I wish I’d written this book. I love the topic–someone secretly built a subway under New York City in 1870?!? Who? How? Why didn’t I know about it before?
Shana Corey answers all those questions in her delicious retelling of Alfred Ely Beach’s innovative engineering feat and shrewd political wrangling (shrewd until the moment it all fell apart in the face of Boss Tweed’s power, that is) to build a pneumatic tube transportation system under the streets of New York City.
Writing a book for kids about the past is tricky. In order to tell the story, you somehow have to set the scene. An adult may immediately realize that a story set in 1870 happened before cars were invented, but you can’t assume kids will know that. And you can be pretty sure kids will not know that New York City was run by powerful political machines then, either.
Corey does a masterful job of building the historical scaffolding that her story needs to stand on. The book opens by setting the scene:
Welcome to New York City–the greatest city on earth. You say it looks crowded? Dirty? DISGUSTING? Well…you’re right.
She then describes New York City in the 1860s, giving kids all the background information they need to understand the magnitude of what Beach accomplished.
She structures the story around two dramatic moments, the first where Beach comes up with his idea and the second where he is forced to shut down the subway. At both of these moments, the reader has to turn the book to a vertical rather than a horizontal orientation. The drama of the book turn matches the drama of the moments in the story and act as bookends to the account of how the subway was built.
I was also impressed with how Corey dealt with quotes. In the back matter, she gives source attribution for the quotes she took out of primary source material. But she also adds that “several lines of dialogue have been invented to illustrate political debates of the time.” I went back to see if I could find the invented quotes. Each has to do with a suggested solution for New York City’s transportation problems. Here are the invented quotes:
Why not make a moving street, so we can get wherever we want by standing still?
What about building double-decker roads?
Or a railway on stilts?
A mail tube? Why not?
I’m generally leery of invented quotes, but these seem to me to work well in the book. They explain the historical context, without extra verbiage, and do so without inventing new scenes or characters.
The art is quirky–“hand-built three-dimensional sets” that have been photographed–and memorable. This book is going on my wish list.
The wonderful book trailer is here. The artist’s website is well worth a gander.
The Secret Subway by Shana Corey, illustrated by Red Nose Studio. Schwartz & Wade: 2016.
I participate in the 2016 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge hosted by Kid Lit Frenzy.