Monday, April 4, 2011

Treasure Hunts

When we walk around our neighborhood, we see something you don't normally think of when you think of New York:  gargoyles.

Soup-eating, book-reading gargoyles!

And when Isabel Hill walks around New York, she sees animals.  Not real ones, but sculpted ones, hidden (to greater or lesser degrees) on buildings all over the city.  In Urban Animals, she takes us on a tour of her finds.  While the rhyming text is labored ("In this keystone with its tail in a curl/sits a busy city squirrel."), and the highlighting of architectural terms (defined in a glossary at the back of the book) is distracting, the photos themselves are compelling.  She includes a list cleverly titled "Animal Habitats" which gives the location of each animal depicted so the reader can follow in her footsteps (although the animals are located too far apart to see them all on the same trip).  And if you can't do that, or even if you can, you'll still be inspired to look a bit more closely at the buildings you pass each day.  Despite its flaws, this book will appeal to animal lovers, New York-ophiles and budding architecture buffs alike.

Stephen Johnson's Alphabet City and City by Numbers also prompt the reader to look at his or her environment from a new perspective.  In his paintings, the elements of city life suddenly reveal the shapes of letters and numbers, respectively.  My five-year-old, who until now had found these books boring, is suddenly fascinated by them.  I do wish Johnson had, like Hill, included a directory of where he found each of the images he chose.  While some are obvious (M is made with the arches of the Brooklyn Bridge, I'm pretty sure C is from the The Cathedral of St. John the Divine , just down the block from those gargoyles), others are impossible to place  (two floors of fire escape stairs form B, the three elements of a traffic light, when viewed in profile become E).  And are any of them actually in the New York City neighborhood known as Alphabet City?


  1. Oh, I must go see those gargoyles! I'm thinking that will be a field trip to help fill the long summer days.

    Isabel Hill told me at the Bklyn Museum Book Fair that she is working on a book about how the outside of buildings tells the story of what's inside (if I remember correctly). It will be interesting to see what she comes up with.

  2. Actually, I completely associate New York City with gargoyles, although I don't tend to think of them as soup and reading types. I love it when the books identify the photos; it helps ground them as something that anyone could try.

  3. NYC resident and part-time child care providerApril 5, 2011 at 3:50 PM

    There's alot of detail in NYC that is overlooked when you live here day to day, treating it as a place to live, rather than a tourist destination, a place to explore. Books like these help change the place we live into a destination to explore. It is too bad that they often don't specify where the pictures were taken.