Karina Yan Glaser is a writer. Her delightful middle grade book The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street came out this fall and was chosen as one of the New York Times Notable Books of 2017. For a great review, see the New York Times (10/27/17).
What inspired you to write the Vanderbeekers?
I was inspired by children’s books that were written in the 1940s where New York City was a different place in a lot of ways. Bigger families could still live here, and these stories show kids are having a lot of freedom in New York City. There was that sense of community. I loved those stories growing up, which was a lot of the reason why I wanted to move to New York.
When I was first walking around Harlem, I had this intense love for Harlem. I’ve lived in a lot of places in New York, and I love different aspects of them. But raising my kids in Harlem is great because people are very open in a way that I haven’t necessarily seen in other neighborhoods. People still say hi to you even if you’re a stranger. The crossing guards are not solitary; they are very interactive and they love my kids and watch them grow up.
When I was writing the Vanderbeekers I wanted to capture these best parts of Harlem. And of course there are challenges to living here, and we sometimes think wouldn’t be nice to live in Maine or somewhere calm? But part of having community is staying in a community and not leaving. It takes work to cultivate that. In the Vanderbeekers you know the father has lived there his whole life. And there’s this sense that the community belongs to him and he belongs to them. By leaving it would break this relationship he has with everyone. And I wanted to show that in NYC you could have this place where you belong, even though there 8 million people living here and it can still be a place where neighborhoods are flourishing and it’s not always what people think about urban areas and urban decay.
As I was reading your book I had this experience of longing – to live in a community that has more of those rich interpersonal connections. And we can usually only find that only in little bits and pieces. How do you find that in your own life?
It was a criticism of the book that it wasn’t realistic. And that’s true in a lot of ways, but it also is real in a lot of ways. The feeling of when you belong somewhere, and how important that place is. Especially when New York is so transient. Why was it so important for that family to stay in that one place vs we could move away and have more space?
I don’t feel like I’m just creating a castle in the cloud with this book. For our family it has truly been a great experience living in Harlem and there’s something special about that neighborhood and that community where we can feel welcome and we feel like we can contribute and it feels like home.
We were very lucky because our building was new construction, an HPD program in Harlem where they were putting up new buildings and trying to encourage home ownership and people staying in the city. Everyone moved into this building at the same time, 73 units. And there was something special about that. Mostly first time homeowners with similar incomes, but a wide range of people there.
A special community formed because we were all in the boat together. And it’s been really fun to watch the kids grow up there. One of the things about me is I am relentlessly optimistic, and I just want the girls to grow up somewhere they are known. We pursue that really aggressively, by starting things in our building, like a Halloween pumpkin decorating contest. We started a garden in the courtyard where people have plots, there’s a tradition of a garden clean up every spring, and people are out there socializing. We also started a little free library in front of our building where people can take a book and leave a book in what looks like a birdhouse, and we make sure the library is full all the time. We want community, and in New York you have to chase after that.
Another moving theme in your book is the power of the kids, who are able to come together and do something that the adults in their life couldn’t do.
One thing that’s wonderful about being a children’s book author is that we can speak that truth into kids’ lives that they have the power to change. I think it’s an amazing part of being part of that children’s book community, because we all strongly believe that kids have this incredible power. Sometimes as adults we don’t fully understand the power the kids have or don’t allow them to do things that we think are maybe beyond what we think they can do. Reading back to the older children’s literature that inspired me, there are these things that kids do that are amazing that I don’t think is too beyond what I think kids can really do.
Kids need to see not only that, but also they need to see themselves in these stories. In the story the kids are biracial, and how many books can you name off the top of your head that the kids are biracial? I see a lot of that happening now in children’s literature. We’re seeing all these different types of kids, not just white kids but all different types of kids making change in their communities.
Where do you find inspirations for your characters?
One place is with my own kids. In our neighborhood there is a man who sells flowers named Mr. Sunny. He has a van and sets up a table and puts the flowers out and also puts out tables for chess. Every day in good weather he’s out there selling his flowers and there was this one day where he wasn’t there anymore and we wondered where did he go. And it turned out that he didn’t have a license to sell near park property. There was an article in the New York Times and our local paper. My older daughter Kayla was six. She was so distraught because she loved this man, who was always so kind to her. So she wrote a letter to the Parks Department. It took her two hours to write and then we made copies and sent to council members and even the mayor. At the same time other people were doing things to try to help him get his spot. And it turned out he was able to come back. Kayla got a letter back from the Parks deputy, who said he was really touched by her letter and glad we were able to get Sunny his space back.
And so in some ways it’s a little thing but we can stand up for what’s right, and it’s not hopeless. In children’s stories you really do have to keep the parents out of it, otherwise it just becomes a story about how the parents did something to make the kids happy and it’s not very fun. I think that is a reminder to me as well. On my second book my editor kept on saying this is a story about what the kids are doing. The kids are the motivators.
You’ve talked about the importance of writing partners to you, how has that worked?
Having a writing partner has been a blessing. I met my first writing partner in a coffee shop when i was writing my first book. When your kids are in preschool you get to write something like two days a week for three hours. I would see this other woman there who was also writing. One day we just started talking, she had two kids the same age as our kids and we were both taking different classes at the same writing workshop. It’s nice just to have someone there to interact with. I saw her as my coworker. She would read my work and I would read hers, and it was great.
Through a number of weird coincidences I met my current writing partner, and we just clicked immediately. We work a lot together, at a private library or at her house. She published her first book two years before my book. She has a lot of insight and wisdom, really generous with her ideas and her advice. She doesn’t read my work when I’m working on it, but there is moral support.. And she’s good at bringing me back to earth if I’m in my head or I’m worried about something. I talk to her about it, and she’ll lay out that you need to do this and this.
How could the All Angels’ community pray for your work?
Time is a big thing now, managing different books at different stages: promotion, editing, revising, and writing from scratch. The steps require different parts of my brain.
I really care about whether what I write will be something kids can really relate to and feel empowered by, and feel that they are valued.
– Interview by Kevin Oro-Hahn