The best books for young readers set in old-school NYC

Jennie Yabroff Author Of If You Were Here
By Jennie Yabroff

Who am I?

Growing up in California, I was enchanted by the idea of New York City—largely due to the visions of it I found in the books on this list. I’ve now lived in NYC for 20 years and love matching real locations with their versions in my imagination. In my time in the city I’ve been a staff writer for Newsweek Magazine, an editor at Scholastic, and a freelancer for many publications including The New York Times and The Washington Post. I’m currently working on a second novel. 

I wrote...

If You Were Here

By Jennie Yabroff,

Book cover of If You Were Here

What is my book about?

Tess used to be normal – or at least she knew how to fake it. Then her mentally disturbed mother started showing up at Tess’s fancy Manhattan prep school, which turned Tess into social cyanide. Tess manages her anxiety with long runs through Central Park, although her nights are increasingly haunted by strange, disturbing visions. Then her best friend Tabitha drops Tess without warning. Before Tess can begin to cope with losing Tabitha, a horrific tragedy happens, and Tess is blamed. Now, she must fight to find out the truth, all the while wondering if her visions were really a prophecy, or if she is going to end up in the grip of an uncontrollable mental illness just like her mother.

The books I picked & why

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When You Reach Me

By Rebecca Stead,

Book cover of When You Reach Me

Why this book?

Miranda Sinclair is a latchkey kid who lives with her single mom on the Upper West Side of New York City in the late 1970s. I love the way Miranda navigates her dirty, dangerous, yet enchanting city – her street smarts, her fears, her relationships with the adults in the neighborhood who keep a watchful eye over her. And the book, while totally gritty and real, also has a lovely, melancholy element of magical realism that makes the story mysterious and poignant. 

Harriet the Spy

By Louise Fitzhugh,

Book cover of Harriet the Spy

Why this book?

If you’ve read this book (and who hasn’t?), you probably remember Harriet’s trusty notebook, her long-suffering nanny, Ole Golly, or her penchant for tomato sandwiches. But I love the way this book is also an incredibly specific portrait of the Upper East Side in the mid-20th century. Although Harriet lives a life of insane privilege (The size of her townhouse! The number of staff on her family’s payroll!), her spying, and her relationship with Ole Golly, give her insight into how the rest of the city lives, and the remarkable diversity of experiences within a single city block.

The Catcher in the Rye

By J.D. Salinger,

Book cover of The Catcher in the Rye

Why this book?

To be honest, I don’t love Holden Caulfield as much as a lot of people do, and if this book were set somewhere else I might not like it at all. But I love the way Holden tries to act out his fantasy of a sophisticated Manhattanite during his time alone in New York City, almost like he’s living out some post-war version of the Sex and the City tour. As he fails to fool anyone into thinking that he’s anything other than an innocent, sheltered prep school kid, he reveals how lonely the city can feel when you’re trying to find your place in it. 

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

By e. l. konigsburg,

Book cover of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

Why this book?

In this book, a sister and brother escape the horrors of suburban Connecticut and take refuge in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they discover an art mystery that leads them to a wealthy surrogate grandmother. Beyond the iconic setting, this story has an irresistible only-in-New York feeling to it, so that you can’t help believing it all might have really happened, or still could happen.

Jenny and the Cat Club: A Collection of Favorite Stories about Jenny Linsky

By Esther Averill,

Book cover of Jenny and the Cat Club: A Collection of Favorite Stories about Jenny Linsky

Why this book?

Don’t be fooled into thinking that just because the main character (and in fact most of the characters) in this book is a cat it’s only for very young readers. This charming and elegant story, the first of a series, takes place in Greenwich Village, where a small black orphaned cat named Jenny finds a home with a sea captain and a community with her neighborhood felines. Jenny’s explorations of the then-dicey neighborhood and encounters with less fortunate cats are ridiculously poignant and moving, and her foot-high view of her city feels entirely authentic.  

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