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Subway Story

Subway StoryHaving 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?


Lolly Robinson About Lolly Robinson

Lolly Robinson is the creative director for The Horn Book, Inc. She has degrees in studio art and children's literature and teaches children's literature at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. She has served on the Caldecott and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committees and blogs for Calling Caldecott and Lolly's Classroom on this site.



  1. Hey Lolly and others,
    Since this little darlin’ is getting some press, I am having trouble getting it. (I have quit Amazon cold turkey and am waiting on my brand new bookstore to locate it.) As soon as I do, I will weigh in.


  2. I haven’t seen this one yet, so I am guessing about the appeal, but speaking as an NYC parent, there is no such thing as an unappealing subway story, and a Virginia Lee Burton-esque treatment of a subway car (which is what I was thinking it sounded like even before you mentioned the similarities) sounds pretty much perfect. How do the art and text play together?

  3. Every child is different, but my own two weren’t bothered by what could be construed as a death. (That said, I’d love to read it to a group of children but haven’t.) I find the entire ending rather touching (without being cloying) in that, on one level, I see it as grace in the of adversity — Jessie, that is, accepting her fate and finding a new purpose at the bottom of the sea.

    The beauty is that it can be interpreted in many ways.

  4. That should be “grace in the face of adversity.” Need. more. coffee.

  5. Read this with a group of second graders at a school where I was giving a talk about the Caldecott committee–these bright kids were studying picture books and were about to embark on their mock committee. Anyhow, they loved the endpapers–looked at them first–and were intrigued by them. (subway map on the front, ocean water at the back) They loved that the title was made of bricks; some had been to NYC and knew the station signs were often formed of tile or brick. I am going to say there was an audible gasp and some confusion in the middle, and some audible “phews” when I read the author’s note aloud. This has nothing to do with the art, but I wonder if the actual re-purposing of sweet Jessie could have been made more obvious in the text, not relegated to the end notes? No matter, the art is stunning, especially the page that show Jessie’s evolution. I also got a little claustrophobic with the page showing the sweaty, packed passengers with Jessie’s weakened fans. Really, a special book.

  6. Not to bore you all to death with the antics of my teaching life, but I read this aloud to my class this morning and I fear some of them are going to need a little therapy. When I turned to the page where Jessie is dumped, there was quite a lot of murmuring about pollution, littering and sadness. Even after the author’s note, they were Not Happy that she was in the ocean. However, a number of them picked up the book during free reading time and slowly pored over the art. This little train, all gussied up and personified, was one literary friend my students instantly fell in love with. One stated, after I read the author’s note, “I wish she could be one of the trains that got turned into a diner. That way she could be with people. She loved people.”

  7. Okay, I was a little alarmed when Jessie got dumped in the ocean, too. I think in this case the way in which we as readers see Jessie as a living being backfires on the illustrator, because the dumping could very well cause problems for the committee. Still, it really is worth noting how much I fell in love with that little train – I have to give points to Sarcone-Roach for that, and as Robin said the endpapers are awesome.

  8. I’m a wimp. It was different with Arlene, who fulfilled her destiny and wanted to be canned. I’m with the child who thought Jessie should become a diner.

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