Having last posted on Chris Raschka’s A Ball for Daisy, Subway Story seemed like an obvious follow-up because of its connections to Arlene Sardine. True, the central character here isn’t alive to begin with, but she is so clearly personified that her “drowning” near the end had me all panicked when I first read this. For a moment, I even wondered if it might keep the committee from going all the way with this book.
The year I was on Caldecott, there was one hotly contested book that will, of course, remain nameless. A seemingly minor detail was troubling to a couple of people while everyone else was unbothered by it. But given the number of books we had to discuss and the fact that most of them were without controversy, that book was taken off the table relatively early.
I’m not saying that the fate of Jessie, the personified subway car and central character in Subway Story, should or will be controversial to the 2012 Committee. But this seemed like a good excuse to talk about why some highly-lauded books don’t even make it to the committee’s final list. In any group of 15 people, you might have someone with a strong opinion — negative or positive — who sways others to his or her way of thinking. A different group of 15 in the same year would be unlikely to come up with the same final list of Medal winners, though their initial lists of nominated titles are likely to be nearly identical.
I probably shouldn’t start by talking about the end of the book. For those who don’t know, Subway Story begins with Jessie’s birth in St. Louis, MO (weight: 75,122 pounds; length: 51 1/2 feet). Moving to New York City, she starts her working life as cutting-edge transportation for the 1964 World’s Fair. Over time, she receives repairs and upgrades and “even [gets] to change colors” — shown as 80s-style rainbow graffiti. Eventually, she is taken off the track, partially dismantled, cleaned, and shipped to the open sea on a barge full of other old subway cars. In an Author’s Note, Sarcone-Roach tells us that their destination is off the coast of Delaware. The note also gives the timeline: built in 1964, dumped in 2001. Like Arlene, Jessie’s reincarnation as a reef for fish and coral is treated matter-of-factly. And unlike Arlene Sardine, no one calls it death. I suspect that the dumping scene will be a problem for some adults and no big deal for children. After all, the chilling similarity to a key scene in Amistad is something adults might have in their memory banks but it would never occur to children. Even real death in children’s books seems to trouble adults more than children.
So what about the art? My copy of the book is an F&G (folded and gathered proof) which says “The illustrations in this book were created using [tk].” I’m going to guess acrylics, but what matters is what the art looks like. Jessie is a friendly-looking car with headlight eyes and a smile made from guard chains. Sarcone-Roach’s paintings show motion and stillness with an assured sense of color, often sweeping and broad but always with a few well-chosen details to ground the scene in real city life.
This book has clear antecedents in Virgina Lee Burton — not just the subject (The Little House, Maybelle the Cable Car, Mike Mulligan) but also the use of curves, especially on one spread near the center of the book. Overall, though, the look is current and specific rather than imitative.
So what do you make of this one? What do/would children think of it? Certainly the intended message is about recycling. Beyond that, though, is it a story of reincarnation or does Jessie just get a new job late in life?