Read My Lit

If you want advice on how to bring up children, get a manual. But if you want to find out what it's really like to be a New York City parent, pick up a good piece of fiction.

When we were in our twenties and our crowd was beginning to think about babies, there would invariably come a moment when someone would say, “But I just don’t know about raising kids in this city.” At which point, everyone would stare at me, because I was this odd duck: a born-and-bred New Yorker. Our friends’ eyes would narrow as they thought things through: A kid raised here may turn out like her. Is that what we want? And I would stare back, thinking, “Man, if you can’t dig it, then you squares should go back to squaresville.”

That’s Suzuki Beane–speak. Back in the sixties, Suzuki Beane, in the book named after her, was a cult figure for New York girls. She was a little beatnik from Bleecker Street who liked a boy from the wrong side of the tracks—Park Avenue. When I was a child, she taught me the importance of listening to your own different drummer, and when I was a parent, she taught me that we can become imprisoned in self-regard. But between you and me, here’s the main thing I learned from her back in 1961: Wear black.

My husband grew up in Alabama. He rode his horse, Star, to a one-room schoolhouse. I rode the Amsterdam bus and the 86th Street crosstown. The fundamental differences between us: I wore black as a kid, and when his friends got drunk, they wrapped their cars around trees, whereas mine just took the wrong train to the wrong borough. Now we’re parents of a teenager, which in any state can be a worrisome proposition. How do you protect a child? And what kind of parent do you want to be?

When she was tiny, I’d read our daughter Margaret Wise Brown’s The Runaway Bunny, the gist of which is this: A bunny is testing his independence, so he tells his mother he’s running away. She says, “If you run away, I will run after you. For you are my little bunny.”

At first her response seems properly maternal. “If you run after me, I will become a fish in a trout stream and I will swim away from you,” he tells her, and she replies, well, then I’ll just fish you out. But matters grow more tense. I’ll become a crocus, he says. I’ll dig you up, she says. A sailboat? “I will become the wind and blow you where I want you to go.”

It took me a while to get the picture, but this is one sick mother bunny. She’s not protecting her child, she’s trying to possess him. Okay, so she’s no Mrs. Portnoy. But she’s no role model, either. When you get right down to it, there aren’t a lot of role models to be found in fiction. By far the mightiest mother in recent books is Rachel Ebdus, Dylan’s idealistic and bohemian mother, in Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude. When an angry kid from the Boerum Hill projects rides off with Dylan’s bike, Rachel kicks that boy’s ass right out on the street, to the wonder of all the local kids. She is glorious. But then she falls for a man who’s not Dylan’s father, and she’s gone.

The most perfectly loyal mother in all of literature isn’t a person at all—it’s an elephant who, in Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hatches the Egg, withstands natural disasters and humiliating captivity (he barely survives being shipped to New York), yet never abandons the egg that’s been entrusted to him. “I meant what I said / And I said what I meant . . . / An elephant’s faithful / One hundred per cent!”

If it can be said that such a thing as a “natural mother” exists, Horton is it. But humans are flawed, and as Anne Lamott writes in her extremely honest memoir about her colicky baby, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, “I think we’re all pretty crazy on this bus. I’m not sure I know anyone who’s got all the dots on his or her dice.”

Operating Instructions is highly popular, and for good reason: It’s smart, warm, and precisely what an anxious new parent needs to read. And as the babies grow up, the logical next book is Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenthood, a terrific collection of essays (mostly by mothers) edited by Camille Peri and Kate Moses of Salon, with a foreword, appropriately enough, by Anne Lamott. The engaging pieces cover everything from the agony of labor to the agony of preparing for a child to head off to college. Sallie Tisdale sings an ode to teenage boys; Nora Okja Keller and her daughter can’t make the break for preschool; Ceil Malek is tracked down by the daughter she gave up twenty years before. In “Mother Anger,” Lamott writes that the colicky boy is growing up wonderfully, but still “he can provoke me into a state similar to road rage.” Again, she lays it on the line: “The fear is the worst part, the fear about who you secretly think you are, the fear you see in your child’s eyes.”

Just as we dread the times we’ll behave poorly, we pray that when we are truly needed, we will rise to the occasion. Lorrie Moore’s astonishingly fierce and funny story “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk,” from Birds of America, captures that dream better than any story I know. A woman’s baby is hospitalized with cancer. “She wants to pick up Baby and run—out of there, out of there. She wants to whip out a gun . . . Don’t you touch him! she wants to shout at the surgeons and the needle nurses. Not anymore!” This is war, and Mother climbs into the trenches with Baby, and even though he’s groggy from morphine, he knows she’s there.

Sharon Sedaris, the wonderfully acid-tongued, chain-smoking, jug-wine-swilling mother of memoirist David Sedaris, is also one to jump into battle on behalf of her children. She’s as tough as Moore’s Mother and as loyal, in her fashion, as Horton. In Sedaris’s latest best-seller, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, his mother kicks her kids out of the house one wintry day, but comes to regret it, and heads out into the snow, bare-legged and in floppy loafers, to find them. “This is how things went,” he writes. “One moment she was locking us out of our own house and the next we were rooting around in the snow, looking for her left shoe . . . Gretchen fitted her cap over my mother’s foot. Lisa secured it with her scarf, and, surrounding her tightly on all sides, we made our way back home.”

Sharon Sedaris loved her kids; they loved her back. It’s as simple, and as stunningly complicated, as that. I’m a New York parent, but in the end, it’s the geography of the heart that concerns me. What kind of parent do I want to be? I don’t want to be Lorrie Moore’s Mother, but I want to protect like her and love like her. And I don’t want to be like Sharon Sedaris, but I do want to be loved like her—loved, in spite of everything. Regardless of where we live, don’t we all?

Sarah Crichton is the publisher of Sarah Crichton Books, a new imprint at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Growing Up By the Book
A city kid’s education is one part classroom and three parts street. Below, some favorite NY texts.


My New York, by Kathy Jakobsen. This kids’ Let’s Go has a map and a “Where’s Waldo?” search for Woody Allen.

From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg. A must-read for any kid planning to run away and live in the Met.

The School Story, by Andrew Clements. How two private-school girls enter the publishing industry at the age of 12.

The Cricket in Times Square, by George Selden. This tale of three animals and a boy in a subway newsstand is about the great things that happen if you keep your eyes and ears open—and go to Chinatown.

Nothing Ever Happens on 90th Street, by Roni Schotter. A bored girl writer finds an abundance of stories on her own block.

It’s Like This, Cat,, by Emily Cheney Neville. Proof that adolescence is best survived with a stray cat, a friend who’s a J.D., and multiple trips to Coney Island. The House on East 88th Street, by Bernard Waber. A picture book about the merits of taking baths, doing chores, and making friends with the creatures you find in your brownstone.

Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, by Judy Blume. An Upper West Side boy thinks life is bad when his little brother eats his turtle—until the next book, when the family moves to . . . Jersey.

Madlenka, by Peter Sis. In this beautifully illustrated ode to diversity, a 7-year-old visits her neighbors and inadvertently makes a trip around the world.

Eloise, by Kay Thompson. The quintessential guide on how to torment an apartment building (or the Plaza Hotel), from your nanny to the doorman.

Stuart Little, by E. B. White. An Upper East Side mouse shows how even the smallest people can make a big impact, and that sometimes you have to leave the city to find yourself.

From the Fall 2004 edition of the New York Family Guide