(All sketches and images, unless otherwise indicated, credited to Red Nose Studio)
Last week I was honored to premier Shana Corey and Chris Sickels’ (aka Red Nose Studio) trailer for their delightful nonfiction picture book The Secret Subway. Now, as promised, I’m back with comprehensive interviews and images. Thanks to Shana and Chris for taking the time to answer my questions so comprehensively. I urge you to read every word and pour over every image — just as you are certain to do with the book itself.
Where did you learn about this secret subway in the first place? And once you did, was it easy to figure out how to tell the story? Did you know it would be a picture book from the start?
When my sons were little, their favorite place was the New York Transit Museum which is a paradise for anyone interested in transportation. It’s housed in an old subway station and filled with antique subways (and even a bus). We spent a lot of time there and I fell in love with their “Building New York’s Subway” exhibit, which showcases what a monumental and inspiring undertaking it was and how much of the subway (like much of our infrastructure) was built by immigrants (it’s a permanent exhibit, so you can still check it out if you’re in NYC). Being a subway-riding family, we had lots of wonderful picture books about the subway; My Subway Ride by Paul Dubois Jacobs and Jennifer Swender,(which we read so much I can still recite it by heart) and The Subway Story by Julia Sarcone-Roach were favorites, but I also wanted a nonfiction picture book that would translate the history of the subway and the wonder I felt looking at that exhibit to vehicle and construction obsessed kids like mine.
While I was researching how the current subway system was built, I came across a footnote about Alfred Ely Beach. Beach was an inventor and a maker and the coeditior of Scientific American Magazine. He was also interested in pneumatic power and long before the existing New York subway was built, Beach hoped to use pneumatic power to power a subway. But he didn’t JUST have an idea-he actually built a block long pneumatic subway under Broadway (between Murray and Warren Street!)—WITHOUT official permission from the city! He did have the city’s permission to build two small mail tubes and using that as a cover, he built a working subway that he unveiled in February 1870—more than 30 years before the subway we now know opened in 1904. It was a huge feat of engineering and just amazing to me-talk about a change maker! As I researched, Beach started taking up more than his share of space in the general subway history manuscript I was working on, so I eventually put that away and wrote a new manuscript that focused entirely on Beach and his pneumatic subway.
What sort of research did you do? What were some of the most surprising things you found? Were there things you learned that were dying to include but couldn’t for one reason or another? (I’ve got so many from my book:)
I started by reading the books that already been published on the New York City subway system. I spoke to an expert in NYC sanitation history (because what could be more interesting than that?!). I made pilgrimages to the site of Devlin’s Department store and to Boss Tweed’s grave in Greenwood Cemetery. And then when I read everything I could find in print, I headed to Brooklyn’s Central library and began researching and reading period articles so I could have a more on the ground sense of what it was like while it was happening-what people were saying and reading about Beach and his subway as it was being built. There are wonderful articles about the opening of Beach’s subway and first-hand accounts of tours journalists took that detail what it looked like and how it was built and the public’s reaction to it. Beach himself published publicity pamphlets that were fascinating to read. Even more helpful than those primary sources, I was also lucky to come across the brilliant and incredibly comprehensive research by Joseph Brennan of Columbia on the Beach Pneumatic-he goes into much more detail about the very complicated layers of NYC politics and the nuances behind Beach’s subway than earlier work on it had and that was really interesting since most of the earlier work had relied entirely on Beach’s version of events. I revised with that in mind (among other things, losing that workers were shocked when they found Beach’s subway in 1912, that the fountain was still there untouched, and softening Boss Tweed whose role is much more nuanced than Beach had suggested which I also talk about in the author’s note)
What do I wish I could have included? New York City’s so fascinating and there’s so much backstory and so many interesting details I wish I had room for! Part of what prompted Beach to suggest his subway (and the debate about public transportation at the time) was the terrible state of NYC streets in the 19th century. We think traffic is bad today-but it was so much worse then. There was no alternate side parking and hardly any street cleaning, the streets were filled with trash and manure. There were no traffic lights so it was really every vehicle or pedestrian for his or herself! It was so bad, that not long after Beach’s subway, there was even a whole police squad, the Broadway squad, whose job it was to help people across Broadway! I touch on it very briefly, but honestly-the garbage in the streets deserves its own picturebook!
I also love primary sources and the quotes from early articles are just delicious. There are somewhat hilarious editorials about how awful New York City traffic and public transportation was before the subway was built as a solution. A much quoted 1864 New York Herald article says of the state of omnibus at the time: “Ladies are disgusted, frightened, and insulted. Children are alarmed and lift up their voices and weep.” That image of children weeping over the indignities of their ride has stayed with me for years. Several of the primary source quotes did make it into The Secret Subway, but my wise editor reminded me that I wasn’t, in fact, writing a thesis and so we pruned many of them with that in mind.
What was the writing process like? Was it an easy book to write or did you need time to figure out how to tell the story? Was your intent at the start for it to be a nonfiction picture book? Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about how the writing went? Any thing about the editorial process?
When I started this project, Brooklyn’s Central library still used Microfilm and that’s how I did the research. But by the time the book was being copyedited and I went back to check all my sources, the library had moved all their microfilm into the basement and all of those quotes and primary sources that I was so proud of digging up, were online and very easy to find which is both great for research and a little bit of a reminder of how quickly things change.
How did Red Nose Studio end up the illustrator? Did you have any imput into the selection? As we know, illustrators and writers tend not to communicate. Was that true in this case? If not, what sort of communication did you have?
My very smart editor, Anne Schwartz suggested Red Nose Studio the very first time we spoke about the book and I think he was and is a perfect choice. He was booked for some time, so Anne asked if I would be okay waiting for him and I said definitely! Chris takes what could be dry history and ups it to a whole new level. And knowing he would be the artist influenced my writing because his characters have so much personality, I wanted the narrative voice to feel just as big and distinct, so I went back and rewrote again-this time giving the narrator a much more conversational, showman type voice and breaking the fourth wall a bit which I’d never done before and which I ended up having so much fun with. So Chris’s work definitely influenced just not the look, but the tone of the book.
Red Nose Studio and I didn’t communicate directly at first, but began to as the project got further along. Before that, Anne and our art director Lee Wade showed me sketches and occasionally asked questions (for instance, Chris needed to know what the modern day signage looked like at City Hall station, and since I’m in New York, I went on a field trip to take pictures and report back). And then more recently we collaborated on a book trailer (and by collaborate, I mean I mostly cheered him on) and to come full circle, we’ll be presenting the book together at the New York Transit Museum on March 13th.
Is there anything else you want to relate about the true story, the creation of the book, or what you are working on next? The floor is yours!
I’ve always found history thrilling. I usually write about women’s history (my most recent picture book was Here Come the Girl Scouts about the founder of the Girl Scouts, Juliette Gordon Low) , but I also love New York City history. When I first moved to New York many years ago, I used to spend a lot of time at the Union Square Barnes and Noble reading all the New York City memoirs I could find and looking at guide books to map out walking tours to take myself on. It still amazes me to live in this city where there’s so much history and so many stories packed into such a small space.You never know when you’re walking by Margaret Wise Brown’s house or Edna St. Vincent Millay’s, walking over a long buried creek or even a forgotten subway.
Oh-and there’s a song about Beach’s subway-Sub-Rosa Subway by the band Klaatu!.
What attracted you to this story in the first place? What made you want to illustrate it?
Alfred Eli Beach’s drive to solve this transportation problem and how self-motivated he was to accomplish it, was what grabbed me from the get go. I was drawn to how he had to bend the rules a bit and outsmart the decision makers, especially in today’s environment where kids are hovered over by parents that are afraid of their kids not doing things by the rules.
What sort of research did you do?
There is a terrific publication online
by Joseph Brennan on The Beach Pneumatic Transit Company. That publication was my starting point, Mr Brennan’s research and insight shed a bright and overreaching light onto the world of A.E. Beach. After that I ventured into the depths of the New York Public Library, where they allowed me to roam the locked cages of old papers and books to dig up Beach’s patents and other documents. After that I was consumed with devouring any material from the 1860’s that allowed me to see how people dressed, lived, got around and what their environments looked like.
Originally published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper Feb. 19, 1870
Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
What decisions did you make regarding materials, style, and scene choices? For instance — there is such a sense of movement in the illustrations. Was that a priority? Were there other influences that inspired and directed you. (I seem to remember that you use actual “garbage” for the earlier book, for instance.)
Scene choices where made based on the written material and how I best thought the page breaks could work through the story. Movement is the overarching theme of the book, right? I mean Beach not only wanted to move people he literally had to move earth, secretly at night to make it happen. I love that he even designed the machine that was used to dig the tunnel. Once the sketches were all approved then the materials start to play a role. That’s when the found objects come into play. For instance, that tunneling machine was built using old type writer parts.
The book trailer is fabulous — how did you make it? But before you answer, let’s look at it one more time!
Every time I have made a book in the past I always had this thought that if i animated each scene before I struck down the set, i could accumulate enough footage to create an extension of the story. Well with The Secret Subway I was determined to give it a go. I would spend about 2-3 hours at night and shoot a few seconds of stop motion animation with the characters on the particular set that was set up. In the end I had accumulated about 3 minutes animation, it didn’t really end up being an extension of the story, but I did see that it had some potential as a book trailer. I presented the animations to the author, Shana Corey and we talked about how we could add silent film cards to help introduce the story of the book. Then the talented Dempsey Rice stepped in as editor and trimmed the fat to create the trailer.
It is so cool this book is coming out just months after your “Blowing Bowler” animation went up at the Fulton Street Station. Was there any overlap in your thinking about this work and that for The Secret Subway?
The Blowing Bowler wasn’t conceived until after the art for The Secret Subway was completed and sent off to the publisher. When the MTA approached me about the subway art card and the Fulton Center installation, I was drawn to the story of how the design of the subway cars have evolved over the decades. It was then that I decided I wanted to pay homage to A.E. Beach and his magical pneumatic subway. By forces that were out of my hands the two projects ended up being released very close to each other. The stars definitely lined up this time.
What are you working on now? And is there anything else you’d like us to know?
I am currently pitching a wordless alphabet book called Duet: An Impersonation of the Alphabet where two characters perform each letter of the alphabet by contorting their bodies together. The story also has a perspective illusion aspect to it that i am excited about.
I am creating a new series of wine labels for Blasted Church Vineyards.
There is also my traveling stop-motion animation workshop where I visit universities and conferences and try to break down some of the preconceived barriers that folks have about stop-motion animation. Allowing folks to have a hands on animation experience with a readymade stage along with some of my characters.