Thursday, October 5, 2017

Book Review: The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser (2017)

The Vanderbeekers, a biracial family of seven living in a brownstone in Harlem are devastated when they learn just before Christmas that their disagreeable landlord, Mr. Beiderman, has decided not to renew their lease. The five Vanderbeeker kids - twins Isa and Jessie, and their younger siblings Oliver, Hyacinth, and Laney - immediately begin hatching plans to win over Mr. Beiderman and somehow gain his permission to remain in the only home they have ever known. As Christmas day approaches, however, it begins to look as though nothing can warm Mr. Beiderman's heart to their cause.

This book is proof that a novel can satisfy contemporary demands for things like diversity without reinventing the wheel. The Vanderbeekers on 141st Street has a very classic feel that harkens back to series such as The Melendy Family books, The Moffats, and more recently, The Penderwicks.  It's not an issue book, or a political statement; it's just a good story where the characters happen not to be white. While I don't consider diversity to be an indicator of quality, I do appreciate that this book finds a way to meet the demand for non-white characters without turning the story into an age-inappropriate political lesson. This is clearly a book written with children in mind, inspired by a place the author knows well.

Speaking of the setting, I really enjoyed getting to know the Vanderbeekers' little slice of Harlem, including the college they can see from their apartment windows and the little bakery where they frequently stop to buy pastries. I could definitely have used more details, especially after reading a book like Harlem Charade that brings this area of New York City so strongly to life, but I definitely got a sense of why the neighborhood was so important to these kids, and why it was so heartbreaking to think of having to move.

As for Mr. Beiderman himself, he is mostly a believable antagonist. As this is a Christmas story, his Scrooge-like demeanor feels very appropriate, as does the ultimate resolution to the problem of the lease. I read one review that suggested he was not realistic because most people typically move on after tragedies, but I didn't feel that way at all. I think there are many people, older men in particular, who do have a hard time bouncing back after the kind of trauma Mr. Beiderman has endured, and they do go on to live as angry recluses. This story does a nice job of explaining why Mr. Beiderman is the way he is, and also of redeeming him when the time is right. Sure, there are probably some serious violations of landlord/tenant laws in the way the lease is handled, but who but a lawyer's daughter (which I am) would even notice those?

This is one of the few brand-new middle grade novels that I would actually consider encouraging my kids to read if they were in the correct age group. It will certainly satisfy more conservative parents, as it has so much in common with favorite children's classics, and even the subplot involving Isa being asked to a school dance is very sweet and innocent without any overly mature romantic overtones. A sequel is planned for 2018, and I'm really looking forward to spending another book with these characters.

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