Manhattan – Perfect Picture Book Friday

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Title: Manhattan: Mapping the Story of an Island

Author & Illustrator: Jennifer Thermes

 Publisher: Henry N. Abrams, 2019

Ages: 6+

Themes: geography, city planning, sociology, historiography, cartography, Manhattan, maps, urban growth, New Amsterdam

62 pages, nonfiction


MILLIONS OF YEARS AGO, when the glaciers melted, before anything had a name, the island lay sheltered in an estuary where freshwater river met saltwater sea, anchored on bedrock far below the surface of the earth.


An innovative look back through time, Manhattan follows the history of Manhattan Island from its natural formation to the bustling city today. It explores the ways in which nature and people are connected, tracking the people who lived on Manhattan from the Lenape Indians to Dutch settlers hunting for beaver pelts to early Americans and beyond, and how they’ve (literally) shaped the island (and vice versa).

Why I like this book:

Maps have truly emotive storytelling power. There is so much detail in this beautiful nonfiction picture book, it is hard to know where to begin. From 20,000 years ago and the melting Laurentide ice sheet covering the island to the countdown each new year in Times Square or the creation of Central Park and the influx of immigrants, this book is packed with well-researched urban history. Most double-page spreads follow the history in brief paragraphs, illustrated with both large paintings and small extra facts added in various ways like along the lower part of the pages or in sidebars, where Jen traces specific threads of history and their lasting impact today (immigration, slave trade…)

Jen highlights watershed moments where New Yorkers faced natural disasters, like the Great Blizzard of 1888, leading to the decision to create the subway system and the terrible time and aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which I lived through myself. These decisive city moments are a skillful choice to make this rather epic undertaking intimate and relate-able. She uses the mapping to tell the stories and challenges of many different peoples: how the grid layout resulted in many farmers and native Americans being forced from their lands and homes.

The numerous and beautiful maps are created in watercolor, pencil and ink. Kids intrigued by language will enjoy Jen’s use of the original spellings on old maps of the city. It is a fascinating book that allows students to view Manhattan through multiple lenses: geography, city planning, sociology, historiography, cartography…

As a cartophile, I find this picture book breathtaking and groundbreaking, and it holds a fascination for all ages, It is the sort of picture book I would put on my coffee table, and I sincerely hope that Jen and Abrams consider extending this to a series.

Copyright: Jennifer Thermes
Copyright: Jennifer Thermes


A map with a key spreads out on the endpapers, adding to the history with locations, dates of buildings built, and explanations, like why the East River is not really a river.

This book will be valuable for units on New York/USA history and geography, mapping. At the back is an extensive timeline and page chock full of selective sources.

Each week a group of bloggers reviews picture books we feel would make great educational reads. To help teachers, caregivers and parents, we have included resources and/or activities with each of our reviews. A complete list of the thousands of books we have reviewed can be found sorted alphabetically and by topics, here on Susanna Leonard Hill’s website.

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10 Responses to Manhattan – Perfect Picture Book Friday

  1. Wendy says:

    I think I need this book to help me out with NYC geography!

  2. What a treasure of mapping, early history, development and historical events. Sounds like a perfect resource book for school libraries. Can’t help but feel sad as I look at the early mapping of Manhattan before the massive development began. Wonder how global warming will impact it’s shorelines in the future. Great choice!

  3. Joanna says:

    Right, the history is of course very mixed with progress intermingled with destruction… as humans are want to do. Let us hope the city council are also thinking clearly about global warming in their planning.

  4. Joanna, I saw this cover recently and was interested in finding it. Now, after your awesome review, I can’t wait to get it from my library. Thank you.

  5. Wowser! I love this! And the fact that it was created by a female illustrator, all the better! it reminds me of the detailed work done by David Macaulay.

  6. Mina Witteman says:

    What a wonderful book!

  7. This looks really interesting! Looking forward to seeing it!

  8. An epic undertaking. Fabulous book!

  9. Wendy Wahman says:

    Beautiful art. And besides the historical facts, a good reminder that things do change.

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