Books Early Readers Genre Lifespan of a Reader Memoirs, Biographies, and Constructed Narratives Nonfiction

Graphic Memoirs of New York City

"Bolivar" by Sean Rubin, "NY is for New York" by Paul Thurlby, "Lost in NYC" by Nadja Spiegelman and Sergio Garcia Sanchez, and "Going Into Town: A Love Letter To New York" by Roz Chast.

Myra here.

Our current reading theme is on memoirs and biographies and narratives written in the first person. As I was researching for possible books to include (and there are so many of them), I realize that it’s also important to pay tribute to memoirs of a place, whereby a place is elevated to the position of a character with its distinct feel, vibe, texture. New York City is one such place that inspires personalized tributes and memoir-types of narratives as can be seen below.


Bolivar

Written and Illustrated by: Sean Rubin
Published by: Archaia (2017)
ISBN: 1684150698 (ISBN13: 9781684150694). Book was borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

Ithought, initially, that this was a 32-paged picturebook when i asked my daughter to find it in the library. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was a 224-paged illustrated tome of a book that is not, technically, a memoir, but more like a portraiture of a city as seen through the eyes of a child, and well, a dinosaur.

I was in awe of the exquisitely designed pages of this book that indicated how a city can be so preoccupied with its own busy-ness that something as huge as a dinosaur can simply go unnoticed, except by young observant Sybil.

Naturally, everyone ignores her: from her extremely distracted mother to her teacher who can not seem to be bothered. The first few pages actually reminded me a little bit of Florence Parry Heide and Edward Gorey’s The Shrinking of Treehornwhereby adults are portrayed as completely oblivious to everything that is going on around them.

Naturally, our young protagonist is determined to capture Bolivar in action, something which she found increasingly easy to do since she knows all his routines – from purchasing the papers in the morning, to eating corned beef sandwiches and tonic water with lime, to rummaging through used bookstores.

I believe the strength of this book lies in that shared secret understanding with Sybil that hey, Bolivar does exist. He is not a figment of her over active imagination, nor is he an imaginary friend. The adults are simply obtuse and too wrapped up with their own sense of self-importance and patronizing manner to really see, listen, and pay attention.

In fact, the entire city is too consumed with its own hectic vibe – places to go, things to do, music to make, money to spend, museums to visit, parks to explore – to give a giant, gentle dinosaur the time of the day, never mind that he assumes the role of the Mayor.

If anything, it reminds me that people would see what they wish to see, regardless of what is out there in front of them. Whether or not Bolivar would eventually be truly seen, I shall leave for you to discover. This is a thrilling read of a book, that shows the spirit of the city and its bright young inhabitants, including supposedly-extinct dinosaurs.


Lost In NYC: A Subway Adventure

Written by: Nadja Spiegelman Illustrated by: Sergio Garcia Sanchez
Published by: Toon Graphics (2015)
ISBN: 1935179810 (ISBN13: 9781935179818)Book was borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

Being lost in new york city is, most likely, every country folk’s worst nightmare. We have been to New York City twice, and getting lost has been par for the course, it simply is part of the adventure. But, see, we are city folks. Having grown up in the crowded, relatively-insane, and mostly-unsafe streets of Manila, and having lived for the past ten years in the city-state of extremely dense (not to mention, humid) Singapore – traveling around Manhattan isn’t as challenging for our family.

This graphic novel focuses primarily on the story of young Pablo, who has just moved to New York with his family. Given that this is Pablo’s sixth school in his pretty young life, he adopts this indifferent, annoying, pre-adolescent-couldn’t-care-less attitude. Fortunately (or unfortunately) for him, the first day in his new school is marked by a field trip to the Empire State Building, necessitating a subway ride.

A very kind classmate, Alicia, volunteered to be Pablo’s field trip partner. While Alicia was pleasant and patient throughout, Pablo was just insufferably sullen and glum throughout, which led to their being lost in the subway as they were on their way to the Empire State Building.

I like how despite the fictional nature of the narrative, the attention to geographical detail and facts concerning this commuter’s-nightmare-of-a-story, based on New Yorkers’ reviews and accounts, remains true and authentic. What struck me the most, however, was the sheer density of the people captured in the following images:

I can feel my heart beating fast in the above full-page spread, the anxiety, the panic, the frenzied movements that inevitably lead to one’s getting hopelessly lost.

New York City has been described as a city that never sleeps. And the image above, I suppose, is a testament to this truth. There are just so many people, so much to do, so many places to see, so many avenues and cross-streets to get lost in. Whether or not Pablo and Sybil find each other, and their class – I shall leave for you to discover. This is still worth reading, despite Pablo’s apparent irritation at his family which he so conveniently took out on a potential new friend who did nothing but be nice to him. Their being “Lost in NYC” is totally on him. 🙂


Going Into Town: A Love Letter To New York

Written and Illustrated by: Roz Chast
Published by: Bloomsbury (2017)
ISBN: 1620403218 (ISBN13: 9781620403211)Book was borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

among all the graphic novels featured here, this is perhaps the one that fits the “memoir” bit perfectly. Roz Chast grew up in Brooklyn, but decided to stay in one of the nearby suburban areas an hour north of Manhattan when she had her own family. Among the reasons she cited for making the move to Republican-type area was their having had it with the crack epidemic during the 90s, the free and excellent public schools near their new home, and the huge space that they have for a significantly cheaper amount compared to the two-bedroom walk-up that they had in Brooklyn.

While she is a city-girl at heart, this was a pragmatic choice that she felt would ultimately be for the betterment of the family’s all-around well-being. And so she created this sort-of-guide-but-not-quite of New York, originally for her daughter who was about to attend college in Manhattan after living in Tree-owning, sprawling Suburbia for most of her life.

I especially appreciated those little facts as noted above, with the streets and avenues all laid out in a grid. While I know this, theoretically, we did have Google Maps the couple of times we went to New York, it would have still been better to really have this kind of insider knowledge and advice, rather than having had to experience walking through quite a number of avenues in biting November weather, thinking that the distance was quite similar from one street to the next (true story, this).

While the memoir was written from an insider’s intimate knowledge of the city and its ins-and-outs and its overall layout, with the predictable facetious tolerance for the foreigner and the tourist (see above), it still remained pretty inviting. There was a genuine attempt in Chast to share her city to the outsider, rather than claim absolute territorial knowledge of it (I am the only who knows my city kind of vibe) that could have turned out to be off-putting, but didn’t.

I especially loved a few of the pages that included actual photographs, as seen above. While there was an attempt at objective detachment in the narrative, it is meant to be somewhat-of-a-guide that was meant to be relatively-useful after all, I like it when she allowed the reader a few glimpses of how besotted she remains about her city:

I also found myself smiling when she noted how her parents would claim that they were “going into town” even when they technically only lived an hour or so away from Manhattan. This is exactly what my family and I say whenever we go to downtown Singapore; we live in the Western outskirts, practically in Malaysia, that friends would claim they are going to another country when they visit us.

For anyone who is about to visit New York for the first time, or visiting yet again, or currently living in the city, or just plain enamoured with its living, breathing vibe – find this book. It is, indeed a love letter to the city.


NY Is For New York

Written and Illustrated by: Paul Thurlby
Published by: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky (2017)
ISBN: 1492654655 (ISBN13: 9781492654650). Book was borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

Among all the graphic memoirs I am featuring here, i have to say that this is one of my favourites (next to bolivar). This one has the feel of Miroslav Sasek’s travelogues (see Sasek’s This Is New York), except that this one feels more like a designer, coffee-table, type of book – except it’s made for children – how infinitely cool is that.

Each full-page spread features an iconic landmark in New York City. I took photos of the places my family and I have not visited yet while in the city. If anything, it left me with a hankering to return. As seen in the image above, one could see how the layout of the font, the details of the place, and the artwork all come together so seamlessly in such a sophisticated, exquisitely designed fashion.

While we have been to visit Lady Liberty and seen two plays (Mamma Mia and Les Miserables) during both our visits, we haven’t visited Coney Island yet. Looks like a wondrous place to get lost in: New York’s very own Disneyland.

I am especially intrigued by the High Line, though. While we have been to Bryant and Battery Parks, we have not been to Central Park, nor High Line yet.

Paul Thurlby is a master illustrator who cleverly included little visual codes and clues into his design. In fact, in the Author’s Afterword, he noted that he embedded a gorilla in each of the pages. Naturally, I had to re-read the entire thing all over again to find it. This is perfect for your young wanderer who would like to travel places through the pages of a book, or for the budding designer who could definitely learn a thing or two from the way Thurlby juxtaposed his information alongside the names of the places and its details. A must-read, especially for NY enthusiasts.


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