Growing up, I always wanted to write books, but it wasn’t until I moved to New York City in my late 20s that I was able to find the drive to make it happen. Something about living here finally kicked my creativity into gear.
Maybe it was working as an editor, where I was immersed in all things books, all the time. Or maybe it was constantly being surrounded by so many people — on the subway, in my neighbourhood, at coffee shops, in China Town and Coney Island — a dramatic change from growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio. Or maybe it was how once I moved here, I started to listen to the constant humming pulse around me-how at any given moment, so many stories are constantly unfolding around you.
Whatever the magic formula, this city is perfect to write in, and not so surprisingly, perfect to write about as well. In my first novel, The Museum of Heartbreak, as my heroine Penelope tries to navigate growing up and first love, New York City is a just as much of a character as her best friends. And I’m not alone in incorporating the city into my book.
Each of these books also spend time in a city as diverse and vibrant as they are...
1. Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
The marvellous story of a disagreeable 11-year-old tomboy and self-professed spy who lives on the Upper East Side. Harriet spends most of her days skulking around being nosy, and then recording her less-than-charitable observations in her private notebook. I love how Harriet is so much like New York: brassy, bold, and often rude, but always true to herself.
2. Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins
This book starts with the New York I want to find myself in: you’re sitting in a diner when the cute boy of your dreams comes in. Buoyed by the sense of possibility NYC embodies, you finally, finally flirt with him. A whimsical and swoony look at falling in love in a city I’m in love with myself.
3. The Diviners by Libba Bray
Set in Jazz Age New York City, this sprawling novel (the first in a series) introduces readers to Evie O’Neil, a teen flapper with a talent for divining information from objects. In reading it, you can get to experience the city in all its 1920s glory-Ziegfeld girls, jazz concerts in Harlem, secret speakeasies, and more.
4. Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold
Based on the author’s 1988 story quilt, this breathtaking picture book is the story of a young girl who imagines flying above the roof of her apartment and over 1939 Harlem. She dreams of the George Washington Bridge becoming her necklace and of giving her father the union building he’s never been allowed to join. As you spend time with the stunning pages, you can feel yourself flying right along with her.
5. Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older
I didn’t fall in love with street art until I moved to Brooklyn, and then it was a head-over-heels freefall, which is how I felt about this book. In it, teenager Sierra discovers she’s a shadowshaper, able to infuse magic into art-which for her, happens to be street murals. And she needs as much power as she can get in order to fight the outside forces threatening her community-from corpses and other supernatural threats, to gentrification and police violence-in this gorgeous dream of a novel.
6. Like No Other by Una LaMarche
A star-crossed love story that starts in a stalled elevator in a storm. Even though they live in the same Brooklyn neighbourhood, Devorah and Jaxon come from different worlds. A charming look at what it means to fall in love with someone you’re not supposed to, and a brilliant glimpse at all the different worlds that exist alongside each other in the boroughs.
7. Missing Angel Juan by Francesca Lia Block
My favorite of all the Weetzie Bat books finds Witch Baby going to New York to find her love Angel Juan. Full of surreal imaginings and magical characters (including the ghost of Witch Baby’s almost grandfather), this modern fairy tale comes to life largely because it takes place in New York-the perfect setting for a modern day epic quest.
8. City of Bones by Cassandra Clare
I was hooked from the first page of Clare’s bestselling Shadowhunter series. With all of its dark alleys and eerie subway tunnels and sprawling shadows and mysterious strangers, New York is the perfect habitat for all of her demons and hunters, vampires and werewolves.
9. Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
A romance based on a secret notebook of dares left on a shelf of the venerable Strand Bookstore in Union Square? Sign me up. As Dash and Lily get to know each other through their mysterious correspondence, readers get to experience one of the greatest joys of New York City: the delight of being surprised by the world around you.
10. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler by EL Konigsburg
There’s no way my list would be complete without the wondrous tale of two siblings who run away to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This book has spurred countless kids’ dreams of hiding out in a museum, and I’m no exception. As a child, I spent hours plotting how to stay over in a museum, so I could sleep in an ornate bed after roaming the halls at night. (To be honest, I still do imagine it... I already have my perfect bed picked out!)
— Guardian News & Media Ltd. Meg Leder is the author of The Museum of Heartbreak and an executive editor at Penguin Books. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.