In a House in the City in Two Straight Lines

The City Girls – by Aki (Delphine Mach), Henry Holt and Company, 2020

No, they are not Madeline and her companions.  There is no Miss Clavel and they don’t always walk in two straight lines en route to their destinations. They are Laura, Miffy, Annie, Rebecca, Jane, Vanessa, June, Melanie, Sarah, Cathleen, Lucy, Zoe, Kirsten, Tilly, Joy, and Emily.  This is their third appearance, having enjoyed very different environments in both The Weather Girls and The Nature Girls. While Aki’s books about them are certainly an homage of sorts to Ludwig Bemelmans, they are very much their own independent characters, joyfully exploring the world.

The city of the book’s title might be Paris, New York, London, or any number of other metropolises worldwide.  The point is, it’s a city, full of the wonders or urban life seen through the eyes of children who are anything but jaded.  Even watching the sunrise from the roof of their apartment building, or having a sleepover on that roof at nighttime, are exciting adventures.

The girls are from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Some wear glasses.  They all wear yellow raincoats in most of the book, a definite nod to Bemelmans, but they wear blue pants and t-shirts of varying designs when they visit the park and a colorful array of pajamas for their slumber party.  The text is composed of simple rhyme, with color and font style changed for variety and sometimes to reflect what they are doing at a particular time. (Crossing a bridge in the park, the line “The sun is setting” features letters arching like a bridge.)

Unlike the many picture books that offer tours of the world’s great cities, the City Girls inhabit a deliberately generic location. Generic does not connote blandness, however.  Their oversized tour bus races through a downtown where “Dance,” “Fun,” and “Karaoke” signs invite visitors, along with a giant fish and a smiling bowl with pasta and flowers emerging from its top.

The girls’ trip to an art museum has them watching with rapt attention as docents explain pictures that are not exactly Mondrian or Miró, but rather works inspired by them.  I also love the elegant older woman docent, with grey hair, pearls, and a bright red cardigan, and her younger male counterpart with a scruffy beard. Some of the little girls (Zoe, Sarah, and Cathleen,) turn away from the presentation to wave greetings at a different group of students wearing green tops and blue pants.  Color is a key part of life for the City Girls.

There are many other moments where the City Girls are both part of a group and individuals. Boarding the clean and orderly subway (not New York?), Tilly looks aside to watch a mouse eating a slice of pizza.  At the Eggsquisite café, serving just one delicious food, Melanie waves to a customer enjoying his coffee at a table while his dog eats at ground level. Young readers will see themselves reflected in these little girls, for whom each part of the day is a new opportunity to both learn and have fun.  The “More to Explore” section at the end of the book includes further information about the different resources of city life.  Caregivers reading with children may also use the book as an introduction to the unique attractions of their own cities and towns, or to ones in other parts of the world.  Meanwhile, Lucy, Sarah, Rebecca, and friends are off to another day.

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