Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

His Vision Took Him Underground

In the early 1860s shortly before the advent of the American Civil War if you were to casually ask someone living in the United States the most common thing found below the ground, I'm fairly certain they would not have mentioned a mode of transportation.  Depending on the age of the person, their status and occupation they might have responded with the next crop of potatoes, pathways created by moles, shrews and earthworms or buried treasure.  If the neighborhood dog could speak human, it would probably have revealed the secret location of a stolen bone.

One city in the United States, New York City, had a huge problem.  The Secret Subway (Schwartz & Wade Books, March 3, 2016) written by Shana Corey with illustrations created by Red Nose Studio reveals how the mind of a brilliant man sought to solve the dilemma.  His efforts as well as the depiction of them in words and images by Corey and Red Nose Studio are quite remarkable.

Welcome to New York City---the greatest city on earth!
You say it looks crowded? Dirty? DISGUSTING?
The streets are filled with GARBAGE?

This was exactly the shape of the city's roadways at this time.  It seemed as if everyone had an idea how to get from point A to point B under safer and cleaner conditions but nothing changed.  One man, a man of vision, had an idea.  His name was Alfred Ely Beach.

He wanted to construct a tunnel and tracks underground which would carry a train powered by a fan...a really big fan.  Beach was sure no one would agree to such a huge undertaking so he proposed building something smaller, something carrying the mail under the city streets.  In the dark of night when everyone else was asleep, even the highest ranking politicians and undeclared ruler of the city, Boss Tweed, Beach had his crews silently haul away much more rocks and dirt than would be accumulated from digging a tube for mail.   He was digging a pathway for his train!

For nearly two months the men worked digging during the day and hauling away at night.  When they reached a dangerous obstacle they carefully persevered.  Eight feet wide and two hundred ninety-four feet long the vision of Beach's dream was finally finished.  In his characteristic style he prepared the basement from which they had been working into a lovely, fashionable waiting room.

On February 26, 1870 the first passengers, invited guests of Alfred Ely Beach, rode a train beneath New York City.  When opened to the public the train whooshed back and forth on the track for months and then several years before politics and money made their move.  When workers again went below digging and hauling in 1912 they made a surprising discovery.

Every minute devoted to research is evident in every sentence written by Shana Corey.  She declares her intentions with the first phrase and follows with the distressing status of the streets at the time.  Then she completely captivates us with the efforts of one man who dared not only to dream but created the opportunity for success.  Through her words we understand the enthusiasm Beach had for this project, the wit he used for thwarting politics and the dedication he had to making something not only safe but first class.  As we read we are inwardly cheering for Alfred Ely Beach.  Here is a sample passage.

Beach was a THINKER---a publisher and an inventor.  His father had owned a newspaper, and Beach had grown up in a simmering soup of letters and words and newfangled notions.  He was also a man of ACTION.  And if there was one thing he loved more than thinking up ideas, it was making them happen.  As Beach studies the street below, the wheels in his brain turned.

When first opening the matching dust jacket and book case readers will be intrigued by the unique, extraordinary images designed and made by Red Nose Studio (Chris Sickels).  With his finger to his lips we are immediately wondering who this man is and what he may or may not share with us.  To the left, on the back, we are still in the tunnel looking at the rear of the train car.  The reverse side of the dust jacket becomes a marvelous nine-step explanation of the illustrative process in a blend of photographs and short captions.  The work performed and the precise attention to detail shown by Sickels are astounding.

The hand-built three-dimensional sets shot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III Digital SLR camera are so lifelike you expect the people to start moving and talking along with neighing horses. The line art and lettering was drawn with Hunt pen nibs and Higgins Black Magic ink on paper and inverted blue pencil on paper respectively.  It is hard to resist the temptation to walk right into the pages.

All the pictures span two pages: cityscapes, close-ups of Beach, meetings between politicians and those in control of the city workings as well as the first guests to ride the train, workers in the tunnel and others designing and decorating the waiting room.  Two of the more moving illustrations are when Beach closes his train and the discovery in 1912.  In both the main elements are surrounded by a large portion of black with focused illumination.

Two of my favorite illustrations spanning two pages are placed one above the other horizontally.  At the top we are given an interior view of the first passengers to ride the train in the tunnel with Beach acting as the engineer outside in the front. The six passengers are wearing an array of expressions ranging from awe to fear.  On the ride back they all anxiously await their arrival at the beginning.  It's a slice of history portrayed with excellence.

Assuredly inspirational the story of Alfred Ely Beach as portrayed in The Secret Subway written by Shana Corey with illustrations by Red Nose Studio (Chris Sickels) is a stellar work of nonfiction.  It is an impressive representation of the art of bookmaking, a polished blend of text and images.  Readers will be fascinated from beginning to end.  This title has my highest recommendation.  An extensive author's note provides further information along with a selected bibliography and Internet resources.

To discover more about Shana Corey and Red Nose Studio please visit their websites by following the links attached to their names.  Red Nose Studio maintains a blog and Tumblr pages.  On his blog is an activity for making your own Secret Subway.  For a look inside at some of the initial interior pages stop by the publisher's website.  This title was reviewed by teacher librarian, former member of the 2014 Caldecott Medal and Honor book committee and blogger Travis Jonker at 100 Scope Notes.  Educator and author, Monica Edinger, premiered the book trailer at HuffPost Books and followed with interviews on her own blog, Educating Alice.

Please take a few minutes to read about the other selections by bloggers participating in the 2016 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge hosted by Alyson Beecher at Kid Lit Frenzy.


  1. Shana Corey is just brilliant! Just the cover makes me want to jump into this one. Thank you for the very thorough review--I just asked my library to get it :)

    1. I completely agree Kellee with your comments about Shana Corey. Every book she has written is fantastic. I hope you enjoy this one too.

  2. I am waiting very impatiently for our library to get this book. Your review has just increased my impatience.

    1. I hope your library gets a copy soon Annette. The combination of writing and illustrations makes this one a complete winner. Thank for visiting.