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Nonfiction Monday: The Secret Subway by Shana Corey

Secret Subway

The Secret Subway
By Shana Corey
Illustrated by Red Nose Studio

Schwartz & Wade Books (Random House)

ISBN: 9780375870712
Grades K-3
Out March 8, 2016


*Best New Book*

Find it at:
Schuler Books | Your Library

Sometimes things become so commonplace, we forget how incredible they are. Comedian Louis C.K. has a bit about how we endlessly complain about air travel, forgetting that – oh, yeah – we’re TRAVELING THROUGH THE AIR.

Louis C.K.

(Skip to 2:35 for the bit)

Underground mass transit is like this. Subway travel is an incredible feat. In The Secret Subway, Shana Corey and Red Nose Studio tell the relatively unknown story a man who’s inventive spirit helped make it all possible.

19th century New York City was a mess.

You say it looks crowded? Dirty? DISGUSTING? The streets are filled with GARBAGE? Well … you’re right. See, back in the 1860s, when this story begins, there were no subways here, only cobblestone streets.

Busy and filthy, people began to dream of ways to ease the overcrowding – visions of mechanical moving streets, double decker roadways, and trains on stilts were bandied about. But publisher and inventor Alfred Ely Beach thought the solution was not to build up in the air, but down – way down. He imagined a fan powered train gliding through a tunnel beneath the crowded streets. He set about making it happen – in secret. Although Beach’s train didn’t become the preferred method for underground travel, his bold idea and remarkable prototype foretold the modern subway. Back matter includes an author’s note providing further details, a selected bibliography, internet resource, and citations for some of the quotes used in the text.

Corey’s use of language is a delight. Full of repetition, onomatapea, and all caps type encouraging reader emphasis, the text is endlessly lively and dynamic. In short, it’s fun to read aloud. Corey builds drama – especially around page turns, but shows restraint as well – refraining from hyperbole. Sometimes nonfiction for children beats the reader over the head, yelling “This is incredible!!!” The text doesn’t linger – hitting the juiciest points and keeping the pacing peppy.

The work of Red Nose Studio (a.k.a. Chris Sickels) is instantly recognizable and an excellent match for this text. Sickels builds entire worlds with three dimensional sets and characters shot with a digital camera. Occasionally he uses line drawings to illustrate the non-material, such as ideas or dreams. It’s beautiful stuff that has has a distinct marionette vibe – a lost art that fits perfectly into this historical context. As an added bonus, the opposite side of the jacket features behind the scenes images of the illustration process.

You’ve got to hand it to humanity – there are always folks out there looking for the next breakthrough. Alfred Ely Beach was one of them. I’m happy to see his story will now reach a wider audience through this lovely book.

Review copy from the publisher.

About Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.


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  2. Thanks for bringing this to my attention! While folks are waiting for this one, they might want to check out the slightly longer book by Martin Sandler, which ironically is also titled Secret Subway. Geared for an older audience, I’ve been recommending it as a fast, narrative nonfiction read to both boys and girls for years, and they are usually just as fascinated by it as I am.