that discovering a hidden room in one’s home is a sign of untapped potential—it’s the subconscious’s signal there is more to find within oneself. In The Four-Story Mistake, that extra room is real; the Melendy kids keep news of the room from their father and their housekeeper, Cuffy. It is a place they can hide and plan fierce campaigns. Similar spots—in crawlspaces, in enormous garden urns, in attics and in trees—and covert meetings exist in the books I’ve been reading. From these locations, the siblings effect change, and their grown-ups have no idea that these childhood war rooms exist.
When people talk about having things go back to the way they were, I think sometimes they have in mind the portraits of family life found in these books. And yes, there is a charm in reading about “simpler times,” in kids playing in treehouses and adopting strange dogs from the street—charming, that is, for certain classes of white, straight, cis people.
But for me, I think that the appeal of these books lies in the fact that the children are allowed to be powerful, and where the books themselves serve as a childhood space; the pages are the secret room.
Because despite outward appearances, the larger setting of these novels isn’t all sweetness and charm. The Moffats, by Eleanor Estes, published in 1941, is essentially about the Great Depression and its effects on a widow’s children. Enright’s The Saturdays was published in 1939, and that book contains uneasy mentions of Hitler and strife in Europe. By The Four-Story Mistake (1941), Enright’s Melendys have moved to the country and are actively raising money for war bonds. So much for nostalgia.
I can’t think it a coincidence that both Estes and Enright first published these kinds of stories during these fraught years. And I find it interesting that The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, about a mixed-race family—a family whose existence could be considered political—who are not many steps from homelessness and economic ruin—is being released now. They are sunny books, but their optimism is tempered. They are hopeful books, but there are good reasons why these characters need hope. When there is a larger world of dark, adult issues, these novels remind readers that there are still problems that can be solved by the youngest, smallest, most overlooked people.
*I received an ARC of The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street via Netgalley.
About Mindy Hung
Mindy Hung‘s essays and articles have appeared in The Toast, Salon, The New York Times, and many other publications. Her short (often very short) fiction has appeared in Joyland, PANK, and The New Quarterly. She received a New York Foundation for the Arts fiction fellowship in 2010. Her literary novel, Trip, was published in 2012 by Outpost19.