Caldecott-Medal winning author and illustrator Brian Floca has been sketching New York City ever since he moved there more than 20 years ago. His pictures took on fresh significance when the city started going through the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. He found himself pulled in particular, he explains in an Author's Note to Keeping the City Going, "to the vehicles still out on the streets, the stubborn exceptions to the city's new stillness."
If you have ever been around a child fascinated by vehicles, you will understand the brilliance of Brian Floca's intuition that this material was meant to become a children's book. The sense of static lock-down melts away into an air of excitement when we view, through his eyes, children peaking out their windows at the "almost, but not entirely" empty streets. They see the people who are still out, "driving this and that, heading from here to there," people who are "there because we need them."
Dedication and a calm urgency pours through the pages that follow, each page with its own special group of people: those who deliver food to our doors; who fill store shelves; who transport people; who keep the city clean; who deliver mail and packages; who keep water, gas, and electricity flowing; who keep the Internet going; who put out fires; and much more. The most poignant and powerful lines hail "the doctors and nurses, the technicians and aides and clerks and cleaners, everyone working through long days and worry to help patients heal."
And accompanying all of these categories of people are the vehicles and tools which so intrigue young children as symbols of competencies into which they will grow. We see, for instance, motorcycles, trucks of every sort, buses, subway trains, taxis, fire engines, FedEx vans. The hospital corridor, which gets the only indoor view of the book, features stethoscopes, computer stations, and cleaning carts. Even though vehicles feature prominently in this book, Floca's illustrations still movingly render individual people's commitment, whether by showing the strength a delivery-person needs in order to wrestle a heavy package to someone's door or the caring, alert glance of a doctor back at the reader.
Touches of humor dot the pages. The mention of items that grocery stores need to stock overflows from one page onto another, where a line stands clearly by itself, recalling an early pandemic memory: "and toilet paper, too." And the book acknowledges the foolish things we've bought when we're bored, showing a child gazing with some ambivalence at a small Tyrannosaurus Rex plush toy that just arrived. A parenthetical note reads, "We'll try not to do it again."
Floca's award-winning talent shines again at the end, when he returns to the children watching from their windows. Now they are not only onlookers: At seven o'clock in the evening they take part in the cheers and celebration that give thanks to all the people still out of the streets, caring for the sick and of all of us.
The Author's Note observes, "It feels both meaningful and fraught to make a book about this difficult moment, about a crisis that, at this writing, continues to touch so many people, so deeply, and in so many different ways." Brian Floca nonetheless brings four- to eight-year-old readers, and all of us, a glimpse of everyday heroism amplified by the pandemic. Only time will tell whether the book becomes an important historic marker or an ongoing guidebook.