The first time I felt truly connected to L.A. was through the young adult novels of Francesca Lia Block. I first learned of her from a panel she was on at the first Los Angeles Times Festival of Books in 1996. I was in the fifth grade. That day, I bought, and she signed for me, her first and most famous novel, “Weetzie Bat.” It’s a short novel set in Hollywood, where she was born and raised, about Weetzie Bat and her best friend Dirk navigating life and love in an almost dreamlike version of L.A.
As a native, I found it powerful to read about places I’d been to and discover new places in my city, even if some of the finer points of Block’s novel went over my head. I was beginning to explore who and what L.A. is and who lives here, and to learn about the world I was growing up in. What I didn’t know at the time, and wouldn’t know until I was much older, is that Block’s young adult novels and stories are a part of a vast literary canon of L.A. literature.
In a city with such a rich and diverse body of place-based literature, what better way is there to powerfully and entertainingly engage your child in discussions of their vastly misunderstood city, “The Entertainment Capital of the World,” than through reading?
A good place to begin your search for this literature, and to get appropriate recommendations for your child, is at L.A.’s children’s bookstores, including Children’s Book World in Rancho Park and the nation’s oldest children’s bookstore, Once Upon A Time, in Montrose. And here are a few of my recommendations for L.A. kids books you and your child should consider, ranging from board books to YA works.
This rhyming board book for toddlers by Elisa Parhad is a great introduction to L.A. It captures some of L.A.’s culture, history, iconic locales and the unique attributes that make it the city that it is. “[P]alm-lined streets, food truck treats…” the book rhymes on two facing pages, with an illustration of a palm tree-lined road on the left and a black man walking his dog and buying Mexican food at a taco truck on the right. The blue, orange, coral and salmon colors used in the illustrations by Alexander Vidal create inviting images of L.A. that will capture your child’s interest.
This picture book by Eve Bunting, illustrated by David Diaz, is based on the 1992 L.A. Riots. It’s told from the point of view of young Daniel and details what happens one night when the rioting reaches his street. “Mama explains about rioting,” he says. Your child will want you to explain, too, as they explore one of the most important events in the city’s history, beginning an important conversation about history and place.
Though not technically about L.A. (it’s set in Westminster), this picture book by Duncan Tonatiuh tells the story of a little-known but very important piece of Southern California history. It’s about Sylvia Mendez and her family’s fight to end school segregation in California. After Sylvia was denied enrollment at her local public school due to her dark skin and told she had to attend the Mexican school instead, her family’s fight grew to become the court case known as Mendez v. Westminster, a precursor to Brown v. Board of Education.
Karen Cushman writes about the most iconic part of L.A. – Hollywood – in this historical novel set in the McCarthy Era. This novel straddles the age range between middle grade and YA, and is about 13-year-old Francine Green, who doesn’t speak up for herself for fear she’ll get in trouble. As McCarthyism and the blacklisting of people for unpopular ideas reaches Hollywood, Francine’s friend Sophie sees an actor friend of hers blacklisted, and Sophie’s father loses his screenwriting job. An author’s note at the end of the book helps readers explore the time and place in which the novel is set.
Poetry is more popular than ever, according to National Endowment for the Arts research published in June. Mike Sonksen’s easily accessible poems explore L.A.’s diversity, its history, architecture, landmarks and more. His poem “Arrival Stories,” for example, chronicles how L.A. is a racially and ethnically diverse city of immigrants, an excellent way for you and your child to enter into important conversations about race and racism.
There are many other excellent books about L.A. that will engage your child in exploring who and what makes up the world around them, just as my encounter with “Weetzie Bat” in the fifth grade set me off on my own exploration. Engage your child with the intellectual heart of the city – L.A. literature – then head out to explore those places they read about up close and in person.
Brian Dunlap is a native Angeleno who explores and captures the city’s stories that are hidden in plain sight. His chapbook, “Concrete Paradise,” features 14 poems exploring the intersection of race and place in L.A.