The Streetsblog Guide to Children’s Books

Indoctrinate your kids into the joys of buses, bikes, and car-free streets!

Panels from "City Block," by Christopher Franceschelli.
Panels from "City Block," by Christopher Franceschelli.

Kids get bombarded by car culture early. Almost the minute a baby is born — if it’s a boy anyway — cars and trucks are likely to become part of his wardrobe. Then his toys, and then his books.

There are a huge number of children’s books that dwell on subjects related to streets, mobility, and city living. But if you want your child to be exposed to more expansive ideas of what streets and transportation are all about, what are your options?

I put out the call on Twitter last week to see what everyone recommends, and people came through in a big way. Here’s our crowdsourced list of hidden gems, classics that hold up surprisingly well, and books that may not convey the message you’re after but can lead to an interesting talk with your kids.

The Busiest Street in Town

busiest street

Of the whole bunch, this lesser-known book is the strongest expression of the idea that streets belong to people instead of cars.

Mara Rockliff tells the story of two older ladies who are friends but live on opposite sides of a busy street, Rushmore Boulevard. One day, Agatha tries to visit Eulalie but is frustrated by the traffic. So frustrated that brings her easy chair outdoors and sets it in the middle of the street. Eulalie decides to join her, with ginger snaps, for a game of Parcheesi. Eventually the idea catches on and children start playing in the street, they have a big street party, and people displace cars.

“It took a while” to drive down Rushmore Boulevard after that “but no one minded.” Because “if you drove too fast,” you couldn’t smell the flowers, or hear the mariachi band, or eat cookies from Agatha.

In the end, the street is renamed “Walker Road.”

My son loved it. So many kids’ books are told from the perspective of the car or the driver, and racing fast is the whole objective. This conveys a very different idea that I think can resonate at a very young age if they already do a fair amount of walking.

The Last Stop on Market Street

last stop on market streetA boy named C.J. waits for the bus with his grandmother and then rides through San Francisco meeting all sorts of different, interesting people (and a spotted dog) in Matt de la Pena’s book. Throughout, the grandma helps C.J. understand his encounters.

At one point, C.J. asks why they don’t have a car. She replies: “Boy what do we need a car for? We got a bus that breathes fire.”

This is one lovable grandma and an A+ children’s book.

City Blockcity block

Christopher Franceschelli’s City Block is a great one for younger kids, with lots of multi-modal transportation. The characters, two children and their grandfather, spend the first half of the book trying to figure out how to get around the “big city”: walking, bus, ferry, taxi — even a helicopter — but a personal car is never mentioned.

The rest of the book is devoted to chronicling all the fun things for kids to do in the city: Go to the Natural History Museum, visit the library, hit up the farmer’s market, eating at a taco truck. You come away with a sense that it’s fun to get around and hang out in a city.

The Pushcart War

pushcart war

In this book by Jean Merrill, a war takes place in New York City. The aggressors are trucks, which keep growing bigger and more intimidating, and the resource at stake is the streets.

The story is meant to serve as an allegory about how wars begin. But it also hews pretty close to the real process by which “motordom” came to dominate city streets — by bullying people like the book’s pushcart flower dealer out of the way. The plot includes politicians afraid to challenge the dominance of large trucks, industry lobbyists who work to manipulate the public’s perspective for their own ends, and other types that will be recognizable to parents versed in urban transportation history.

The Little House

little house

Told from the perspective of a country house that becomes enveloped by the city, this one is very contentious among our Twitter followers. Some think it glorifies sprawl. Others see it as a cautionary tale about the dangers of sprawl.

The Little House is perfectly happy until slowly the city creeps up. One day “horseless carriages” arrive. Then construction crews come and add a road through the “hill covered with daisies.” Soon the house is surrounded by apartment buildings. “She didn’t know whether she liked it or not,” and she misses the rural countryside.

The house remains a rural cottage even once the subways and high-rises move in. But eventually she gets put on a truck and moved out of the city. And “never again would she be curious about the city or want to live there again.”

Having finally read this book, written in 1942 by Virginia Lee Burton, I agree with the argument that it’s very anti-urban. But it is informative about the attitudes that stoked sprawl, if you’re ready to get into urban vs. suburban politics with your kid.

Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go

cars and trucks and things

For a book with cars and trucks in the title, this classic is surprisingly multi-modal. The heroine is a female bike cop who chases down a reckless driver (a dog named Dingo). Throughout the book, cars and construction vehicles and buses and trains and bikes and motorcycles (and pickle cars and donut cars and alligator cars) share the road. Sometimes it’s messy. It’s kind of like an adorable Mad Max.

Written in 1974, it reminds you how monotonous our cars-first transportation system has become. If only driving, or biking, or being on the road were actually as fun as this book.

Thomas the Tank Engine

thomas the tank engine There are lots of trains in these books, but your kids can’t really pick up a flavor for city transportation by reading them.

On the Island of Sodor, they use trains to transport literally everything. It’s a utopia for rail nerds, but how does the railroad stay solvent with so few people around? Like so many things in this idiosyncratic series, it’s a bit of a mystery.

Blackout

Moody-sub-jumbo

When the lights go out in New York, a family — and the whole city — stops being “busy” and starts enjoying each other’s company. The protagonist and her family head up to their rooftop where a spontaneous moonlit block party is underway. Then they make their way down to the streets. Children play in an open hydrant and people sit on their stoops playing music. No need to be afraid of the dark when your neighborhood is there to take care of you.

Honorable mentions

Cycle Citythe Ultimate Book of CitiesGoodnight, Goodnight Construction SiteThe Great New York Subway Map, and many others.

  • macartney

    THE STREETS ARE FREE by Kurusa:

    “This inspiring book is based on the true story of the children of the barrio of San Jose de la Urbina in Caracas, Venezuela. There are no parks where they live, and the children must play in the streets. They ask the mayor for an empty lot to build a playground, but all they get are campaign promises. They know that they are the only ones who will make something happen, so they get their friends and family involved until the whole barrio unites to create a space of their own.”

  • This is great.

  • Joe R.

    Get kids of both sexes into playing with model trains instead. Besides being a lot more interesting than toy cars, trains offer the opportunity for lots of creativity building a layout. We just need more contemporary train models out there. I can easily see why an F7 and heavyweight passenger cars might not hold much interest to a kid who doesn’t see those things in real life. But give them a model TGV or Shinkansen or even ACS-64 pulling Amfleets and they have something they might relate to. Or better yet how about more models of contemporary subway trains? And of course there’s lots of contemporary freight models out there. Those are interesting in their own right. They also let kids see how they fit into a larger transportation system.

  • AstoriaBlowin

    Thanks for this list! When my son was born we got about 4 copies of The Little Blue Truck, which seems to be a current favorite. The first line though is “Horn went beep, engine purred, the friendliest sound you ever heard!” I read that and was like WTF! The sound of a truck engine is friendly?

  • qrt145

    One of my favorites is “Walk Rabbit Walk” by Colin McNaughton and Elizabeth Attenborough.

    Rabbit and his friends are invited by Eagle for tea. Rabbits walks, while the other animals all choose fancy modes (balloon, helicopter, car, motorcycle, skates…). Spoiler alert: Rabbit gets there first! “Sometimes it’s quicker to walk.”

    ://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/e8bd761834c404fea910f07f9a3e6485b224da9d54279a912511b3e1d3bc39ef.jpg

  • I’ll add Spot’s Parking Spot to this list:

    https://www.amazon.com/Spots-Parking-Lot-Bridget-Brown/dp/096724661X

    Look at the blurb!

    A terrier considers alternative uses for parking spaces in a parking lot. Whether trikes, tables, vegetables, beagles, books, or benches, quite a lot could fit in those spots. “Spot’s Parking Lot will not only entertain children but also subtly inform them about cities, economics, and the environment,” writes Donald Shoup, author of The High Cost of Free Parking.

  • Hilda

    My kids loved:

    ‘Room on the Broom’, and we often referenced it when we piled onto our long tail, to see how much we could bring.
    https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/286665/room-on-the-broom-by-julia-donaldson-illustrated-by-axel-scheffler/9780142501122/

    We used to read ‘Mrs. Armitage on Wheels’, a lady who trips out her bike (best read with an English Accent)

    Some really good lines, plus amazingly morbid and catastrophic drawings (loved by children always!) from Roald Dahl’s Guide to Railway Safety:

    ‘It was a lovely world to live in, but now the motor car has ruined
    it. It has also, to some extent, ruined us. Everyone goes everywhere by
    car these days, and perhaps in a few hundred years from now our
    great-great-great grandchildren will be born with hardly any legs at all
    because they won’t have any use for them.’

    Looking back, evidently, we embraced daredevils and tinkerers…

  • Brandon

    “The Little Blue Truck Goes to the City” takes it a step further. it describes the city as fast and rude, while the truck is the friendly hero. I not sure I could list all the anti-urban misconception in that book. The main premise is that the city is too hectic so the truck suggest all the vehicles go in a single file line (and of course the bus goes last in line).

  • dave “paco” abraham

    This article and comment feed is my favorite Streetsblog post to date.

  • I am partial to Zachariah OHora’s “No Fits, Nilson,” where the family takes the F train about halfway through the book.

    http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/798132168

  • Carl Abbott

    “Make Way for Ducklings” surely deserves a mention for shared streets.

    For the anti-urban dimension of “The Little House,” see https://www.citylab.com/life/2017/12/revisiting-an-anti-urban-childrens-story-everyone-loves/547922/

  • Southeasterner

    Last Stop on Market Street is by far my son’s (3 years old) favorite book…and we were skeptical he would even like it! My favorite quote “Boy what do we need a car for? We got a bus that breathes fire…” and all the kids are out “hopping curbs on bikes.”

    Bizarrely rereading my childhood environmental books, led by Dr. Seuss, there are a lot of references to cars – One Fish Two Fish – “I would never walk I would take a car.” gets censored when I read it to my son.

  • AMH

    These are great! I’ve been on the lookout for good children’s books to read to my friends’ kids when they come over. To these I would add the classic Mo Willems book, “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!”

  • Joe Linton

    I have that line crossed out and re-written in our copy of OFTF

  • Joe Linton
  • Joe Linton

    I tend to see a fairly broad pro-suburban bias in kids books – it’s not easy finding books that look like they take place in a city. Here are a few city books that I like: Abuela
    (by Arthur Dorros, Elisa Kleven), Subway (by Anastasia Suen, Karen Katz), A Chair for My Mother (by Vera B. Williams), and various by Ezra Jack Keats. They’re not all about streets, but there are little things like neighbors knowing and helping each other. As a committed bicyclist, I enjoy The Bear’s Bicycle (by Emilie Warren McLeod, David McPhail) and Anatole (by Eve Titus and Paul Galdone)

  • dsg

    Is Last Stop on Market Street canonically set in SF? I’ve been trying to figure that out for months…

  • Jen

    You need to add The Busiest Street in Town, which is basically intro to tactical urbanism for kids 🙂

  • I remember loving The Pushcart War when I was little. Later it occurred to me that you cannot take out a truck with a push-pin.

  • qedestrian

    Such a great story, thanks! I like Christoph Niemann’s Subway quite a bit: http://www.christophniemann.com/books/subway/

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