Creating Community with the Vanderbeekers
December 10, 2020 § 1 Comment
Last Saturday, we got a Christmas tree. By all accounts it looked like a ho hum ordeal, much like the rest of 2020. For the first time since having kids, we didn’t drive to a bucolic farm to cut down our own tree and enjoy celebratory hot cider overlooking evergreen-studded hills. Instead, we walked the five blocks to a local nursery and paid twice as much for a tree half as big. It took us so long to get out of the house that by the time we got there, it was dark. We hoisted the tree on our shoulders and walked it back to the temporary digs we’re calling home these days, with the children trailing behind us like shivering ducklings. When we arrived at our front door, we realized the clippers were in storage; we had no way to trim the lower branches to fit the tree in the stand. Also, we had forgotten about dinner.
And yet, when I collapsed into bed several hour later, I could not stop smiling. I turned to my husband. “Why was that so fun?” I mused. Sure, it was an outing, at a time when we have fewer occasions than usual to leave our house. Yes, it was festive (who doesn’t catch the holiday spirit from the scent of evergreen?). But I suspected there was something larger at work. And then it hit me.
Standing among the outdoor crowd in that nursery—waving at neighbors we recognized over their masks, listening to the music piped through crackly speakers, heeding the frenzied calls of workers bundling trees for transport—I felt connected to something larger than myself. For the first time in a long while, I was caught up in community. We have had such few occasions to gather this year; most of the time, seeing people means turning or running the other way. But for one night, I was reminded that rituals and traditions are more meaningful when they’re shared with others. Even strangers. None of us were there for long before we retreated back inside our homes, but for a moment, we remembered what it was like to join together in celebration. (Like the Whos down in Whoville.)
This theme of community features prominently in each of the four titles (and counting!) in Karina Yan Glaser’s Vanderbeekers series, though perhaps none so strongly as in her newest, The Vanderbeekers Lost and Found (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud). If my son’s once-upon-a-time enthusiasm for The Penderwicks and my daughter’s continued enthusiasm for The Problim Children has been any indication, my kids are partial to read alouds with large families. But no literary family has quite united my kids’ affection like the Vanderbeekers, a contemporary, biracial family of five children and two parents living on 141st street in New York City. And no other book has elicited as many tears and cheers as the fourth. Glaser’s writing has not only strengthened with each title, she’s now dipping her toe into meatier plots and more complex emotions.
The beauty of choosing books with large families (apart from ample opportunities for hilarious sibling banter) is that a listening audience of different ages will find different characters with which to connect. These characters grow and evolve with every installment until, at some point, it feels like you’re reading about members of your own family, albeit ones who only make an appearance after dinner.
In the case of the Vanderbeekers, listeners are not only gifted a family, one at once aspirational and relatable, they’re gifted a community. Actually, two communities. The Harlem brownstone where the Vanderbeekers live (along with a barrage of dogs, cats, chickens, and Paganini the bunny) also houses the curmudgeonly-but-lovable widower, Mr. Biederman, and the sweet elderly couple, Miss Josie and Mr. Jeet. As the books progress, the three families are together as often as not, gathering around the Vanderbeeker table for giant feasts (I wish I had this mother’s enthusiasm for baking) or dropping in to visit or lend a hand.
Then there’s the community outside the brownstone, to which the Vanderbeeker children are equally devoted. Indeed, the streets of Harlem are so vividly rendered, through prose and the occasional maps and sketches, they are a character unto themselves. In the second book, the children turn an overgrown lot neighboring their church into a community garden. In the third book, they help find homes for various rescue animals mysteriously left on their doorstep. In the latest book, they organize a Halloween-themed mini-marathon in Harlem days before the New York marathon. They fight to save a historic building. They fight to help a struggling friend. They open a cat café for their mother to run. They honor a deceased loved one with a garden party.
There is a moment of deep sadness halfway through the fourth book. Being careful not to give anything away, I will say only that the pages leading up to this momentous loss are some of the most poignant I’ve ever read, a beautiful example of what it means to bear witness to a life well lived. At one point, one of the adult characters says to the one dying, “Your love has astounded me.” Rarely has a line in literature undone me so (just imagine me trying to read it aloud).
In many ways, this sentiment serves as a guiding light for the spirit of these stories. The Vanderbeekers, inspired in large part by the adults in their lives, are fervently committed to love. Theirs is a love sometimes playful, sometimes solemn, sometimes mis-directed, sometimes naive—but always well-intentioned. It’s a boundless, inclusive love, extending well beyond the four walls of their home. Isa, Jessie, Oliver, Hyacinth, and Laney remind us on every page that strength, creativity, joy, and healing dwell in togetherness.
Connecting with our own communities may be extra challenging in the midst of a global pandemic, but perhaps if we take a page from the Vanderbeekers’ enthusiasm and resourcefulness, we’ll find new ways of reaping the rewards of reaching out.
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