For the past month or two I’ve been working on curating a shelf for the Uni Project‘s launch in Boston. The Uni is a mobile reading room – think of it as a learning institution for public space – that was started by Leslie and Sam Davol in New York in 2012. The way Leslie explained it to me when they first began was that she hoped to bring the Uni to places where there was a story already unfolding; that bringing books and learning to public spaces would help communities to see their neighborhoods — and themselves — in a new way. So the Uni popped up in Corona Plaza with the Queens Museum of Art, which has community engagement at the heart of its mission. The Uni went to Play Streets all over the city, where community groups had invited them to bring books and learning to street level. In Brooklyn, the Uni partnered with the public library to bring lending books outside the library walls, so that kids and families could make reading part of their daytime, playtime activities. And now, there’s a massive Uni cube on Governor’s Island, and Unis run by other organizations in places as far away as Almaty, Kazakhstan. This spring, the Uni was named one of the winners of Boston’s Public Space Invitational, which will bring it to Boston’s Rose Kennedy Greenway for families, tourists, and summer picnickers. Here are some photos of the Uni’s Boston launch!
I love the Uni. Not just because I had some small role in its inception, but because I think this is a pop-up project that gets it. That it’s not enough to put snazzy things at street level. You need for those things to make sense as part of a community’s internal understanding of itself; you need for your snazzy things to be facilitated and meaningful. Leslie and Sam don’t just put a Uni on the street and let people have at it, they staff it with volunteer librarians, and they staff it themselves. I once watched Sam mesmerize a group of small children with a zoetrope. Giving people your time, your energy, showing them that you care about your project, and about their neighborhood, invites them to care too.
So when I had the opportunity to show that I care about the Uni, I jumped at the chance. Inspired by my favorite baby gift book, Journey by Aaron Becker, I decided to collect a set of books that would inspire kids and adults to go on little adventures in their everyday lives.
From her bedroom to an entirely new world (Aaron Becker’s Journey).
The books for adults were motivated by the idea that we explore best when we learn about something and then go seek out examples of it. Like that thing when you learn a new word, and suddenly you start noticing it everywhere. So I chose books like Bark: A Field Guide to Trees of the Northeast (especially important if you are planning to do any tree ID in winter!) and The Field Guide to Typography: Type Faces in the Urban Landscape. I also included books with maps and photos, particularly of Boston and how it’s changed over time; another way that adults explore is by comparing the pictures in their mind with the landscape in front of them. I am a big fan of encouraging this kind of historical imagination because I think it plays a strong role in imagining what might be possible in a place. And it reminds us that our environments are made, and remade, and can be made better – whatever that means to us.
I used post-its to guide readers towards the interesting questions I thought the particular book posed. This book, Lost Boston, is about Boston buildings and landmarks that no longer exist.
The kids’ books were even more fun, though. Kids’ books are amazing! If you are an adult, I urge you to spend time in your library or bookstore’s kid section next time you visit. No one will think you’re weird, and you will be delighted by their elegantly spare text, their imaginative, lively illustrations, and their poignantly universal themes. And all that silliness. If you don’t believe me, trust Maria Popova. The kids’ books in my Neighborhood Explorers collection are about journeys, big and small, and about learning about nature in cities. I like the idea of reminding families that there’s non-human nature all around them, a whole ecology that they’re a part of, even right in downtown Boston.
As I chose the books, I thought about the five essential skills of a neighborhood explorer: attention, patience, curiosity, dwelling, and wonder.
In Have You Heard the Nesting Bird? , a pair of children wonder why the robin in their backyard makes no sound. Each page contains a watercolor illustration of a different bird — birds that would be recognizable in any urban backyard — and an imaginative translation of the sounds that the birds make. At the end of the book, the robin’s egg hatches, and the children understand why the bird had been quiet for so long. On the last page is a small-text, to-be-read-by-older-people Q&A with the robin about its nesting habits. I like this book because of its simplicity and directness, and the way its little drawings and songs inspire me better than any field guide to pay attention to the birds I see and hear everyday. I also like the book’s suggestion to make up your own words to a bird’s song!
Woodpecker and starling sing their songs.
A relative of attention, patience is about letting meaning or discoveries come to you. This would seem like a counterintuitive thing for exploration, which we picture as an act of boldness and forward motion. But consider the hunter. She must be still for long durations of time before the skittish deer is willing to show himself (descriptions of Inuit hunters on ice flows, where everything is white, conjure a sense of time totally separate from ours, in which stillness extends for hours as hunters wait for a telltale motion, twisting their focus across massive expanses of undifferentiated distance and terrain). Similarly, the gardener must wait patiently for seeds to germinate, hidden underground. This is the metaphor at work in Miss Maple’s Seeds, a totally enchanting book about a tiny woman who lives in a tree, and keeps orphaned seeds through the winter and teaches them to grow. There is so much quiet beauty in this book, and the care and patience of Miss Maple reminds us of the affections of the archetypal grandmother of our imaginations. There’s also a spread of carefully watercolored seeds listed by name; maybe this will inspire you or your family to plant some seeds of your own, and whisper encouragement as you wait for them to grow.
Miss Maple reads stories to her seeds as they sleep.
Miss Maple sets her seeds afloat; it’s time for them to find their own place to grow.
I loved reading The Adventures of Beekle, an Unimaginary Friend. In this book, Beekle, an imaginary friend who hasn’t been imagined by anyone yet, decides to leave his imaginary world and try to find a human to be his friend. He lands in a Real World city and tries to figure out how to navigate it (he only comes up to everyone’s ankles!). Eventually he finds a friend, and they learn to play together. At the heart of this book, like several others in the collection (Journey, Peggy: the story of a brave chicken on a big adventure, and The Lost (and Found) Balloon), is an adventure that ends up, in the fashion of Wizard of Oz, showing the explorer that they can bring their curiosity to their own backyards. Here I Am is a non-fiction version of this adventure story, about a child who immigrates to an urban neighborhood and uses her imagination to navigate this strange new environment. These books, with their brave protagonists in a scary, big world, reassure their readers that they can find their own way, too: those illustrations of stomping, fast moving, commuting grownup feet are clearly a kids’-eye-view, even if they’re presented through the perspective of an imaginary friend, or a chicken. Not about coming of age, these books are rather like Alice and Wonderland or a fairy tale, in which a child’s unique perspective allows them to navigate a confusing adult world with integrity, curiosity, and whimsy. They also remind me of Maria Tatar‘s trope of the bored child (Alice, or Max from Where the Wild Things Are, for example) who finds her way out of despondency by conjuring the outrageous, the frightening, or the simply remarkable. Curiosity brings an adventurer into a disorienting and new place, into contact with new and unusual people; this is why adventures are both exciting and scary. But in these stories, curiosity eventually brings you home, just as Beekle finally finds the friend he was looking for.
Beekle’s tiny, brightly colored boat sails into the port of the Real World.
Books like Beekle reveal how adventuring and dwelling are really part of the same process: the process of getting to know a place so that it is always familiar and unfamiliar, and the process of getting to know yourself and what you’re capable of. It’s unfamiliar because you can always discover something new; it’s familiar because you’ve invested the time, patience, and attention to get to know it so well. And the true value of any adventure is the fresh eyes with which you’re able to see the place you started in. So I like the idea of reading a book about a curious adventurer alongside This is Our House, a lovely, simple little book about a child who is the third generation to live in her family’s home. Her grandparents were immigrants; he adventure isn’t the child’s, it’s the family’s. And the reward of this kind of multigenerational adventure is to be rooted: to know one tree, one stoop, and one neighborhood, so that it feels truly your own.
Home and family are at the center of This is Our House, about a different kind of journey.
Few books have communicated wonder to me like Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day. This one is a classic but I don’t remember it from my childhood, perhaps because I grew up in Oakland, California, where the sudden, miraculous appearance of snow is not part of growing up. And that’s all this book is about. How a blanket of white can transform the place that you see everyday into a place of magic, joy, and play. This is something that persists even for adults; now that I live in Massachusetts, I know the delicious feeling of weekend blizzards when, after the weather clears, everyone seems to go outside and play, and talk to each other on the street. Building snowmen, making snow angels, throwing snowballs. In these moments, time seems to suspend and stop. This is, I think, what wonder is. Wonder isn’t just about curiosity or enjoyment, it’s about feeling a sense of magic, of otherness, of separation from your daily life. Wonder is something that children bring as part of their orientation to the world; my own childhood was full of of digging for leprechaun gold and writing neighborhood newspapers and investigating local mysteries (yes, one of my favorite books was Harriet the Spy, a great Neighborhood Explorer for the older set). The Snowy Day captures that simple but profound experience, and hopefully will encourage children and adults alike to seek little ways to put time on hold and feel some magic.
How to be an explorer.
The last part of this project is the one I’m most proud of. My sister and I designed (she illustrated!) The Young Adventurer’s Guide to Exploring Your Neighborhood. Right now, the project exists as two postcards that are part of the Uni collection. The back of the postcard has space for kids or adults to share their own neighborhood observations, and send them to someone they love (or to a stranger, like this incredible project). The idea was to create spaces during your day for attention, patience, curiosity and wonder, to inspire opportunities for the kind of dwelling and adventuring that the characters in these stories do. They’re also an encouragement for families to do this kind of adventuring together, with children teaching adults what it means to bring wonder, curiosity, attention, and patience into our world.
If you’re a grownup in NYC, take advantage of Elastic City‘s walks, which inspired this project!