Too Many Books About NYC?

Ever since I first became a part of the YA world, I’ve been noticing complaints that way too many YA books published in the US of A are set in New York City. Why can’t other cities get a look in? they ask. Off the top of my head I can easily name many, many US YA books that are not set in NYC. But I think most people would concede that there are more YA books set in NYC than any other city or place in the USA.

There are lots of reasons. There’s the famous New York City bubble. People who live in NYC find it hard to believe there is anything of interest outside her five boroughs. (And most of them are unconvinced there’s anything cool anywhere expect the borough they happen to live in.) I don’t share that opinion, but hey, I’m from Sydney that’s where all the cool stuff actually is.

I have never heard anyone bitch that all Oz YA is set in Sydney. That’s beacause a) it isn’t and b) the publishing industry is mostly in Melbourne. But neither is most OZ YA set in Melbourne. Actually, an astonishing number of Oz YA novels are set in country towns. This is especially astonishing given that Australia is the most highly urbanised country in the world.

I think the preponderance of NYC YA makes sense given the huge population of the city and that it’s the centre of publishing and thus has a long long history of writers living here. Er, like me.1 I’m one of those writers who needs to have been to the places I write about. My five novels are set in Sydney, NYC, San Miguel de Allende, Bangkok, Dallas as well as a city, New Avalon, I invented and thus know really well.2

Are any of you annoyed by all the USian YA set in NYC? Do you not read it cause you’re so sick of it? Or is it more that when you’re picking a new book you’ll pass if it’s yet another one set in NYC?

If you’re not from the US, are you annoyed by the setting of any of the YA in your country? Is too much French YA set in Paris? Too many Bangkok YA novels in Thailand?

  1. For half the year. []
  2. For me the hardest to write were Dallas and Bangkok cause I’ve only been a couple of times and don’t know either city especially very well. Fortunately it was just a few short scene set in either city. If I were to write whole novel set in either I suspect I’d have to live there while writing. []


  1. Ellen on #

    I don’t avoid reading YA novels that are set in NYC. I rather like them, in fact. However, when I notice a YA novel set in a city or town besides NYC, even if I’ve never heard of the author, I think I’m a little more likely to give it a chance. Then again, that could be because I’ve recently become interested in urban fantasy novels set in real locations (not, for example, set in “generic midwestern small town which we never name”).

  2. Karen on #

    I love NYC and I’m always interested to see stories set there because it’s a bit like visiting. For similar reasons I love to see stories set in all sorts of exotic locales: instant vacation!

    But I will say that after moving to the middle of the country, to an awesome city not widely known on the coasts, whenever my new hometown does crop up in fiction it gives me a huge thrill. Like: hey, we exist! It’s always affirming to read about people like us, however we define “us”, and sometimes that has a lot to do with regional identity.

    I imagine that’s even more the case for people who haven’t traveled widely and/or don’t see themselves reflected in a lot of fiction. For example, Christopher Barzak’s One For Sorrow gives a really beautiful feel for a slice of life in a working-class, rural small town in Ohio. In some ways, that felt closer to the reality around me here than a lot of stories set in urban coastal cities. I wouldn’t get mad about writers setting stories in the cities where they live, which seems entirely natural, but I certainly appreciate the alternatives when I find them.

  3. Sam on #

    NYC-centric books don’t bother me one bit. But maybe that’s because I heart NY (hey, someone should put that on a t-shirt).

  4. Steph Bowe on #

    I’m Australian, and I love that a lot of Aus YA books are set in country towns because they seem like the real fair dinkum part of Australia to me (that said, I’ve lived in the city and in the country, and I love them both equally and in different ways).

    I really don’t mind the number of YA books set in New York, as often in really great novels the setting makes up a very small part of the overall story. I think I notice the focus on NYC a lot more in movies (a lot of movies are set in NYC, and pretty much 99% of chick-litty movies a set there) since I’m actually seeing it.

    Where a book is set isn’t likely to influence whether I’ll read it or not. Isn’t that a really subtle form of… um… city-ism? I usually choose a book based off a combination of an intriguing blurb, recommendations and whether or not I’ve read the author’s previous books. I don’t think setting plays any role in whether or not I pick up a book.

  5. Jennifer on #

    Never mind ya books set in NY – I want to know why there are so many picturebooks and nonfiction picturebooks in and around NY. And why my library, a small library in south Wisconsin, appears to have most of them.

    This has been an official weeding-the-juvenile-nonfiction-if-it-kills-me rant.

  6. CKHB on #

    I’m from NYC originally, so I don’t really notice…

    But I love reading books set in places I’ve traveled to! (Oz rocks!)

  7. Ted Lemon on #

    I love New York, but when I was a kid living in Western Massachusetts, reading books that took place in cities was like reading science fiction. I had no idea what a fire hydrant was for other than cooling off in the summer, for example. The idea of a city block with nothing but stores seemed completely unrealistic, and in any case had to have been the center of town. Buses? Subways? The only analog in my world was the school bus.

  8. Mike on #

    I guess I never noticed (too much) about the settings in YA novels. The thing that bugs me is that in books and TV (especially TV), students in NY never seem to attend public school. I know there are public schools in NY. Anyway, just my rant.

  9. wandering-dreamer on #

    Oh god do I hate how almost all the novels are set in NYC! I really don’t like NYC to start with (D.C. FTW!) and I think that my town has appeared in exactly one novel and only in passing there (Ender’s Game, I dare someone to re-read it and try to figure out my town). And I love it when books are set in real towns/cities, just please no more NYC!

  10. Tole on #

    I think in some ways the purpose of location is just to add more believability to the plot. As long as a location does that, it doesn’t matter to me where it is. Nyc is kind of like fanfic in that it’s kind of common ground even for ppl that haven’t been there.

  11. sarah on #

    The YA I’m working on is currently set in a big town in Texas. While I use to mostly read romance novels – there was a time that almost any contemporary that I picked up seemed to be set in New York.

  12. El on #

    Hmm. My first reaction was “Enough New York already!” then I thought “Also DC!” Which, given I’ve spent most of my life in the suburbs of DC had me asking myself why.

    And “why” seems to be “because so many writers use the iconic version of the city, not the real version.”

    So in point of fact, if you’re writing the REAL New York, yay!

  13. teh awe-some sauce on #

    I don’t mind books set in NYC, but I do mind all of the books set in Southern California that get it WRONG! Maybe because that’s where I grew up, but reading books that make it seem like everyday is summer and people spend all of their time hanging out at the beach set my teeth on edge.

  14. Jacqui on #

    Hmm, I’d almost say it’s an ‘issue’ in fictional works in general. NYC seems to feature in an awful lot of American films, and as far as I can tell, a lot of novels for adults. Is that a problem in of itself? Dunno. Not having been, all I can say is there must be something about it that inspires so many creators to represent it.

    That said, it is pretty awesome when one’s less represented place of residence/hometown/etc. appears in fiction. As someone further up said, it gives a sense of ‘yes we exist!’

    I suppose a benefit of having an oft-represented city is that there is the chance for readers/viewers/etc. to get a sense of many different visions of NYC (though just how diverse those visions are is perhaps not as wide as we might like to think ie. how much of it is predominantly white and reasonably affluent?)

    But I think I’m going on another tangent now so will stop.

  15. Diana Peterfreund on #

    I remember being really excited as a kid when I read STARRING SALLY J FREEDMAN as herself because it was set in Florida and I’d never read a book set in Florida before. Everyone in books lived in towns where the leaves fell in fall and it snowed in winter and there were hills. I was from Tampa. That was not my life.

  16. Jodie on #

    As a UK girl I can say there is way too much of everything set in London. Things happen elsewhere people!

  17. Pixelfish on #

    Wandering dreamer: You lived in Greensboro?

    I definitely noticed the preponderance of NYC in books growing up. Even kids in small towns were sorta peripheral to NY or had moved from NY.

    It would be hard for me to set a particular kind of YA novel in my hometown because of the culture where I grew up. (Orem, Utah.) Which means I would have to include aspects of Mormonia or it wouldn’t be realistic, but it would also be somewhat limiting because of the sheer amount of religious jargon and assumptions dealing with that culture. Not that it couldn’t be done, mind you, but it would be a different sort of novel to start with than I want to work with right now.

  18. Melissa on #

    Oh, yes, I am tired of them. (In fact, it was part of my mini-rant here: And the middle-grade. And the picture books. Every season I have to pass through a stack of books from various publishers, and when my rep asks why I’m passing, I have to say “Because nobody will care.”

    There are exceptions, of course, but man, I am tired of New York. And I LOVE New York. New York was one of the hardest things to leave when I moved from the East Coast to St. Louis. But please. Fewer NY books. It seems like most YA authors who now live in NY have lived SOMEWHERE else. Set your book there.

    And no kid outside of a very big city is going to care about a picture book about the subway. Also, could we stop having picture books that take place in NY that feature zero minority faces, even in crowd scenes?

  19. Rebekah on #

    I don’t mind them – but that could be that I hadn’t noticed there were so many. Frankly, where a novel is set is largely irrelevant to me unless it’s a city/country I particularly like/am interested in, or if it’s one of those rare occasions anyone sets something in Kentucky that is not about Appalachian hardships (I pretty much freaked out when I read The Memory Keeper’s Daughter because it was the first book I had ever read that was set in Lexington) – of course, Kentucky isn’t particularly interesting, so I don’t blame anyone for avoiding it.

  20. Doret on #

    I read a lot of books and I can’t think of the last book I read set in New York. Though there are a lot and it is a little bothersome. I am not a fan of book monopolies even regional. There should be YA stories set in many different cities.

    I recently finished a YA novel called Ruined by Paula Morris. I loved it. It’s set in New Orleans the author gives so much history of the city. It was such a joy to read a great book and learn about a city I was unfamilar with.

    The author is from NZ but has been living in New Orleans for sometime now.

  21. Tim on #

    I was actually having a similar discussion the other day in my YA lit course at uni in relation to Australian books and the country. Personally, I don’t think that there is an inherent problem in setting novels in country towns in Australia – however I do find that often the fact that the setting is so unfamiliar to many YA readers that they have a difficult time relating to the characters. Living in the country is, in many instances, a very different culture to living in the city. It doesn’t mean that the books are bad, just that they’re more difficult to get in to than books set in familiar urban settings.

    And yet, there are so many books published about country towns. I’m not quite sure why… Possibly something to do with our Bush cultural heritage maybe?

  22. Rachel on #

    I’m not going to say it bothers me exactly that MANY books are either NYC or small-town set (it seems like they’re both very prevalent) but it would be nice to see other cities getting some love… I’m fairly sure I’ve only ever read one book (an MG fantasy novel) which was set here in San Antonio and it very much came off as a “San Antonio book”. Perhaps this is a common problem with non-NYC/small-town books and therefore is why they’re not as out there?

    Also, after reading your last post I feel fairly stupid but I have to ask: what exactly is Charlie’s race? You mentioned that she’s not white… maybe it’s really obvious but I don’t remember anything specific about her race…

  23. LaurieA-B on #

    Sure, a lot of YA books are set in New York–just like a lot of American movies, TV shows, adult novels, etc. It’s nothing particular to YA. I grew up in a super-suburban neighborhood of Portland, Oregon in the ’80s. I loved reading books set in New York, even though, like some commenters, I had no idea what they were talking about half the time. I didn’t know ANYONE who was Jewish, and I think I was an adult before I figured out that “P.S. 85” stood for “Public School.” This did not interfere with my love for these books; rather, it inspired a fervent desire to visit New York, which I did for the first time at age 21, and loved it as much as I expected. I live in the city now (apartment near downtown Seattle), partly because my childhood reading nurtured a love of cities. I would never assume that “nobody will care” about a book because it is set in New York and readers live elsewhere. We will care about your characters, their problems, their desires. And we might fall in love with the city.

    (I was very surprised, some years back, to learn that my 80-year-old grandfather, who spent his entire life in the same small town in California, loved watching Seinfeld.)

    My favorite childhood books set in New York included The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright, Mixed-Up Files by E.L. Konigsburg, and Trixie Belden Mystery of the Blinking Eye by Kathryn Kenny. Recently I enjoyed the picture book What Happens on Wednesdays by Emily Jenkins, which is distinctively Brooklyn but also universal.

  24. Jennila on #

    I honestly haven’t noticed how common NYC books are, and I live here. I definitely see it in movies though, mostly because I get insanely excited when I see a building or store I recognize. But otherwise I usually don’t notice the setting unless it’s significant to the story. I feel like I have learned about other cities through books/general reading though, especially San Francisco.

  25. Cristina on #

    It doesn’t bother me at all. I grew up in a big city, so in many ways I can relate to stories set NYC. [and yes, we also think we are the center of the universe. I recognize we aren’t –we are just the center of our country]

    And I’m not annoyed per se at the setting of novels in my country. I’ve read stuff that just about describes our rural small towns [where a lot of our population lives], but pretty much all the books I’ve read set on our cities [especially mine]** portray us as insecure, poor, & dirty places. And although sadly, there IS truth on that, there is also a whole other side of our cities that often gets neglected –the good side. We are rich in history, art, sports, museums, food, universities… I mean, we are a place defined by its contrasts. Our good stuff lives and breathes along the negatives. I want to read that. I want the beautiful and ugly place that it actually is. Not just that awful place from the news. So no, the setting doesn’t trouble me, it’s its representation that does, we have enough misconceptions and stereotypes going around as it is.

    **which admittedly are not that many, so I might haven’t gotten to the right books.

  26. Ariel Cooke on #

    @ Rebekah–Are you kidding? Of course Kentucky is interesting!

    As a natiive NYer, I didn’t notice how many books and movies were set in NY till I left. It just bolstered my self-satisfied and myopic sense of being in the navel of the universe. A great NY YA novel still thrills me, like Rebecca Stead’s recent When You Reach Me, but I do tend to get more excited about YA books that take me to the middle of the country like Catherine Murdock’s Dairy Queen.

  27. Justine on #

    Cristina: Where are you? What’s your country?

  28. Claudia on #

    Definitely a whole lotta YA fiction is set in NYC, but I don’t mind. I’ve never been to NY, don’t even live in the US, so it’s interesting just to read about another place. Each book I’ve read about the city has been different, and has given me a much different view of the city. Now that I think about it though…I don’t really care where a book is set, but if I find out it’s set in my city, it’s almost a garantee that I’ll read it. Huh. I guess cause I love hearing and reading about special places around my city from the POV of someone else.

  29. wandering-dreamer on #

    @pixelfish: Yup, Greensboro, surprised someone picked that up so fast. And I suspect that the only reason that part of Ender’s Game is set in Greensboro is because Orson Scott Card lives here.

    And I am very amused at how so many people who live in NYC are saying that they never noticed the overabundance of books set in NYC. I always thought that this occurred across all genres and carried over into movies as well, although I’ve heard for movies that the NYC skyline is the only US skyline that is instantly recognizable anywhere (I know that I don’t recognize the skylines of any other US city and just a few international ones).

  30. angharad on #

    The only problem I see with so many novels set in NYC is that people read the novels and then copy the setting in their own books. So you get this xerox of a xerox of a xerox effect.

  31. sylvia_rachel on #

    I like books (YA or not) set in NYC. And I especially like kids’ books set in NYC (or other large cities), because for the people in those books it’s normal to take buses and subways and to walk places, and it’s normal for families (sometimes quite big families) to live in small spaces, and it’s normal to live in apartment buildings with elevators and garbage chutes and without huge backyards, bright green lawns, swingsets, treehouses, and a pool. I feel like my child gets the message all too loudly from other sources that we should have a big house, that we need a car, that it’s wrong for a family not to have a backyard with a swingset.

    Plus, I’ve never been to NYC and have always wanted to go.

    I love reading about [what are to me] new and exotic places — whether real or invented. However, since I’m pathologically bad at visualizing, a lot of setting kind of … flows past me. This may be why I get a particular thrill from books set in places I’ve lived or visited, and why I will often put down the book and start Googling when my lack of familiarity with a book’s architectural landmarks, say, becomes a problem. Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion and Findley’s Headhunter were a whole different, and better, experience for me after a few years of living in Toronto; I love W.O. Mitchell’s books partly because they take me back to my childhood in Alberta; my brain tends to link Bujold’s Chalion books to my memories of Spain …

    I’m not sure whether Canada suffers from a surfeit of YA books (or other books) set in certain cities, but I don’t think it does (although Ontario and Quebec are certainly overrepresented — then again, Ontario and Quebec account for a very big percentage of total population, so…). Like Australia, we’re extremely urbanized. If anything, what we suffer from a surfeit of is books set in the USA.

  32. Caroline on #

    I completely believe that there’s an abundance of books set in New York & London, but it’s not obvious from a quick scan of my shelves. Of the last 10 books I read (not all YA), none were set in New York, and two featured London, but not as the main location. The other settings were Chicago, small town Virginia, Dover, Calais, Copenhagen, Vienna, Egypt, Ethiopia, the solar system & a fantasy world.

    As long as it works with the story, I don’t mind where a book is set. I was excited when I read the two Diana Wynne Jones books that pass through Bristol, where I grew up, but it doesn’t bother me that it doesn’t often feature.

  33. Cristina on #

    wow I didn’t say?! Ooops!

    I currently live in the US, but I was talking about Mexico and particularly Mexico City.

    Justine, I’ve read your books and your blog and I love how you write about San Miguel. When I read you, I can recognize it and say YES, it’s just like this!! Well, I want to find that recognition on books set in Mexico City. I’m not looking for idealized-everything is good descriptions, that would be just ridiculous. We have lots of problems, and by all means they should be included, but our problems are not us, they are just a PART of us. If that makes sense.

    Today I was discussing this with a Brazilian friend who said the same happened with his city [Sao Paulo].

  34. Mark on #

    I haven’t noticed the phenomemnon with YA specifically; it’s also true for romance novels, for example. The way I see it is that NYC is kind of like a shared stage, and you’re supposed to be familiar with it wherever you come from. It’s kind of like a trope in 20th-century American fiction to set the book in NYC. A pretty fair number of Japanese books are also set in Tokyo, for much the same reason. Even if you don’t live in Tokyo, even if you don’t live in Japan, you have some idea whar Tokyo is like. (There’s also a pretty good number of writers living there too.) Even if you live in Canada or Venezuela and have never been to the States, you have some image of NYC. So why not take advantage of this and set your book in NYC?

    Granted, I also love very place-specific books, like how Lois Lowry’s Anastasia books are definitely set in Boston and Cambridge and make use of Boston-specific landmarks like Charles River and MIT. But even as a non-New Yorker, I love books set in NYC.

  35. Diane on #

    It doesn’t influence me one way or another where a story is set. It’s the story (or the blurb) that encourages me to read the book.

    Having said that, I recently read Magic or Madness and was thrilled with the descriptions of Newtown and Camperdown Cemetery, down to the monuments and tombstones. It’s great to read a writer’s perspective of your hometown and I always love reading stuff set in Sydney (brings back good memories). I spent a lot of time in that cemetery – a group of friends and I put on a trilogy of plays, performed around the perimeter of St Stephen’s Church.

    I now live in Coffs so the mention of Woolgoolga was another woohoo moment!

    But I am surprised that a lot of Oz YA is set in country towns. It’s not a trend that I’d noticed – will have to watch out more.

  36. Zahra Alley on #

    I do notice that a lot of YA books are set in NYC, and I’m not going to lie, it brings me down a notch in terms of curiousity. Settings are one of those things that pull me into a novel. I’ve never been to NYC, but having read so much different descriptions and interpretations of the city, the characters are all suddenly walking down the same streets, same parks, same alleyways in my head. You know? I can’t write it down and make it make sense, haha.

    I live in Canada, and sadly, I don’t know if many YA books are set here. I haven’t read any, but I’m looking forward to finding one. I live in Toronto, and I bet a lot of those possibly-existant Canadian YA books are set either here, Vancouver, or maybe Montreal. (Any suggestions on Canadian YA Books? Anyone? Anyone? I’d love to know!)

    Don’t take it the wrong way though! Reading a lot of NYC just makes me want to go to the city even more.

    Great post!

  37. Katie on #

    I don’t avoid picking up books set in NYC and it doesn’t annoy me per se when I pick up one that’s set there. But I do really like it when I read something that’s not set in (a) New York, (b) generic big city, or (c) generic small town. Actually, I was thinking of this most recently when I caught an episode of True Blood. It was SO NICE to see something American with a strong sense of place that wasn’t set in NYC. Obviously there are examples of other things that aren’t, but not enough.

  38. mythago on #

    I also love NYC, but when I read Yet Another Book set there I feel that the author’s just being lazy. NYC is a big place, with so much written about and it’s so big that you can plop a story down anywhere and get it mostly right.

  39. Summer on #

    The NY thing doesn’t really bother me because I find new york facinating (I do live in Mississippi after all). But I do get really tired of reading about bangkok and tokyo and paris. Ugh.

  40. Pyry on #

    I hate the fact that most books are set in USA. It would be okay if it didn’t prevent me from finding books that are set somewhere else. But because it’s all USA, USA, USA… I can’t find books that are set in more exotic places.

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