Book Review: The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street

Cover image from Amazon.com

I can’t decide whether or not I like The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser. I have such opposite reactions to different aspects of it. When it comes down to it, I would recommend it for its merits, but I spent the first third of the book wanting to put it down because of its faults. By the end, it had worked its charm on me, but not enough that I was mesmerized (or needed to continue the series). And yet, I can see many middle graders loving this book. My own son, a reluctant reader, enjoyed it because “it was like normal life and I liked Oliver.” Indeed.

To be blunt, I found it predictable and boring. I mean, within the first couple chapters, an astute reader could map out the rest of the book. On the other hand, it is this “boring”ness that made me call it, the other day in conversation, “like modern Beverly Cleary.” You know, in reference to her stuff set in the fifties, like Ramona and Henry Huggins. And I love Ramona because of the normalcy and accessibility of both the characters and plot and also the family. There are other ways in which the series are similar: they both contain vibrant main characters that have a measure of zest, passion, artisticness to them as well as intelligence and motivation. So how can I call this boring? I just was lulled to it, at least for this first bit.

I also found, as in much of the literature for elementary through middle grades, that I was told things instead of being shown. I’ve seen much worse, but—despite that everyone keeps saying the Brownstown is a character—there was a lack of description. Of the Brownstown, the neighborhood, other things. There was some, though, and maybe as much as the average eleven-year-old would like. I don’t know. I wanted to look around me and see things, so that the place could become a character as much as the house in Knives Out, but without the need to slip in there occasionally that the house was figuratively talking to me. This plays well for English teachers, but not so much for reader absorption.

I do appreciate a book with a great, functional family, and Vanderbeekers is all about a functional family. There is no main character here, unless you count family as one. Despite what I just said, I found the Vanderbeekers to be too perfect. At times, they came across as flat and cliché because even their quirks—meant to be endearing—were out of some sort of character can. The nutty professor sister. The prodigy musician sister. The only brother who loves to read. The arts and crafts sister. And the shy, loving, baby sister. While trying to be so fresh and different, we recognize these characters and—besides being children—they don’t do much to challenge our initial assumptions about them. And mom and dad don’t have any faults that I can find. They always say and do the right thing and, while we’re on the topic, the mom does so much that it is, I believe, actually impossible. In just a few days, she packs an entire house, raises five kids, runs a baking business, and manages a meaningful Christmas while cheerfully reaching out to neighbors, giving perfect advice to her children, and generally beaming at everyone amidst an aroma of fresh-baked cookies. I like positive role models, but this is the every-woman (the one the Oprah theme sang about) that I hate seeing portrayed in the media. Yikes.

Still, the book has drawn a lot of fans and I’m almost one of them. It is charming (at least after you commit to it) and the characters are likeable. Eventually, the story grows some tentacles and subplots that have you turning pages. The setting is definitely a place you want to be, to be wrapped up in, especially the neighborhood. (This is, by the way, fiction, but set in real-life Harlem.) Not that it really plays out on the book, but the Vanderbeekers are (really) vaguely bi-racial, and their neighbors are (again vaguely) diverse. They “look” just like any family you might find in urban America, not playing into any stereotypes in that sense. All good stuff that will draw kids in, entertain them, and be a positive book experience.

My question is, was it too serious for how unserious it felt? There were a lot of deep things here. I was even crying (like one, lonely tear) once or twice. But was the writing deep enough? It was the characters, I suppose, that were supposed to take us there. Were they too perfect? I think they were, and the book didn’t end up being quite as meaningful as it wanted to be. It just ended up being light and playful, and for all that, I would expect more to draw us in initially and to challenge our predictions about the people and plot. And still I would recommend it, because there’s nothing to harm, here, and kids enjoy it. They may even learn a lesson or two (though getting in trouble for starting a petition was a little weird to me and some other readers. Actually, several of the parents’ responses were a little strange).

Here’s the schtick: The Vanderbeekers live in the apartment in a brownstone in Harlem where their father grew up. They love their house, their dog, cat and bunny, and their hard-working, loving parents. It’s almost Christmas, and they suddenly find out that their cranky, reclusive landlord upstairs has decided not to renew their lease and has given them less than two weeks—over the holidays—to get out. But the five Vanderbeeker kids aren’t going to just move out without a fight. So as the boxes pile up around them and their neighbors say tearful goodbyes, the kids go to the drawing board to figure out how to convince the Biederman that the neighborhood—and he—need them.

Nice cover. Also of note: first in a series of three.

__________

This was our final middle grades boys book club book for the school year, and it was my turn to host. The pandemic caused some last-minute panicking and changes, but in the end it came off okay. We tried to keep it light and it had to travel (so no decorations, for example), since the boys mostly like to run around making weapons out of whatever nature presents and I had to set up in a storm in a park. I fed the boys, first, then we went over some of the discussion questions (that you can find online) and talked about our favorite books of the year. After that, they made a lemon-powered batteries in pairs (which of course turned into a competition and then ways to destroy the lemons) and then filled out coupon books for their mothers (since Mothers Day was two days away). All of this was related to the book, as was the food. (I decided not to go the beef stew and roasted veggie route and instead pumped them all full of sugar and carbs.) We had a carrot cake decorated to look like Paganini the bunny, double-chocolate pecan cookies, jam cookies (which I call thumbprints), frozen hot chocolate (with whipped cream and frozen because it’s like 80 degrees here, right now), and then chocolate croissants and cheese bread from a shi-shi bakery. As a send-off, here are a few recipes for you to celebrate your reading of The Vanderbeekers.

Double-Chocolate Pecan Cookies

  1. Preheat oven to 375F.
  2. In the bowl of your mixer, mix together 1 cup soft, unsalted butter with 2 cups granulated sugar for 5 minutes. Add 2 eggs, one at a time. Add 4 ounces melted chocolate (not too hot) and 2 teaspoons vanilla extract.
  3. In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together 2 ¼ cup all purpose flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon powdered espresso.
  4. Mix dry ingredients into the wet, just until combined. Gently add 1 cup chocolate chips and 1 cup chopped toasted pecan pieces.
  5. On a baking sheet, drop small-scooper balls of dough, a couple inches apart. Bake 12 minutes or more, until flattened some and cracked on top. Allow to cool for 5 minutes and transfer with a metal spatula to a cooling rack. Store sealed once completely cooled.

Thumbprint Cookies, aka. Jam Cookies

  1. Preheat oven to 350F.
  2. In the bowl of your mixer, mix together 1 1/2 cup soft, unsalted butter with 1 1/3 cups granulated sugar for 5 minutes. Add 2 eggs, one at a time. Add 2 teaspoons vanilla extract.
  3. In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together 3 1/2 cups all purpose flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder, and 1 teaspoon salt.
  4. Mix dry ingredients into the wet, just until combined.
  5. On a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a Silpat, drop small-scooper balls of dough, a couple inches apart. Press a thumbprint into each cookie, making sure not to go too near the pan, and trying to create a crater that won’t leak out the sides. Fill each thumbprint with whatever jam or jelly you have on hand.
  6. Bake 20 minutes, until edges are just a little golden-brown. Allow to cool for 5 minutes and transfer with a spatula to a cooling rack. Store sealed once completely cooled. (They are delicious warm.)

Best Carrot Cake

  1. Preheat oven to 350F. Prepare two 9-inch round baking pans with coconut oil, parchment paper, more oil, and flour. Set aside.
  2. In the bowl of your mixer, mix together 2 ½ cups all purpose flour, 2 teaspoons baking powder, 1 teaspoon baking soda, ½ teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, ½ teaspoon clove, ½ teaspoon ground ginger and ¼ teaspoon nutmeg.
  3. In a large glass measuring cup, whisk together 1 cup safflower oil, 1 ¼ cup brown sugar, ½ cup granulated sugar, 4 eggs, 1 tablespoon fresh grated ginger and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Mix into the dry ingredients just until incorporated.
  4. Add 2 cups grated carrot, 1 cup drained crushed pineapple, and 1 cup chopped walnuts, just until combined.
  5. Evenly divide the batter into the two baking pans and spread basically flat. Bake for 45 minutes and check for doneness with a toothpick. Allow to cool for 5 minutes and flip and transfer to a cooling rack.
  6. Meanwhile, Beat 24 oz cream cheese with ½ cup softened unsalted butter. Beat in a scant 6 cups powdered sugar, 1 cup at a time. Add 1 teaspoon vanilla extract and a hefty pinch of salt. Taste. Add more sugar if consistency is not spreadable. You want it to decently hold its shape.
  7. When cakes are completely cooled, dot a cake tray with a little frosting. Top with one cake. Spread a layer of frosting. (Alternately, you could dam the edge and add a carrot-cake-friendly filling like a pineapple jam or a praline frosting.) Top with second cake. Frost with the remaining frosting. (You could color to decorate or use a piping tip after the crumb coat.) Keep refrigerated.

Frozen Hot Chocolate

  1. In a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, whisk together 8 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips, 2 tablespoons hot cocoa mix, 4 tablespoons granulated sugar, and 1 cup milk. Continue whisking until chocolate has melted and sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat.
  2. In a blender, combine 2 cups milk with 8 cups ice (if possible. You may need shifts, or just use 6 cups ice). Blend until like a smoothie.
  3. In your serving container, mix the completely cooled chocolate mix with the smoothie. Serve right away (or chill and serve as cold hot cocoa instead of iced) with whipped cream and chocolate syrup or flake on top.

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