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97 Orchard Street, New York: Stories of Immigrant Life

by Linda Granfield, Arlene Alda, photog.

While perhaps not the most boring book ever created for young readers, If the World Were a Village is certainly a contender. A worthy attempt to inculcate global awareness in children, David J. Smith’s information book is premised on an intriguing question: If the world’s population were represented by only 100 people in a single village, who would these people be? What languages would they speak, what foods would they eat, what would they own respectively, what would their various standards of living be? The problem is that the concept is executed as a series of arid statistical sidebars, which are no fun at all to read, despite the fact the information is often interesting.
For instance, in the global village 22 people speak a Chinese dialect, nine speak English, and three Portuguese. Thirty-two are Christian, six Buddhist, and one is Jewish. Seventy-five people in the village have easy access to safe water; 25 spend much of the day trying to acquire it. In presenting the facts in this dispassionate manner, Smith avoids overt didacticism, although any even moderately liberal parent reading the book with a child will, justly, supply the moral gloss: Is it fair that some have so much, while others have so little? But the text quickly becomes a blur of numbers and facts – and Shelagh Armstrong’s double-page spreads are unlikely to energize or focus young readers: with their monotonous compositions and colours, stylized landscapes, and faceless people, her paintings quickly become tedious.
In his interesting epilogue, Smith talks about the need to encourage “world-mindedness” in children – a laudable goal. To his credit, he has some concrete advice for teachers and parents, like having a world map in the room, playing geography games, and making pen pals from different countries. But I’m doubtful this book itself will spark readers’ curiosity in the world and people around them: it simply isn’t engaging or emotionally affecting enough. Maybe some kind of narrative spine would have been more effective at pulling readers in and exposing them to new worlds. Still, this book may be a useful resource in a classroom, as the information is certainly valuable.
Much more successful at making her material come alive is Linda Granfield’s latest, 97 Orchard Street, New York: Stories of Immigrant Life. An experienced writer of engaging information books, Granfield takes a literary or historical artifact (the poem “In Flanders Fields,” the song “Amazing Grace,” Halifax’s Pier 21) and works outward to paint a portrait of a person, place, and era. Here, her starting point is a tenement building in New York’s Lower East Side. Between 1863 and 1935 (when it was boarded up) more than 7,000 people from 20 countries lived in the tenement’s 20 cramped apartments. In 1988 the building was reopened as a museum.
Granfield alternates concise histories of the Lower East Side, early immigration to America, and Ellis Island, with short chapters on four of the families who made 97 Orchard Street their home. Archival photos and Arlene Alda’s photographs of the tenement museum’s recreated period rooms carry much of the weight of the book, but Granfield’s lively annotations and mini-
essays are equally informative.
In depicting the conditions of the residents she writes: “If there was an argument about money in the apartment next door, your family heard every word. If someone was dying or a baby was being born, you heard every moan. And day and night, there was the clomp-clomp of worn-out shoes going up and down the many flights of wooden stairs.”
Right away, Granfield gives her readers sensory images to latch onto. And the photographs further engage us: when we see photos of the tiny rooms, the beds doubling as sofas, the squalid toilets, the dark hallways – and most of all people’s faces – we can much more easily imagine what it was like to live there in that time. It’s moving to see how much effort these impoverished people put into their small homes, making them as tidy and attractive as they could. Ironically, judging by the photographs, 97 Orchard Street is exactly the kind of handsome brick building (with a surprising amount of interior and exterior detailing) that would now incite lust in property developers eager to sell lofts to rich urban professionals.
Both Granfield’s and Smith’s books attempt to rouse young readers’ interest in the world, past and present, and make them examine their place in it. A happy corollary of this might be that children will become more attuned to their obligations as citizens in their community and the world at large.