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
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
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
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.
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