The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books Image
Big Picture Image
Cover illustration
See permission.
The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

High, Linda Oatman Under New York;by Linda Oatman High; illus. by Robert Rayevsky. Holiday House, 2001. [30p]
ISBN 0-8234-1551-1   $16.95    5-8 yrs

Picture books about famous cities sometimes have that in-crowd feeling, the sense that they are aimed at an audience that is already familiar with the locale. Presumably, this intended audience can recognize and appreciate the city's features and their interpretation in words and pictures. Sometimes that inside-story feeling is mitigated by an irresistible protagonist like Hilary Knight's Eloise, but titles that feature the city itself as the main character, like this one, tend to err on the side of the touristy, with postcard-pretty pictures of obvious choices.

Welcome to a tour of the Big Apple, above and below ground. High's Under New York is neither touristy nor obvious. The opening lines limn the geology below the city ("Under New York,/ below skyscrapers and moonshine and sky,/ there are stones and sand, clay, and lots of big rocks/ made by glaciers, millions of years ago"); the text then segues into descriptions of assorted underground activities. The author packs the book with the concrete details that children find compelling, and her words, colored with childlike enthusiasm, depict the city as a place worth exploring. The free verse is rhythmic and enthralling, with strong imagery that imbues it with a certain urban intensity: "Under New York,/ below taxicabs and tour buses and carriage horses,/ there are railroad tracks and trains whizzing past,/ clattering fast,/ bringing visitors to the city and taking them home again"; "Under New York,/ below sidewalks and manholes and streets,/ there are roaring machines and open elevators,/ ladders and shafts and workers,/ making new tunnels for water."

That sense of childlike enthusiasm comes through with commendable clarity in Rayevsky's mixed-media (paint, photo-collage, ink) illustrations. Double-spread bleeds on matte-finish paper feature thick, sans-serif type in ivory, black, or white, depending on the background. The palette features primarily earthy hues (lots of olive green and harvest gold) that contrast with the industrial strength black and concrete gray used for architecture and infrastructure. The stylized array of images range from energetic views of the city streets to surreal settings featuring the seething activity going on beneath the city's surface.

The split perspective (each spread is divided by a horizontal line separating top and bottom) shows both above and below ground: above is the bustle of busy streets, commerce, people, traffic; below is a different sort of bustle that includes shops, subways, sewers, "and once, an alligator,/ reported The New York Times in 1935." On selected spreads the illustrative divisions between above and below are thematically related to the text: piano keys divide a park above from the jazz club below; directional signage provides the break between a busy "upside" intersection and the subway beneath. The art captures a city both obvious and mysterious; dynamic curves add energy and verve to compositions that present specific details of the environment in free-flowing geometric shapes. Rough but effective caricatures in strokes of black highlighted with spots of color represent the city's industrious citizens, the figures characterized by the graceful sweep of their defining lines and dashes of facial features. The child-friendly endpapers open with a kid's drawing of the city complete with crayon scrawls and stick figures and close with a New York City subway map with some fanciful decorations (chugging train, parent and child).

A concluding addendum, "(Some) Notes from Underground," gives additional specifics about the different types of activities that go on under New Yorkers' unsuspecting feet. High's words and Rayevsky's images invite children to widen their horizons by showing them an alternative way of seeing. This is a visually arresting, concept-stretching, imaginative introduction to life in the big city that is certain to spark some archaeological leanings in listeners.

-- Janice M. Del Negro, Editor

Big Picture Image
April's Bulletin cover illustration by Robert Rayevsky
from Under New York,
Copyright 2001. Used by permission of Holiday House.

[Back to the Bulletin Homepage] [Back to the Bulletin Archives]

This page was last updated on April 1, 2001.