Manhattan: Mapping the Story of an Island (Review)
Updated: Nov 21
Author & Illustrator: Jennifer Thermes
Publisher: Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2019
Interest Age: 8 - 14
Reading Level: Grades 3 - 7; Lexile 1030
Retail: $19.99, hardcover
In many ways, Manhattan: Mapping the Story of an Island is the perfect children's book for me. It shows how things changed over time, uses beautiful maps to do so, provides the history of one of our country's most important cities going back to prehistory, and adds a touch of racial justices. I am not, however, between the ages of 8 and 14, and I am not sure whether a child would love it as much as I do. In many ways, this is a very niche title. My second reaction after the joy of reading it was to worry that not enough people will appreciate this book to keep it in print for very long.
This book chronicles the history of Manhattan Island, starting millions of years before humans even arrived on the scene. It uses maps to show changes to the natural and built landscape as people shaped it. Side notes, functional and beautiful endpapers, and a clever vignette of the Hangman's Elm shown through time on select pages enhance the reading experience. The text is suitable to be read aloud or independently. Difficult, but essential historical topics including displacement of Native Americans, slavery, racism, poverty, and environmental degradation are central threads in the story line rather than footnotes. The illustrations, created by author and map illustrator Jennifer Thames with water color, ink, and colored pencil, are marvelous.
One reading of this book is not enough to take in all of the detail. Every spread has small, sometimes hidden points of interest. The full effect of changes to Manhattan Island can only be appreciated by referring back and forth between maps from different times, looking for familiar place names, seeing how roads that once meandered become straighter, and observing how human order was imposed upon what was once a beautifully textured natural landscape.
I would like to think that every child who finds this book in her hands would love it as much as my younger self would have, but realistically, this book is not for everyone. It will be of most interest to those who live in New York or who have visited it. It will be easier to relate to the timeline for those living in urban rather than rural settings. And the illustration style may seem too simple to children in the older range for which the text is most understandable.
It is difficult for me to find fault with this book. I'll admit I winced a little at the line about the Lenape using "what they needed and nothing more" from the land. The use of the "noble savage" trope in an otherwise deliberately balanced perspective jumped out at me. It's a minor quip. I can't comment on the accuracy of the historical details because I have not conducted research in this geographic area, but the author seems to have done her homework.
I would love to see a series of books following this model for various places in the United States. Not surprisingly, I immediately imagined what a book like this about the City of Tucson would be like. Tucson was built atop a piece of land that was continually occupied for at least 6000 years, and like Manhattan, started out following natural landforms only to have a parallel street network imposed upon it later. The railroad line crossing the city diagonally illustrates how time- and labor-saving efforts of the 1800s had ripple effects on transportation and development for decades to come.
Teaching with this book opens up many possibilities. A project to adapt the book style to a local city or town seems an obvious choice. Manhattan: Mapping the Story of an Island is also an entryway to broader subjects such as immigration, environmental conservation, social inequality, and historic preservation. I would love to hear more ideas. You can get the inside scoop about this this book by watching KidLit TV's interview with author Jennifer Thermes.