The Steps Across the Water by Adam Gopnik, with illustrations by Bruce McCall (Hyperion Books, 2010, 304 pages, $17.99), may be designed for grades 3 to 5, but older readers, at least ones older than 12, may want to sneak a read before handing it over to a younger friend.
Just when a young girl named Rose begins to feel like she does not quite fit in with the New York family that adopted her, she comes across a magic staircase near a pond in Central Park. When she winds up the courage to climb up and down the magic stairs, she falls into the alternative universe of a place called U Nork. This fanciful city reflects similarities to her own metropolis, but it's more the New York of an old illustrator's imagination, one with dirigibles, flying giant pigeon taxis, hurried rude residents, and wise guy gangsters. Rose is on a quest for young girl things - in her case, a snow globe and a dog of her own, but as befitting a tale with a moral, she will discover greater lessons for her passageway into maturity.
After she arrives in U Nork, Rose finds herself in an unexpected position of power and must travel backq and forth from New York City to the curious other metropolis in order to solve the evolving mysteries. Along the way, a kinder old gentleman, her cartoonist father's colleague at a magazine (an homage to The New Yorker, home to many contributions by author Gopnik and illustrator McCall), leads her to New York's last remaining bookstore, and in one of the tale's finest sequences, to Washington Square Park. There, he reenacts Greenwich Village's greatest true story. Shopkeepers, just like in our lived experience, often hold the greatest secrets. Like Dorothy of Kansas, Rose of New York will find helpers in her quest, and a little dog, too.
New Yorkers with some knowledge of the city, especially as it was imagined in illustrations such as "King's Views of New York," souvenir booklets from the early 1900s that often showed futuristic images of flying airships and sky-high walkways, or in the 1939 World's Fair, should enjoy Gopnik's clever appropriations. Fans of Central Park should delight in recognition of the park's special places but grow alarmed when the park turns out to serve a more sinister role in U Nork. Gopnik throws in several sharp observances about New Yorkers in general, on top of a nod to Oz, Alice in Wonderland, a fashionable Ice Queen, a short mayor, and the holiday season. At times the mix is too much, and a particular bit of imagination involving U Nork’s eateries borders on the surreal. For practical-minded readers, however, the story also includes which department store sells the finest frozen yogurt. And for those of us who have graduated beyond the fifth grade, the large print is most appreciated.
This post is also going out in today's edition of Manhattan User's Guide.