I went to a tiny private school, and my school library was the size of a Starbucks. I owned it. I was familiar with every book on every shelf, and my reading record can be traced by the names on each book’s library borrowing card, slipped into its manilla sleeve. You’ll know my favorites because my name is listed over and over again. I have fond memories especially of late elementary and middle school and the books I loved: the Nancy Drew series, Fifteen and The Luckiest Girl by Beverly Cleary, Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You, The Babysitters’ Club, anything by Lois Lowry or Cynthia Voight, and countless more that I can remember the cover and shelf position of, but the title eludes me. I need to revisit that library, because in twenty-ish years it likely hasn’t changed, and I’d love to be reacquainted with more of those schoolday favorites.
Had The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser been in my school’s library, it would not have spent much time on those worn shelves. My name would have filled every line on its borrowing card. (Okay, middle schoolers– this is how we checked out books in the dark ages. Google it and bear with me.) The Vanderbeekers are a lively family with a mom, a dad, five spirited children, a dog, a cat, and a bunny. Their home, a brownstone in Harlem, rounds out the family.
But will it forever? The driving force behind the scenes of this story is the fact that the Vanderbeekers’ landlord has informed them that he will not renew their lease at the end of the year– eleven days away. (Their landlord is also known as The Biederman, a perfect depiction of a mysterious, reclusive foe who becomes larger than life to young imaginations.) In true sibling fashion, the Vanderbeeker kids, ranging in age from 12 to 4, take it upon themselves to concoct a brilliant plan to change his mind, as a secret Christmas present to their parents, of course.
What follows this crisis are 290 pages of hilarious antics, witty dialogue, childhood angst, wise parenting, and a sense of enveloping community so strong you’ll have the urge to bake cookies for everyone in your neighborhood. (And we did! See below.) The characters are unique and evolving, the themes are relevant to the age group and our modern world. The brownstone is truly a character in its own right, reacting to the goings on of its inhabitants with creaks, groans, and cheeky puffs of steam from its radiators.The author’s own pen and ink drawings illustrate its beloved walls throughout the book.
What I love most about Yan Glaser’s delightful story is the extended family: the neighborhood friends, the upstairs “grandparents,” the mailman, the bakers, the music teacher, the stray animals. All of Harlem comes together to aid the Vanderbeeker children in their quest, proving that a family is not defined by blood, and a home is not limited to four walls.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Add to this the fact that it is set at Christmastime, and you have the perfect Christmas gift for the young (or not so young) readers in your life. I had the privilege of meeting Karina Yan Glaser at this year’s Texas Book Festival and interview her. Please enjoy this Q&A about the inspiration behind The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street!
Thank you so much for talking with me. I have to start by saying that I loved your book. It took me right back to middle school and all of the books that I loved, especially the ones with big families like the Vanderbeekers… Five Little Peppers and How they Grew, Little Women, etc. Does your inspiration come from your own background?
I definitely love those older stories with lots of kids, but no, I have one older brother who’s a year and a half older than me. I think I always wanted that, though. When I was growing up and reading those books, I was amazed by all of the hustle and bustle of the families and all of the action. My family was pretty quiet. My parents were immigrants from China when they came here and we were pretty isolated. So, I always imagined that we lived in a place where people were in and out of our house and we had lots of family in and out, but because of being new and my parents getting adjusted to living in a new place (we grew up in California in the suburbs), I think we were the only Asian family there, it was very different, very isolated. I think I drew more on what my family is like now. So busy and sometimes hectic– always something going on!
Community is a strong theme in the book, and I’ve heard you talk a lot about the vibe of city life. You live there yourself. Tell me more about raising a family in the city and the community you’ve found there.
Well, Harlem is an amazing place. People are just so friendly. When we first moved into our building, it was a new construction. It’s not a brown stone– it’s a building with over 70 units. So, all of us were moving into it at the same time. It was so great because everyone was a first-time apartment owner and first time living in a co-op, so there was such a great sense of community– knocking on people’s door and getting to know everyone and so forth. And then outside on our street, it’s such a beautiful place. There are two churches, and a school and a park… it’s really nice. We’ve lived there now for eight years and it’s a great place to raise my kids. Now they walk out to the street and they hug the crossing guard. If they see the superintendent out washing down the sidewalks they’ll give him a high-five or play a game of tag with him. I love it and I think it’s so important because we live in NYC, where it’s so easy to be anonymous. I don’t want my kids to grow up thinking that they weren’t seen.
In the book, it seems that the community resembles a small town, where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Do you find that true in the city, or do you still have to put yourself out there?
It’s somewhat true! I still think you have to put yourself out there. There are certainly people in the building who pretty much keep to themselves. I guess with Mr. Biederman in the book, what I was thinking about was how living in a multi-family building affects your neighbors. When we moved into our current building, I was worried about moving with kids because kids are loud and they like to run and bounce balls. I was worried especially about who our downstairs neighbor would be. That unit was vacant for a long time, and when I heard that someone was moving in, I had to know everything about him. I think I even baked him cookies, and I wrote him a note introducing ourselves and told him to let us know if we were ever a bother. I met him at a neighborhood get-together, and he was like, “Oh, I don’t mind noise at all. I like the hustle and bustle of the city,” and I thought, “Oh, my gosh– that’s so great!” For the book, it really made me think about how important those relationships are, and how they can really impact your living satisfaction.
What were your name inspirations for the book?
Four years ago, I wrote the manuscript for the Vanderbeekers during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I was getting really nervous about it leading up to November because I really didn’t know what I was going to write. A few days before Nov. 1st, I woke up in the middle of the night and I knew the first sentence of my novel, and it included the name Vanderbeeker. It was the sentence about how the Vanderbeeker home was not boring and not predictable… that one. I’m not sure what in my subconsciousness was happening to give me that name, but that’s how I got Vanderbeeker. Oliver is the name of the son of a family friend. Jessie and Isa, I have no idea! Hyacinth… I had her name for a while. I was taking a children’s book class and the teacher wanted us to brainstorm names and Hyacinth was one of mine. I always knew that I’d use it sometime. Laney, I don’t know. So many of the names were just placeholders, and I either changed them eventually, or they just stuck around. Oliver’s friend Jimmy O. came from my childhood. We had a friend who’s name was Jimmy Lee, and he was always called Jimmy Lee. I was thinking about why people always called him by his full name. Then, I sort of forgot that it was in there. You know, it’s such a long process, all of the writing and revisions and production– and I just forgot. Just a few days ago, I saw him and he congratulated me on the book and said, “Am I in it?” and I suddenly remembered and said, “Actually, yes! Your name is in it! I hope you don’t mind.”
I’ve read reviews that compare Mr. Biederman to a modern day Scrooge. Was that your plan? Why did you set the story at Christmastime?
It wasn’t. I did see that in some reviews people were comparing the book to A Christmas Carol. It was never in the back of my mind, and I think it’s interesting that it comes up. I see it now, why people may have related to that, and I’m honored that people think that, but, no– it didn’t inspire my story. I set it at Christmas because it seemed that the end of the year was a plausible deadline for the lease renewal. And the holidays are fun to write about! Winter is generally terrible in New York, but by Christmas, most people still aren’t tired of it. There hasn’t been a ton of snow, and the city is so beautiful with the lights and the decorations. There’s still that magic in the air. I feel that the Vanderbeekers are a family who love Christmas and all of the traditions that they keep as a family. Also, I think that people can relate to the tension that comes during the holiday season anyway, let alone with a problem like the Vanderbeekers are facing. Maybe, too, because I was writing it in November, Christmas was on my mind.
Tell me a little more about the editing process.
I had a great editor who really helped me through the process of paring it down. When I first submitted it, it was around 68,000 words, which is really hefty for middle grade. I remember that she didn’t have a lot of notes about the story, but she had a lot to say about the length! She really encouraged me to cut down. So I cut lots of favorite scenes, which was painful, but in the end, I felt that it really worked well for the middle grade reader; something that just keeps moving. I remember her saying, “See if you can cut 20,000 words,” and I thought, “Why did you even want this book? That’s like a third of it gone!’ but it was a really interesting exercise. Of course, I cut entire scenes, which would delete 500 or 1,000 words at at time, but I also had to analyze each individual word and decide, does this word add anything to the book? So I think it made me a much better writer, to have to make those cuts and be able to say, “I may like this scene, but what does it do for the story as a whole?”
What was your favorite part of the book to write?
Oh, that’s a good question. I think my favorite part to write was the ending. When I was writing the book, the ending was always what I was writing towards. I knew what the ending was from the beginning, it was just how to get there in a way that made sense.
Did you write the ending early on?
No, I waited to write it until the end. I know a lot of writers who can write out of order, but I can’t do that. I need to write chronologically, because things shift. I don’t like writing it until I get there– maybe because I need to know what comes before it.
Finally, what tips can you give to busy parents who want to read and write more?
Oh, it’s so hard. Of course, it gets easier as the kids get older and are in school. As a New Yorker, I read a lot while commuting. My commute on the train isn’t terribly long, but there’s always a lot of waiting involved. My girls and I always have books with us. I write a lot on the train, too. I’ve found that audio books are really helpful. I can listen to them while cooking, while cleaning, while I’m brushing my teeth and washing my face, and even in the shower! I’m always trying to find ways to squeeze more reading into my day. Writing is hard to make a priority when there are so many household and family things to fill up your days. I remember trying to use nap times when my girls were little. Even when they got too old for naps, we would have a quiet time. It’s really good for our kids to know that mommy also needs time to herself, and it’s okay to not always be interacting with someone else. It’s good for our kids to see us reading, too, that it’s a natural thing. I remember doing that when my girls were younger and thinking, “Am I a bad parent because I’m reading while they are sitting right there?” But now I see how they are such voracious readers, and I attribute that in part to what they saw me model all of those years. I think it came out okay even though I felt guilty then.
Thank you, Karina, for your time and for your wonderful book. We can’t wait to read more of the Vanderbeeker adventures!
Although Mama Vanderbeeker is a pastry chef, the recipe that I knew I had to make was one that embodies the themes of extended family and community in the book. The jam cookies that Miss Josie makes for the Vanderbeeker children whenever they visit their upstairs neighbor remind me of my own grandmother and the awaiting baked goods in her kitchen. We decided to get a head start on our Christmas cookie baking and make these easy and delicious jam thumbprint cookies. (Since we seldom make cookies, this batch– ahem– became a test run for our neighbor gifts, and didn’t quite make it to the freezer.) Toddler approved!
One more thing! Are you ready to go beyond the book? I’ve created a reading guide for The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, designed for the middle grade reader. It includes an icebreaker question, thought-provoking discussion questions, and the recipe for our simple and yummy jam thumbprint cookies. This reading guide is in the Reading Resources Page for Subscribers where all of the book club guides live. Not a subscriber yet? Click below and add your email address, and I’ll send the password right to your inbox.
Already a subscriber? Click here or on the image of the reading guide to go directly to your password-protected page. (Forgotten password? Check your email, or let me know at email@example.com.)