New Life for Old Trains

Subway Story – written and illustrated by Julia Sarcone-Roach
Alfred A. Knopf, 2011

Children’s books that allude to a great tradition are always promising, although not all live up to expectations. This one does.  Julia Sarcone-Roach has told and illustrated the story of Jesse, a friendly subway car who loves New York City but winds up at the bottom of the ocean.  But her new life will be as fulfilling as Mike Mulligan’s steam shovel.  Just as the outdated machine in Virginia Lee Burton’s classic tale about technology and change, who found an important purpose heating the town hall, Jesse the subway train car will welcome others who need a comfortable and safe home. Like Virginia Lee Burton, Sarcone-Roach knows how to create an anthropomorphic character who is believable and reassuring.

Jesse has a specific origin story, beginning with a birth announcement in St. Louis, Missouri, announcing a weight of a healthy 75,1222 pounds.  As the extensive “Author’s Note” explains, she is based on an actual type of train car designed to teach visitors to the New York World’s Fair in 1964 about the city’s subway system.  Subway cars may not have as old a lineage as steam shovels in the world of children’s books, but their ability to connect and swiftly move city residents has made them quite popular. Jesse is proud of her job and loves her passengers, not only visitors to the fair, but daily straphangers going to work, school, and every other destination in the city. 

Like the people she carries, Jessie begins to get old: “By summer, Jessie’s fans were just not strong enough to keep her passengers cold.”  She now gets summers off, but this concession to her physical decline is more of a threat than a comfort.  Who needs an old train who can’t do her job anymore?  “She thought about the people she had carried. Did they notice that she was gone?” At this point in the narrative, adults will be as concerned as children about Jessie’s ultimate fate.  Her insecurities are understated, but real. 

Sarcone-Roach’s acrylic paint pictures are both detailed enough to be realistic, and impressionistic enough to create a fictional world.  Pastel and earth colors, and subtle shading, move the story along, chronicling the changes which Jesse witnesses.  As in another Virginia Lee Burton book, The Little House, Jesse tries to remain rooted in her environment, even as so much changes.  One two-page spread depicts Jesse moving forward in an upward arc over her tracks, the city skyline in the background.  “Over the years, Jessie saw the city change, and she had some changes of her own…” Eventually, she is approached by workers and filled with the excitement at the idea of imminent repairs.  Instead, Jesse faces a much more fundamental transition in her identity. As she is, inexplicably, loaded onto a barge, Jesse, a true New Yorker, worries, “Will I ever get to see my city again?”

Children will be relieved and excited to learn that Jesse becomes an artificial reef on the ocean’s floor, giving shelter to dolphins, turtles, and plants.  The delicate blue and green color washes of these final scenes give a fantastic element to the story, at the same time that they document a real environmental triumph.  Subway Story, its very title having echoes of a 1940s romance, concludes with a happy ending for a city train content with her new job and home.

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