Book Review: On This Spot

Ages 4-8

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What if you took one location and took snapshots of it throughout long periods of time? That's the premise of this wonderful new book by Susan E. Goodman, On This Spot. Illustrated by Lee Christiansen and brought to us by Greenwillow Books (of the HarperCollins family), the book explains in vivid words and vivid pictures what New York City was like in times past—175 years ago, 350 years ago, 15,000 years ago, 220 million years ago, etc., all the way back to 540 million years ago.

It is a wonderful idea, and it works well in this context. Concepts are kept simple, for young readers, yet not too simple. The idea is to educate, not to preach, to show-and-tell, not to obscure. All of the pictures (both figurative and mental) in this book are rewarding to the eye and the mind, and all tell the story of New York as it was times past (and in very distant times past).

The book also serves to challenge natural conclusions about the past. As the author herself has said, she got the idea for the book when she was pondering "how most of us assume that what is now always was, and always will be." Many people that life long ago was simpler and easier to manage; this book sets the record on that assumption, describing thriving ecosystems and life-or-death struggles many eras ago. Modern technology might not have existed 400 years ago, but men and women still found ways to survive—and to hurt one another. In the same way, animals of millions of ago might not have had humans around to hunt them, but they still managed to struggle for food (or use one another as food) much of the time.

A few delightful "nice touches" stand out:

  • 175 years ago: "Mothers warned their children to stay away from the wild pigs that ran through the streets." We see a pig crossing a cobblestone street, and every person on the page is looking at the pig.
  • 350 years ago: When New York was New Amsterdam, a Dutch colony, people spoke 18 different languages and lived side-by-side with people from other nations. This kind of inter-national harmony was rare in America in those days.
  • 400 years ago: The Lenape lived in what is New York then, when it was more forest and wildlife than settlement, and when trails and not roads dotted the landscape. "One of those trails, which stretched north and south, eventually became a street named Broadway."
  • 15,000 years ago: No forest existed at this time. In fact, the cold wind blew so hard that plants couldn't grow very tall without being whisked away. The plants adapted, however, by growing close to the ground and together for warmth.
  • 300 million years ago: The area was mountainous in the extreme. One mountain, in particular, "was part of a range taller than any mountains in the United States today."

This is a wonderful series of snapshots of times in place, a slideshow of years past, a time capsule on every two-page spread. It's an excellent example of the breadth of social studies, incorporating geography and history and economics, and some related science, including geology, climatology, and biology. This book succeeds exceptionally well for students in New York and in the Northeast but would be suitable as well for students living elsewhere.

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David White