The best books about coming of age in New York City

Who am I?

“You spend your first 18 years as a sponge and the rest of your life using those early years as material.” Martin Short said this to me when I collaborated with him on his memoir, I Must Say: My Life As a Humble Comedy Legend. My own writing bears this out. My nonfiction books The United States of Arugula and Sunny Days are not first-person books, but they examine two significant cultural movements that defined my formative years: the American food revolution led by the likes of Julia Child and Alice Waters and the children’s-TV revolution defined by Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Much of my journalism finds me chasing down the cultural figures who captured and shaped my young imagination, e.g., Sly Stone, Johnny Cash, Charles Schulz.


I wrote...

Sunny Days: The Children's Television Revolution That Changed America

By David Kamp,

Book cover of Sunny Days: The Children's Television Revolution That Changed America

What is my book about?

I was a member of the first class of Sesame Street graduates—kids who were preschoolers in November 1969, when the program premiered. The further away I got from this formative era, the more I realized that it was a unique time in which childhood and children’s television were completely reinvented. Programs such as Sesame Street, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, The Electric Company, Schoolhouse Rock!, Zoom, and Free to Be... You and Me weren’t just TV shows. Together, they constituted a social movement. They respected the emotional intelligence and interior lives of children.

Sunny Days is my attempt to capture this era with joy, humor, and a suggestion that we can hit such noble heights again.

The books I picked & why

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Dominicana

By Angie Cruz,

Book cover of Dominicana

Why this book?

Effectively a novelization of Cruz’s own mother’s story, Dominicana is about a 15-year-old girl in the Dominican Republic who, in the 1960s, is married off to a local man in his thirties. He has set up a new life for them in Washington Heights, in upper Manhattan. Despite its moments of struggle, spousal abuse, and loneliness, this novel reads lightly and inspirationally—a celebration of its protagonist’s fortitude.


Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx

By Sonia Manzano,

Book cover of Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx

Why this book?

Manzano played Maria for more than 40 years on Sesame Street, but this isn’t a book about that show. A sort of next-gen, nonfiction companion to Dominicana, it tells the story of Manzano’s hard-knock childhood in the South Bronx, and how her gifts as an actor and storyteller propelled her out of a rough neighborhood and troubled home (her father physically abused her mother.) Manzano doesn’t paper over the anger she felt and still feels about the systemic forces that ghettoized Hispanic kids like her. But she succeeds in offering hope and modeling Nuyorican success to latter-day versions of her young self.


Act One: An Autobiography

By Moss Hart,

Book cover of Act One: An Autobiography

Why this book?

In this 1959 memoir, the You Can’t Take It With You playwright tells the story of how he dreamed his way out of deepest, dreariest Brooklyn, inspired by an outlier aunt who turned him on to Broadway. Hart’s Promised Land is just a long subway ride away from his tenement home, but it takes a Moses-like journey to get him there for good—whereupon he renounces traveling by subway forevermore.


Summer in Williamsburg

By Daniel Fuchs,

Book cover of Summer in Williamsburg

Why this book?

An immersive, impressionistic snapshot of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, as it was in the 1920s and early 1930s, when it was known not for hipsters, craft beer, and creative facial hair but as a Jewish slum rife with yentas and gangsters. Fuchs published this book in 1934 and swiftly followed it up with two more novels, Homage to Blenholt and Low Company. The books didn’t sell, but Fuchs catapulted himself out of the ghetto and into a respectable West Coast life as a Hollywood screenwriter. Only after Fuchs had all but stopped writing fiction did these early books receive a warm reassessment from the likes of John Updike and Jonathan Lethem. Full disclosure: Fuchs was my great uncle! He was the older brother of my maternal grandfather.


MacDoodle St.

By Mark Alan Stamaty,

Book cover of MacDoodle St.

Why this book?

My curveball choice. In the late 1970s, Stamaty drew a brilliant, phantasmagoric, visually dense comic strip for The Village Voice that captured the chaos, charm, and entropic scuzziness of Manhattan in that era. His protagonist, a bearded nerd named Malcolm Frazzle, travels on a very funny Joseph Campbell-like hero’s journey that involves a talking cow, the Zen of dishwashing, and overpacked subway cars. I’ve spent the last 40 years revisiting this compendium of Stamaty’s strips, whose every page is a loony, trippy world to fall into.


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