We were on vacation in New York City last week. We spent seven days wandering around, seeing sights, navigating the subway, and having our senses overloaded with new images, good food and interesting characters. One thing I realized during the trip is how much what I do for a living informs how I experience the world around me, especially new places. I had grown up visiting NYC on field trips with school and scouts, and on occasional family trips, but most of the places we went on this trip were new for me. And at every spot I had a children's book to associate with it.
I had a few must-sees for the trip, the 9/11 Memorial being one of them. It was an emotional experience, as I suspected it would be. Matt and I both walked around with tears in our eyes as we viewed the pools that have taken the place of the towers and read the names of those who lost their lives. I have visited the Vietnam Memorial in DC a handful of times, and it struck me how much more visceral my response was to the 9/11 Memorial. They are very similar experiences, reading names of the dead carved in stone. But having lived through 9/11, having watched it unfold on TV, and having experienced the aftermath gave me a different association with the Memorial. We did not take a family picture at the Memorial. It didn't feel right to pose together with smiles on our faces in this place that made us feel so somber, despite the many families around us doing just that. I couldn't help, though, thinking of some of the children's books that I pull off the shelves each September. We visited just a week after Nick Wallenda walked across the Grand Canyon on a tightrope. Since that image was in my head, I thought of the book The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein about Phillipe Petit who walked a tightrope between the World Trade Center Towers in 1974. And I thought of the many who came to help that day, some of which are written about in Maira Kalman's Fireboat about the John J. Harvey and her crew who were called into service. They are both stories about determination and hope and the indomitable spirit that our nation showed during the tragedy of 9/11.
Another must-see, for me, was the New York Public Library. Fortuitously, the day we visited was the last day they had the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights on display, documents that are rarely on show simultaneously. That was another emotional experience, seeing these two documents, written hundreds of years ago, that are the foundation of the freedoms that are at the heart of who we are as a country. Visiting on the heels of the recent Supreme Court Rulings concerning DOMA and California's Proposition 8, I was reminded that, though our laws do not always reflect it, our country was founded on the principles of equality and fairness and eventually we will figure out how to apply those beliefs to every one of our citizens. Also at the time of our visit to the NYPL, there was a special exhibit on children's books called The ABC of It: Why Children's Books Matter. It was an historical perspective on the importance of children's books to childrens' development and how they have evolved and been used over the past couple hundred years to educate, indoctrinate and entertain. Examples of English 18th century readers were on display along with books from other countries and comic books from earlier this century. They also had examples of original artwork by illustrators. I pointed out to Isaac an especially complicated collage by Ashley Bryan so he could see what the picture looks like before it shows up as a flat image in the book Let It Shine. Throughout the exhibit the curators had posted quotes from educational theorists and explanations of the evolution of how children's books are seen to fit into a child's education and emotional development. That visit was very affirming for me -- the two exhibits reminded me to be hopeful that Isaac will one day live in a country that truly does give all of its people their God-given rights and to be thankful for the opportunity to be in a profession whose purpose is to share the joy of books with children.
The Highline was a must-see for both Matt and I, having heard about it on NPR, read about it online and been told about it by friends who live in the city. It is a reclaimed rail line that has been made into a public park. To me, it is a wonderful example of how the initiative of a few people can take root and become a movement that benefits all. It is another example of a place that is filled with hope and a spirit of determination. There isn't anything to do on The Highline but walk and sit and soak up the atmosphere. Outside the edges of the park the bustle of the city was taking place, but inside the boundaries was a calm oasis created by and for the people to preserve the city's history and offer respite from its present. I remembered the book Home by Jeannie Baker. It is a wordless book that tells the story of a family that moves into a run-down city neighborhood and slowly helps transform it into a vibrant community where trees grow, children play in grass-filled yards and neighbors help and support each other. It is about community, and I think that is what the Highline is about -- finding and preserving community.
Matt and I were doing most of the planning on the trip -- deciding where we would go and when. But Isaac had a couple of must-sees, as well. One of his was the American Museum of Natural History. He specifically wanted to visit the Planetarium. I was interested in visiting, too -- that was one place that I had visited as a child that I wanted to experience again, and there was a book connection that I had in my mind the entire time we were there. Finally after watching Journey to the Stars, seeing various exhibits on ancient cultures, and viewing the Squid and the Whale, I told Matt I had to find the wolf diorama. If you have read Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick then you know the importance of this exhibit to the story. If you have not read it, I will not give it away. But seeing the actual diorama and remembering the narrator's description of it from the book brought the story alive for me in a new way. That was one of my geekier moments on the trip. I think I could have walked straight to that small hallway, viewed the wolves, and walked right back out and felt like I had gotten my money's worth from my visit. But I think that is something that books do for us -- they help us experience the world around us, sometimes by broadening our perspective and other times by helping us hone in on specific experiences. I may not remember anything else from our visit to the AMNH, but I will remember those wolves.
We filled our days in NYC and visited other spots. Another must-see for Isaac was a baseball game. We opted for a minor league Brooklyn Cyclones game over the Yankees or the Mets. And I was reciting "Casey at the Bat" in my head while we watched the game. We chose to go to the Prospect Park Zoo rather than travel out to The Bronx Zoo, and I was picturing Mo Willems' Knuffle Bunny books since we were in his neighborhood. Matt had to visit the Museum of the Moving Image and the old film equipment brought to mind another Brian Selznick book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. We were guided around the Metropolitan Museum of Art by our friend who works there and, of course, I was thinking of Konigsburg's classic book From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.
And then there was the night, July 4th, when the friends we were staying with fired up the charcoal grill, Isaac and I played badminton in the backyard, Isaac caught fireflies in a mason jar, and we all ran down the street following the music of the ice cream truck. We listened to the fireworks going off around the neighborhood, enjoyed the company of friends, and relaxed in lawn chairs until Isaac declared it was time for bed. It was a peaceful evening in the middle of a busy, adventure-filled week. And it was just about perfect.