The best nonfiction children’s books about New York City

Who am I?

I’m a children’s book author, illustrator, and map illustrator, as well as an armchair traveler and history buff. I adore books that explain how the world works through the ideas and inventions of curious human beings, narratives of travel and change, and how past and present history are connected. Nonfiction picture books are a fantastic way to distill these true stories for readers of all ages!


I wrote...

Manhattan: Mapping the Story of an Island

By Jennifer Thermes,

Book cover of Manhattan: Mapping the Story of an Island

What is my book about?

From before its earliest settlement to the vibrant metropolis that exists today, the island of Manhattan has always been a place of struggle, growth, and transformation. Through dazzling maps and informative sidebars, Manhattan: Mapping the Story of an Island explores how humans, history, and natural events have shaped this tiny sliver of land for more than 400 years. Discover how a small rodent began an era of rapid change for the island. Learn about the people who built New York City, and how a street plan projected the city’s future. Marvel at how epic fires and storms led to major feats of engineering above and below ground. From The Battery downtown up to Inwood, every inch of the island has a story to tell.

The books I picked & why

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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.

Secret Engineer: How Emily Roebling Built the Brooklyn Bridge

By Rachel Dougherty,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Secret Engineer as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On a warm spring day in 1883, a woman rode across the Brooklyn Bridge with a rooster on her lap.

It was the first trip across an engineering marvel that had taken nearly fourteen years to construct. The woman's husband was the chief engineer, and he knew all about the dangerous new technique involved. The woman insisted she learn as well.

When he fell ill mid-construction, her knowledge came in handy. She supervised every aspect of the project while he was bedridden, and she continued to learn about things only men were supposed to know:

math,
science,
engineering.

Women weren't…


Harlem Grown: How One Big Idea Transformed a Neighborhood

By Tony Hillery, Jessie Hartland (illustrator),

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.

Harlem Grown: How One Big Idea Transformed a Neighborhood

By Tony Hillery, Jessie Hartland (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Harlem Grown as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As featured on Humans of New York

"Hartland's joyful folk-art illustrations bop from the gray-toned jazzy vibrancy of a bustling city neighborhood to the colorful harvest of a lush urban farm." -The New York Times
"An inspiring picture book for youngsters with meaningful ties to the environment, sustainability, and community engagement." -Booklist

Discover the incredible true story of Harlem Grown, a lush garden in New York City that grew out of an abandoned lot and now feeds a neighborhood.

Once
In a big city called New York
In a bustling neighborhood
There was an empty lot.
Nevaeh called it the…


City Shapes

By Diana Murray, Bryan Collier (illustrator),

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.

City Shapes

By Diana Murray, Bryan Collier (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked City Shapes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A truck rumbling by to deliver the mail,
a silvery cart with hot pretzels for sale,
and stacks of brown packages hauled up the stairs...
Some shapes in the city are...
on-the-go squares!

City Shapes is an ode to city life, depicted from the points of view of a young girl walking through her neighborhood and a bird flying high above, both spotting dazzling shapes in every scene they pass. From the shimmering skyscrapers to the bustling marketplace, the kites flying free in the sunlight to the stars shining bright at night, everyday scenes become extraordinary.

Diana Murray's playful and…


The Secret Subway

By Shana Corey, Red Nose Studio (illustrator),

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.

The Secret Subway

By Shana Corey, Red Nose Studio (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Secret Subway as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From an acclaimed author and a New York Times Best Illustrated artist comes the fascinating, little-known—and true!—story of New York City’s first subway.
 
New York City in the 1860s was a mess: crowded, disgusting, filled with garbage. You see, way back in 1860, there were no subways, just cobblestone streets. That is, until Alfred Ely Beach had the idea for a fan-powered train that would travel underground. On February 26, 1870, after fifty-eight days of drilling and painting and plastering, Beach unveiled his masterpiece—and throngs of visitors took turns swooshing down the track.
 
The Secret Subway will wow readers, just…


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! 

A Green Place to Be: The Creation of Central Park

By Ashley Benham Yazdani,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Green Place to Be as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1858, New York City was growing so fast that new roads and tall buildings threatened to swallow up the remaining open space. The people needed a green place to be - a park with ponds to row on and paths for wandering through trees and over bridges. When a citywide contest solicited plans for creating a park out of barren swampland, Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted put their heads together to create the winning design, and the hard work of making their plans a reality began. 

By winter, the lake opened for skating. By the next summer, the…


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