The Vanderbeeker family lives in a century-old brownstone in the heart of Harlem: Papa and Mama (who are called Papa and Mama), 12-year-old twins Jessie and Isa, 9-year-old Oliver, 6-year-old Hyacinth, and 4¾-year-old Laney, along with an assortment of furry four-footed family members. As their story opens, Papa announces he has good news and bad news. First the good: “You kids all know how much Mama and I love you, right?”
This leads the older ones to suspect a divorce in their future. But (thankfully) no—the bad news is that their landlord Mr. Beiderman, who lives on the top floor, is not renewing their lease. With only five days until Christmas, the incipient lump of coal in their stocking is a 30-days’ notice. Not just to move out of the building, but most likely to say goodbye to the neighborhood, where Papa has lived since he was a boy.
This cannot stand. The kids must find a way to ingratiate themselves with the reclusive, misanthropic Mr. Beiderman so he’ll change his mind. Hence a series of schemes that even a gregarious philanthrope could see are bad ideas. Hijinks ensue, with disappointing results. Christmas is looking grim until a kind of miracle occurs.
In spite of our culture’s incessant tampering with it, and our own tendency to spoil it, the family structure God created both endures and endears. In The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) a biracial family united by blood, spirit, and emotion grows up together in neighborly surroundings. In the day-to-day business of growing up, they not only tease, irritate, and (sometimes) fight with each other: They’re also learning together. Close, not-always-voluntary proximity pushes us to learn lessons such as tolerance, patience, and (most of all) loving each other and our neighbors.
There’s a name for this: home, with “the crack in the shape of Eastern Europe on the ceiling” and “the whistling of pipes in the walls.” The challenge to stay home may wrap up too neatly, but the Vanderbeekers have faced real difficulties with real tenacity and plenty of laughs. We look forward to further adventures on 141st Street.