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Ask GGW: What are good pro-urbanist kids' books?

On Twitter, Topher Mathews recently joked, "Daughter being indoctrinated with pro-Height Act propaganda in daycare."

This book appears to be about how two animals get into a competition and build their houses higher and higher, until they fall over from the wind. It might subtly encourage a view that tall buildings are bad, but probably it's just a fun parable about cooperation.

Geoff Hatchard then mused about whether there are more urbanist-oriented kid books.

Sophie loves Subway, by Anastasia Suen and Karen Katz, which shows a mother and daughter riding on the New York subway. (Though rail geeks might notice that the specific combinations of lines in the images of stations don't actually exist.)

Image from Subway.

What good urbanist children's books, about buildings and/or transportation in cities, do you know?

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel: the classic tale of infrastructure construction efficiency and the independent contractor (oh would that Mike Mulligan been awarded the contract for the Silver Line or the 7 train extension).

by LowHeadways on Jul 1, 2014 1:42 pm • linkreport

You have got to be kidding me.

by Ken on Jul 1, 2014 1:50 pm • linkreport

...Rail geeks might notice that the specific combinations of lines in the images of stations don't actually exist.

Also New Yorkers.

by JewdishoowarySquare on Jul 1, 2014 1:58 pm • linkreport

I've never read it, but there is a children's book about the Metro. Underground Train by Mary Quattlebaum.

by David on Jul 1, 2014 2:13 pm • linkreport

The most urbanism book we have is called "Elmo Rides the Bus", which is Elmo, his mom, and sister riding a city bus. They're friends get on and off, and the children imagine the bus is a parade float, that its taking them on safari, and to the land of 4 castles.

I will add that anti-urban books far outnumber pro-urban books. Examples; the little house, city mouse-country mouse, Harry the dirty dog.

In film, "Up" is pretty anti-urban, casting developers and yuppies as evil. "The Incredibles" are constantly saving cities from mass-casualty calamity.

It's no wonder urban ozone is so difficult, cultural bias.

by Will on Jul 1, 2014 2:15 pm • linkreport

Zoning, not ozone

by Will on Jul 1, 2014 2:17 pm • linkreport

Walk Rabbit Walk: A book about a rabbit who decides to walk to a party and ends up getting there faster than his friends who drove or took a hot air balloon.

by Avery on Jul 1, 2014 2:17 pm • linkreport

In the late 70's growing up, I remember a city oriented kids book called something like "Freeway" or "Thruway" that I used to always pull from the library shelves and pore over. Would love to find that book somewhere again.

Though hardly a "Kids" book, Lynn Ascher's "The Works" book offers a really visually engaging format to show infrastructure at work.

by Lord Baltimore on Jul 1, 2014 2:19 pm • linkreport

The Little house Book
A classic

by Brett Young on Jul 1, 2014 2:35 pm • linkreport

Here is the book read on Youtube

by Brett Young on Jul 1, 2014 2:35 pm • linkreport

Great topic! My husband always rails against "The Little House" as anti-urbanist propaganda.

"The Snowy Day" isn't about cities or transportation, but it's about a little boy who lives in an apartment building, and is one of the most pro-urban books our kids own. Another good one is "Katy and the Big Snow," whose heroine is a tractor owned by the Public Works Department. (Ironically enough, it's written by the same author as The Little House.)

by ZetteZelle on Jul 1, 2014 2:43 pm • linkreport

My husband always rails against "The Little House" as anti-urbanist propaganda.

Please tell me you're kidding.

by Sam on Jul 1, 2014 2:45 pm • linkreport

@Sam: not kidding. (I'm fond of the book, myself, which is why it keeps being read at bedtime.)

by ZetteZelle on Jul 1, 2014 2:48 pm • linkreport

Is this a parody?!

by Randy on Jul 1, 2014 2:48 pm • linkreport


Interesting perspective. Looks like the only "urban" Pixar film is Ratatouille. Product of their studio location?

by JJJJJ on Jul 1, 2014 2:53 pm • linkreport

The obvious candidate here is Richard Scarry Busytown. Almost nobody drives but when they do, the vehicles are almost comically undersized. The neighborhood is laid out with lots of mixed use with nearly every residential building has ground-level retail. The overall structure of the town is very much walkable and human scale. Every vignette shows plenty of people walking.

by Nacim on Jul 1, 2014 2:56 pm • linkreport

Classic videogames for young children that can also promote urban ideals:

Frogger: Need traffic calming much?

Missle Command: No one is intercepting missles that are aimed toward the suburbs, Johnny.

Paperboy: That kid is just trying to ride his bike and deliver papers, but is always getting run over by cars. Why are they always in such a darn hurry?

Anti-urbanist video games?


Tetris (You are forced to play the role of a draconian enforcer of the city's height limit.)

by The Truth™ on Jul 1, 2014 3:06 pm • linkreport

My husband always rails against "The Little House" as anti-urbanist propaganda

Really? I thought The Little House was anti-sprawl. It's about a house out in the sticks that suddenly finds itself surrounded by sprawl. The author grew up in Carmel, CA which is a small artists community between LA and SF, and likely where The Little House was based. About Carmel:

The town has historically pursued a vigorous strategy of planned development to enhance its natural coastal beauty and to retain its character, which the city's general plan describes as "a village in a forest overlooking a white sand beach"...The city regularly hosts delegations from cities and towns around the world seeking to understand how the village retains its authenticity in today's increasingly homogeneous world.

New buildings must be built around existing trees and new trees are required on lots that are deemed to have an inadequate number.

The one-square-mile village has no street lights or parking meters.[44] In addition, the businesses, cottages and houses have no street numbers. (Originally, the early artists who were the first builders of the homes in the town, named their houses, rather than having numerical addresses.)

So, while the book (and Carmel) are not necessarily pro-urban, I think they are pro-planning and anti-generic-sprawl. I think it's a good book...a classic book.

by Falls Church on Jul 1, 2014 3:24 pm • linkreport

In this book the characters take the bus and/or subway to get from their apartment to the zoo or park.

by Michael Perkins on Jul 1, 2014 3:40 pm • linkreport

Certainly the city in Little House grew out and chewed up the farmland. But the spot the Little House winds up in seems far more urban than suburban--a subway below, elevated train above and trolleys running on the streets; and tall buildings on either side. The city that's presented is filthy and noisy and impersonal (at least in that no-one pays attention to or takes care of the little house).

Of course, maybe it's an anti-restrictive covenant book, since the problem is that the little house "could not be sold for gold or silver." If a developer had purchased her, a big sturdy building would have been put in her place.

by ZetteZelle on Jul 1, 2014 3:44 pm • linkreport

wake up city, about a city in the early AM

and this

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jul 1, 2014 3:52 pm • linkreport

I like "My Car" by Byron Barton. It has this great twist at the end - Sam is the city's bus driver (we really hype up that point)! Many of Barton's books are great for understanding how infrastructure works (Trains, for instance). Also, Chugga Chugga Choo Choo is a good take on freight issues. Mike Mulligan is a great book, too, as previously mentioned.

by Sarah on Jul 1, 2014 3:52 pm • linkreport

Re: Little House
As a kid I was always sad that things don't stay the same.
It wasn't about building the city, it was about tearing down the countryside.

by Brett Young on Jul 1, 2014 3:53 pm • linkreport

A great urban book that my daughters love is What Happens on Wednesdays, which describes living in a city and walking to daily errands and activities ( It reminds me of why I love living in a WalkUP area of the country where my girls view this type of daily routine as what is expected rather than the exception.

by ujavitiz on Jul 1, 2014 3:53 pm • linkreport

"I Stink!" is about the evils of our throw-away society. Plus, it's about a talking garbage truck, which is neat.

by The Truth™ on Jul 1, 2014 4:00 pm • linkreport

I could see how someone could think it was anti-urban but you have to realize that in 1942 when the book was written, there was almost no such thing as suburbs. It was mainly urban vs. rural. I think the author meant that the Little House got surrounded by suburbs but wasn't confident that her readers would even understand what a suburb was since it was such a new concept.

I'm not the only one who thinks of it as an anti-sprawl book:

"The Little House" isn't just a children's book. It's a cautionary tale.

And it's a must-read for King County Executive Ron Sims, who last week proclaimed that the sprawl that has threatened the rural areas of King County had finally been curtailed.

It would be good for Sims to keep "The Little House" on his nightstand, just in case he gets the building bug again. This is a bedtime story that could keep him up at night.

The house in the story is built in the country but soon finds itself surrounded by the city, as, over the years, the city expands until it surrounds the house...The ways land is used change over time. These changes often disrupt a healthy environment and alter the quality of life, as The Little House illustrates. Recently an editor for the Seattle Times used The Little House as an example of why urban sprawl, which threatens so many rural areas, should be contained. Expansion, which happens so frequently and quickly today, destroys not only the countryside but also many historical neighborhoods, and natural animal and plant life, and often disturbs the environment. This can lead to floods, windstorms that topple unprotected trees, and water pollution.


Of course, maybe it's an anti-restrictive covenant book, since the problem is that the little house "could not be sold for gold or silver."

Actually, I'd look at the book as pro-TDR (transfer development rights). You can't buy farmland in Poolesville and turn it into Bethesda because it's in the Ag Reserve but you can transfer those development rights downcounty. While the author wasn't explicit in stating that TDRs would have been the solution to The Little House's situation, I'm going to say it was implied. ;)

by Falls Church on Jul 1, 2014 4:02 pm • linkreport

ZZ's husband here. I wouldn't use the word "propaganda," because I don't think Burton hated cities or anything like that. I'm just thinking about how a child in 2014 (or in the 1970s, when I read it) sees the book.

Look at "Now she couldn't tell when Spring came, or Summer, or Fall, or Winter. It all seemed about the same... People were moving faster and faster. No one noticed the Little House any more. They hurried by without a glance." It's an image of cities that lines up perfectly with the prejudices I had, growing up in the suburbs: dirty, divorced from nature, people who hurry around like robots.

I can see the point about sprawl, and what Falls Church says about the development of suburbs. But I don't think our seven-year-old really picks up on the historical subtleties. For a kid, I think it's much more about the images and the emotional content, and seeing those images today brings up the idea of a city, not a suburb.

by Muster Mark on Jul 1, 2014 4:46 pm • linkreport

Harriet the Spy and From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler were, no doubt, partially responsible for my early love of cities. (So were the goodie bags stuffed full of exotic foods that my great Aunt dropped off at my Dad's office every week.) Both made cities seem like places filled with pleasure and intrigue.

by BTDT on Jul 1, 2014 5:14 pm • linkreport

Here are some that we have read over the years: What Happens on Wednesdays; Lyle,Lyle the Crocodile; Neighborhood Mother Goose; Me Baby, You Baby; Uptown; and the Knuffle Bunny series.

by Jennifer on Jul 1, 2014 6:07 pm • linkreport

I also can't believe Underground Train wasn't included! It's Metro's picture book. My DCPS elementary school had them in classrooms.

by ARM on Jul 1, 2014 7:40 pm • linkreport

Sigh. So people get upset that Rush Limbaugh's book wins a kiddy prize, but we are seriously discussing this. Sigh. Indoctrination. That's what it is. Let kids read fun stuff. They have plenty of time to be indoctrinated when they go to school.

by Jasper on Jul 1, 2014 9:02 pm • linkreport

Basically everything by Daniel Manus Pinkwater. Most of his books are more "young adult" than "kids", but there's some great picturebooks too. I like The Big Orange Splot in particular.

by Lucre on Jul 1, 2014 9:27 pm • linkreport

And I can definitely say Pinkwater has given me the enduring love of the magic that waits around every corner in a bustling city. He grew up in Chicago and LA, and moved to Hoboken as a college student. The young people in his books explore landscapes and have adventures that could only happen in urbanist paradises full of the ferment of the kind of weirdoes he reminds us that we all are. Expose your kids to Pinkwater!!!

by Lucre on Jul 1, 2014 9:33 pm • linkreport

I'd also like to point out that in Busytown, you see a lot of the frustrations and downsides of driving, too. Cars needing repairs, getting into wrecks, etc.

by Lucre on Jul 1, 2014 10:18 pm • linkreport

Thumbs up to the Pushcart war! It's probably more at the elementary and middle school level, and shows little kiddos how the war on cars is really won. But in all seriousness, it's a must read for the aspiring campaigner/organizer.

by Kelly Blynn on Jul 2, 2014 8:52 am • linkreport

I hate to sound smug, but there is sort-of a clear winner. Barmi: A Mediterranean City Through the Ages.

Got it when I was about eight. I still read that thing.

by Kyle on Jul 2, 2014 11:05 am • linkreport

We kept all the kids' oversized Busytown books, especially those in multiple languages, for the eventually hoped for grands.

I will point out that Busytown by Richard Scarry is European. Probably has something to do with all transport being normal, full of challenges, but equally valuable if the situation dictates.

Great, now I have the Busytown theme song in my head. Thanks GGW!

by bikeinva on Jul 2, 2014 7:08 pm • linkreport

Don't forget about poetry for kids! Lots of great poetry about cities/take place in cities that kids can enjoy. One of my fav's:
'Roofscape' by Lilian Moore from the book 'Mural on Second Avenue'

"The lines are
rising high.

From my window
I can see
how roofs
design a sky."

'Velvet Shoes' by Elinor Wylie is another fav of mine, about a "...walk through the still town..." after a snowfall.

by Tina on Jul 2, 2014 8:30 pm • linkreport

"The Ox-cart Man" because rural children would work all year and would only get one piece of candy as reward. Plus - great book

by asffa on Jul 6, 2014 12:21 pm • linkreport

Hey Potentially Interested Parties:

I recently published a pro-urbanist children's book in which a terrier considers alternative uses for parking places, "Spot's Parking Lot."

If you're someone who might review it or know someone who might, contact me for a copy.

by b.c.brown on Aug 7, 2014 9:11 pm • linkreport

Destiny's Gift by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley touches on issues of gentrification:

Me and Momma and Big John by Mara Rockliff and William John is a picture book for early elementary that tells the story of a boy's mother going into NYC to build St. John's cathedral

Welcome to My Neighborhood: A Barrio ABC by Quiara Alegria Hudes, Shino Arihara guides readers through a city

by Amy R on Aug 19, 2014 10:11 pm • linkreport

I'm late to this comment string after finding it from a more recent mention, but if you're still following it, I have some suggestions that my daughter enjoys:

* Corduroy, by Don Freeman, has some urban themes in it and its a classic (

* Ben's Trumpet, by Rachel Isadora, is all about city living and jazz! (

* Bus Stops, by Taro Gomi, takes you on a wonderful bus ride (

by Clark on Mar 25, 2015 4:40 pm • linkreport


I did come across a cute children's book in New Orleans about a giraffe going to a birthday party on the NOLA streetcar. "Jenny Giraffe and the Streetcar Party"

by Nicole on Mar 26, 2015 3:31 pm • linkreport

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