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Beneath The Big Apple: Subway Story

The NYC subway system is a behemoth of well-planned underground and above ground lines snaking through the heart of Manhattan and delivering passengers to the far edges of the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. It is also very old—the first successful opening of underground railway lines in New York City happened in 1904 (www.nycsubway.org), and it has since grown to be one of the largest systems in the world. For the year and a half I spent in graduate school, I rode the subways in the Big Apple, maneuvering my way to and fro daily through its serpentine belly to reach my destination.  In all the time I spent sitting in a subway car, only once did I ponder what happened with all of the old subway cars, so when I saw Julia Sarcone-Roach’s book Subway Story ($16.99, Knopf Books For Young Readers, ages 5-9), I knew I had to read it. Inspired by the author’s visit to the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn, Subway Story tells the true story of a subway car, which Sarcone-Roach names Jessie, who was first introduced in New York City during the 1964 World’s Fair and later “reefed” off the coast of Delaware in 2001.

Jessie’s story begins at birth, weighing in at 75,122 pounds and 51 ½ feet long. She arrives in New York and begins the important work of ferrying visitors of the World’s Fair around the city. Sarcone-Roach’s dreamy watercolor illustrations take her readers on a typical New York City subway ride, from the station, to inside the car, to the bridges and tunnels connecting Manhattan to the outer boroughs. Through all four seasons, year after year, Jessie continues working hard, proud to be a New York City subway car, but the time eventually comes when Jessie is forced to retire from her duties. Here is where the story takes a surprising turn—rather than sitting in a junk yard for the rest of her life, Jessie is loaded on a barge and taken out to the ocean where she is pushed into the water. Sarcone-Roach paints a new world for Jessie on the floor of the ocean, where she is soon visited by plants and animals of the sea. The Author’s Note at the end of the story explains more about this actual process of “reefing” old subway cars and provides resources for further exploration; interestingly, this real method of recycling the subway car creates an artificial reef on which sea life begins to grow, attracting new plants and marine life to an area. It is one of many creative ways old subway cars across the world have been put to good use (others are also mentioned in the Author’s Note).

Subway Story is not only a fascinating look into the daily workings of a subway car but also an educational glimpse into a likely unheard-of practice of recycling old subway cars. For any young girl or boy interested in trains, or any child who has ever ridden on a subway, this book is a must-read. It will give your child a fresh perspective about a mode of transportation he may uses every day or teach him about a different way people get around in big cities where many people do not own a car. Most importantly, however, Julia Sarcone-Roach’s enlightening Subway Story and illuminating illustrations can provide a gateway for teaching your child more about reusing old materials and open the door to a windfall of ideas your child can brainstorm for how to reuse or recycle things in your own home.

Reviewer Karen B. Estrada has 9 years of experience as an English educator teaching students ranging from 6th grade to adult learners. She got her start teaching as a participant of the JET Program, during which she spent 3 years living and teaching in a rural Japanese town of 5000 people.  Since then, Karen has continued to teach English and Writing Skills at various levels in diverse settings such as Harlem, New York City, suburban New Jersey, and semi-rural Maryland. She holds a BA in English from Trinity University in San Antonio, TX and an MA in Teaching of English from Teachers College, Columbia University. Karen is currently taking a short break from teaching as she awaits the arrival of her first child due in late April.

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