May 19, 2002
For children, a city both real and desired


Norah Dooley calls them the Hat Committee - the women on her street who believe no baby should be out in any weather without a hat.

''I remember taking my daughter out in her stroller, and someone called out the window, `Put a hat on that child!''' says Dooley.

Some say it takes a village to raise a child. Cambridge-based children's book authors Norah Dooley and Glenna Lang would say what it takes is a neighborhood. Dooley's neighborhood is Washington Street, a block-long slice of Cambridge's Area 4. Its colorful multifamily houses and rainbow of residents inspired her books ''Everybody Cooks Rice,'' ''Everybody Serves Soup,'' ''Everybody Bakes Bread,'' and ''Everybody Brings Noodles.'' The stories follow a young girl as she goes from house to house on her street and finds those basic foods made in many variations, all gladly shared.

''Everyone says hello. It's a place where the kids feel safe,'' says Dooley. ''They feel looked after, protected. They see their place in the world. They know they can knock on someone's door if they are locked out or need help with their homework or with a Halloween costume.''

Washington Street's summer block parties have been famous for an exotic mix of shared foods, music, water balloons, and talent shows that have included one memorable performance piece by a dreadlocks-adorned neighbor dressed entirely in seaweed.

The picture Dooley paints of her neighborhood in her books is partly as it is and partly as she dreams it to be. She says the end of rent control in Cambridge in 1995 ''decimated the landscape of my books.'' Some of the people whose bread and noodles figure in the books can no longer afford to live on Washington Street.

Pointing out houses where apartments now command gentrified rents, she asks, ''When the car won't start or you need a cup of sugar, who are you going to call - a bank?'' But the storybook neighborhood as it was before the late 1990s is what Dooley would wish for all city children.

Glenna Lang also uses Cambridge as a backdrop for her children's books. As an illustrator, Lang created four books in which her drawings were paired with classic poems, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's ''The Children's Hour,'' set in the Longfellow House on Brattle Street. She both wrote and illustrated her most recent book, ''Looking Out for Sarah,'' which tells the story of a blind woman and her guide dog, using many city backgrounds.

''In Looking Out for Sarah,'' says Lang, ''I used a park along the Charles where there are wonderful little concrete animal structures that are brightly colored and have letters on their sides. I think the mundane is appealing to children: very simple things - an old-fashioned grocery store, a post office; city scenes with native animals - squirrels, pigeons. When you're little, everything is exciting.''

'Lang's first impressions on moving to Boston were of the architecture and the neighborhoods. Jamaica Plain's triple-deckers and the early-'70s North End were among the areas that give her books a sense of place. Her illustrations could be glimpses of Cambridge or Charlestown or Roslindale. They reflect her vision of the wonder of the everyday, made smaller and simpler for her young audience.

''Cities are exciting and vibrant,'' Lang says. ''And Boston in particular is so bite-sized. It has a vernacular architecture of colored, simple forms and small scale. It's a cozy place for children.''

'Other children's books set in the Boston area include: ''Zachary's Ball,'' by Matt Tavares; ''The Gilded Cat'' by Catherine Dexter; ''Bernelly and Harriet,'' by Elizabeth Dahlie; ''Jonathan and His Mommy,'' by Irene Smalls.

This story ran on page 9 of the Boston Globe's City Weekly section on 5/19/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

City Type features the city's writers exploring their world. If you have suggestions, contact Ellen Steinbaum at citytype@globe.com.

 
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