Books That Immerse Me in a Better World

We’re in the hot, slow days of summer, that stretch where kids are getting bored and parents start counting down the days till school begins again. When the days feel lazy and long, there is no better time to reach for a book.

A few years ago, a friend recommended Karina Yan Glaser’s award-winning middle-grade Vanderbeeker series, about a family with five kids (and a cat, a basset hound and a bunny) living in a brownstone in Harlem. My family read the first book in the series, “The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street,” together, and have eagerly read each one since. The books are delightful. Glaser, who lives in Harlem, makes the neighborhood seem almost magical, a place where community flourishes and neighbors all know one another by name. I just finished Glaser’s first non-Vanderbeeker novel, “A Duet for Home,” about families who live in a New York City homeless shelter. The last couple of chapters brought me to tears, and I’m looking forward to reading it with my children.

Glaser’s books are not didactic, yet they inspire me to dream of a better sort of world, a world where children are less lonely, a world that feels full of possibility and hope. But my kids would just say something like, “Hey, Mom, don’t be so philosophical about it. They’re just good, fun books.” This is also true. So, in the joyful spirit of summer reading, I asked Glaser if she’d speak to me about books, parenting, faith and the value of community. This interview has been edited and condensed.

In the Vanderbeeker series and in your latest book, kids kind of roam free. When we read about the Vanderbeekers and how the kids walk the streets of New York alone or paint their living room walls without permission or end up acquiring a dilapidated building from a neighbor to surprise their mom with space for her baking business, my kids are always shocked and say, “Mom and Dad, you’d probably kill us if we did that, right?”

The Vanderbeeker parents are much more patient and kind than I am. But I’m inspired when I read about their family. The kids are exploring the city. They’re taking care of pets. They’re with friends and neighbors. They’re learning music. They’re planting gardens. Their lives are full of relationships and community.

I am inspired by some of the books that I loved when I was growing up. For example, “The Saturdays” by Elizabeth Enright is a book that I really love. It’s about these four kids in New York City who decide to pool their allowance. And each week one person will get everyone’s allowance and they’ll go out and have an adventure. The oldest is 13 and the youngest is 6.

I really love that because I love the idea that kids have agency and they have the ability to explore without interference. On the other hand, as a mom who has two kids, I certainly would not have let my 6-year-old just run around the city with cash and decide what they want to do. “The Saturdays” was written a while ago. It was a different time. But in the Vanderbeeker series, I did want to give them freedom.

I do try to put parameters on them. This is not just kids run amok. They have boundaries. They have a sense of what they need to do. And they feel safe on their street, which is something I really did want to convey — that this community was a community that looked out for each other. I really do feel that the street that we live on right now — where my kids have grown up — they know pretty much everyone in the building. In a way, the story is based on that community I found.

I also love how connected the kids in your books are to in-person community and neighbors and to the material world around them. They don’t spend a lot of time on screens. You mention digital technology at moments, but it doesn’t seem to be a big part of their lives. How did you decide how to handle technology in your books?

That was really tricky, because when I was writing the first book I did want to hearken back to those books about families that I loved when I was younger. So, you know, “The Saturdays,” and “All-of-a-Kind Family” by Sydney Taylor, which is a series about a family that’s growing up on the Lower East Side. It was modernizing those big family stories, but also honoring that times are pretty different and technology is a huge part of that. I guess in a way I write into my stories what I try to model for my kids and how I hope that they would want to structure their own days so it’s not consumed by phones.

I think it’s a sense of frustration for them because they are surrounded by people who have unlimited use of their phones. We put a lot of restrictions on them. We are always trying to evaluate how we’re using technology without cutting our kids off from relationships, but also trying to make sure that they’re not dependent on it.

I do think that when you don’t have that reliance on technology, it definitely opens you up to more curious things. And I think that’s also what’s fun about the Vanderbeekers, is that they do get into all these adventures because they aren’t tied to their phones.

Do you feel like you are writing a world that you know or a world as you would like it to be — a better world that you envision in your mind?

I think I do both. There are elements of the books that are very similar to our own lives, and there are elements that I want to model to my kids.

You know, when I’m touring and other parents, they’re like, “Oh my gosh, Mrs. Vanderbeeker is such a role model.” And I always respond, “She’s a role model to me too.” That’s the way I want to respond to my kids. And sometimes I feel really good about the way I’m parenting. And sometimes I feel like I’m not doing it the way I want to. So it’s definitely a mixture in the stories, and it’s maybe a way to process what I envision for a healthy family.

When I was growing up, the reason why I loved these books like “The Saturdays” and “All-of-a-Kind Family” is because they were big families that seemed to really enjoy each other. They seem to have a lot of fun and a lot of adventure. And I grew up in a very quiet family. My parents immigrated from China. We lived in a very quiet neighborhood. There wasn’t a lot of interaction with neighbors or other kids.

To change the topic a bit, your books are not quote-unquote “religious” books. But I’ve noticed that faith comes up regularly in them in very casual ways. The Vanderbeeker kids have a good relationship with a local pastor. They end up forming a community garden on their church property. They say grace over meals. There’s a poignant scene in “A Duet for Home” where children are letting mice they’ve caught go free in a park and the kids pray for the mice.

In your books, faith is not centered in the story but it’s not absent. I found that to be an intriguing creative choice to have faith in the background of these characters’ lives. Can you speak to that, and how you made those choices?

The Vanderbeeker family emulates my own family. And a big part of our family is our faith, so it felt very natural to include those moments in the books. The book isn’t all about it, but it incorporates it as part of family life. Faith instructs me as a mom and how I make decisions. Also, the things that we do to help others is often a reflection of our faith. I feel like maybe when readers read the books, regardless of what faith tradition they’re from, they can recognize similar elements in their own families. In the Vanderbeeker family, the decision to include elements of faith felt very natural. It didn’t even feel as complicated as technology.

I think for me as a writer, the things that compelled me to write stories is that I want to speak authentically. Like, for example, you brought up “A Duet for Home,” when they were releasing the mice and Maybelle wants to pray over them and Tyrell is feeling like, “Oh, we don’t need to pray over them.” But, you know, she speaks authentically from her feeling of worry and the sense of, “I really hope that these animals are OK.” And when she speaks that prayer, I feel like Tyrell can feel his own worries and his own sense that he doesn’t know what the future is going to be like. And in a way, in that moment, they can really relate to each other and there’s a sense of vulnerability between them that came in that moment of prayer.

About four years ago, my family started doing a family read-aloud where we read chapter books together each night. We started with classics like Roald Dahl books and the Narnia series. But we realized one day that we were mostly reading white male authors. I wanted to do a better job of exposing our kids to more of a diversity of authors. When it comes to chapter books, can you recommend books by women and people of color?

First thing is that one of the best ways to get exposure to a lot of different authors — and newer books — is independent bookstores and libraries. They do such a great job highlighting a diversity of books, and they’re always very knowledgeable about more current books that maybe as parents we didn’t grow up with. I didn’t grow up with any books by people of color and it really affected me. It made me feel like stories about people like me were not important and weren’t valid, that I didn’t deserve to be a hero in a story. And I think now all of us who experienced that growing up are writing books because growing up, we felt that we didn’t have stories that we could relate to, so we want our kids to have that.

One of my favorite authors is a woman named Christina Soontornvat. She has a really lovely book that won the Newbery called “A Wish in the Dark.” Mildred D. Taylor’s books: “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” is one of the most well-known ones, but there’s a lot of books in the series. Those books are timeless. And they speak to family life, living in the South and segregation.

A book that we really enjoyed on audio was called “See You in the Cosmos,” by Jack Cheng. And that one is meant to be read aloud, because the story is about how this kid is really inspired by Carl Sagan and his golden record that was shot into space. So he’s got his iPod and he’s recording voice memos of his life and this adventure that he’s going on. Sharon M. Draper is another one of my favorite authors. She has a really great book, maybe for middle school readers, called “Blended.”

There’s just so many great ones.

Community is such a huge part of your books. People know and care about their neighbors. The Vanderbeekers have done a great job of cultivating relationships and community around them. Do you have advice on how to form that sense of community?

One of the things we did was we started a garden in our building. We have this amazing garden where like 17 units participate every year.

And when my kids were young, they wanted to go trick-or-treating in the building. And so we started a Halloween event, and that grew into trick-or-treating plus a party, plus a pumpkin decorating contest.

And we put up a Little Free Library in front of our building, and that has been really wonderful. I think having a dog is really helpful because you have to walk the dog multiple times a day. So that has also been really great to meet people beyond our building.

It’s definitely work. For us, it didn’t just happen naturally. And some years I’m like, “I really don’t want to organize the Halloween event,” or “I don’t want to go buy all these flowers to plant.” But I think when you put in that work, you reap the rewards of it. And my kids benefit from it.

Have feedback? Send a note to [email protected].

Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”

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