The best nonfiction children’s books about New York City

The Books I Picked & Why

Secret Engineer: How Emily Roebling Built the Brooklyn Bridge

By Rachel Dougherty

Book cover of Secret Engineer: How Emily Roebling Built the Brooklyn Bridge

Why this book?

New York City is all about iconic landmarks! When her husband falls ill from “caisson sickness” during the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, Emily Roebling takes on the task of overseeing the massive project. She studies the latest technology of the time in an era when many thought that women couldn’t possibly understand advanced math, engineering, and physics. With illustrations that show step-by-step how the Brooklyn Bridge was built, this book is for anyone who is fascinated by bridges, infrastructure, and true stories about women who get the job done.


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Harlem Grown: How One Big Idea Transformed a Neighborhood

By Tony Hillery, Jessie Hartland

Book cover of Harlem Grown: How One Big Idea Transformed a Neighborhood

Why this book?

Sometimes, living in a city makes it easy to forget where food comes from. And sometimes it takes just one person to see the possibilities in an empty city space. Gardens can grow in urban places, including gardens that provide fresh, healthy food to eat! This is the inspiring story of one man and a group of school children who, through trial and error and perseverance, transformed an abandoned New York City building lot into a garden full of fruit and vegetables— while growing a sense of collaboration and community in the process.


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City Shapes

By Diana Murray, Bryan Collier

Book cover of City Shapes

Why this book?

One of my favorite things to do in New York City is to walk around and look at everything. Whether people-watching or admiring the architecture or visiting a museum— there is always something new to see! The city is truly an ever-changing work of art, and art is made up of shapes. Through rhyming text and colorful watercolor and collage illustrations, this book explores the natural and human-made shapes of the city through the eyes of a young girl as she observes the world around her.


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The Secret Subway

By Shana Corey, Red Nose Studio

Book cover of The Secret Subway

Why this book?

There is history quite literally buried beneath the concrete of New York City. This book tells the almost-forgotten story of the city’s first underground train, built before the subway system as we know it today was constructed. Alfred Ely Beach managed to secretly dig an underground tunnel and use a fan-powered pneumatic tube to move people back and forth on a train car. Though his invention quickly came to an end— likely due to complicated city politics— it remains a fascinating reminder that there is often a story behind the story and that new technology evolves from the ideas of many people.


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A Green Place to Be: The Creation of Central Park

By Ashley Benham Yazdani

Book cover of A Green Place to Be: The Creation of Central Park

Why this book?

Someone once referred to Central Park as the “lungs” of New York City. When the grid plan for the streets of Manhattan was designed it left little room for greenspace. Human beings need nature, and respite from the crowds, so a contest was held to design a park. Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted came up with the winning idea. This lushly illustrated book tells the story of how their Greensward Plan became Central Park— the first landscaped public park in the United States. I love to think about how the two designed the placement of every tree, bridge, and curved path, with the goal of making a place where all the people in the city could enjoy nature— and still do, today! 


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