Review of the Day: Lost in NYC by Nadja Spiegelman
While I’m aware that public transport was invented to meet the very real needs of urban commuters, when you’re the parent of a city child you can be forgiven for taking an entirely different view of things. Simply put: subways were created for the sole purpose of amusing children. How else to explain the fun maps, bright colors, and awe-inspiring bits of machinery? We already knew that kids loved trains. Now put those trains underground. That’s just awesomeness redoubled. Here in New York City a certain level of excitement about subway trains is almost required of our kids. Yet when it comes to books about the subway system, it’s often disappointing. Either it’s too young, too old, or like Count on the Subway by Paul DuBois Jacobs it gives the subway lines the wrong colors. Sure Subway by Christoph Niemann is the gold standard, but what can you offer older metro fans? Lost in NYC by Nadja Spiegelman hits that sweet spot for the 6-10 year old crowd. Visually stunning (to say nothing of its accuracy) with abundant factual information wriggled into every available crevice, you don’t have to be a New Yorker to enjoy this book (though, boy, does it sure help).
When you have a father that moves your family all over the country, it can be easy to disconnect from the places you briefly live. So when Pablo enters Mr. Bartle’s class on the first day of his new school, he rebuffs cheery Alicia’s attempts at friendship. On this particular day the class is taking a field trip to the Empire State Building. Pablo learns about the subway system that will take the class there alongside everyone else, but when he and Alicia are inspecting a map on the subway he’s briefly confused and takes her with him onto the express 2 train and not the local 1. Now separated from their class, the two kids start to fight and next thing you know they have to find their way back to their classmates entirely on their own. Backmatter and a Bibliography of other subway resources appear at the end.
I’m an adult so after reading this story several times you know whom I feel most sorry for? The teacher, Mr. Bartle. Here the man is, taking his class on a routine subway trip, and along the way he loses two of them at the very first stop. A common New Yorker nightmare is the idea that you might lose your child on the subway. Yet in Spiegelman and Sánchez’s hands it’s a nightmare turned into an adventure. It’s the same reason From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler continues to be read. For children, the thought of being independent in a city as vast as NYC is as enticing as it is horrific. Spiegelman does give Pablo a native guide for the first part of his journey, but pretty soon they two are separated and he has to make his way on his own to his group. This is by no means an interactive book, but I had to withhold a scream when Pablo jumped the 7 train at 42nd Street. He’s lucky he asked for traveling advice as early as he did, else he would have ended up in far distant Queens relatively quickly.
Spiegelman’s writing holds up for the most part. It’s a slim story, clocking in at a mere 52 pages which is only slightly more than your average picture book. Some of that is rounded out with the backmatter too. Filled with history and brimming with photographs, engravings, and other stunning images, Spiegelman outdoes herself with the information found there. For certain subway buffs, the info included (with sections like “Why Are There No H, I, K, O, P, T, U, V, W, X, or Y Trains?”) will be particularly pleasing. However, when we look at the story in this book by itself, it does come to a rather abrupt halt. Pablo spends the greater part of the story declaring that he doesn’t need friends. He parts from Alicia on angry terms, yet when the two are reunited they act like the best buddies in the world. I wasn’t quite sure where the switchover on this relationship occurred. Otherwise, everything seems pretty certain and consistent.
Not all subway books are created equal. I remember years ago encountering a NY subway picture book where a normally elevated stop was pictured in the book as underground. Certainly the cover of this book gave me hope. It seemed to be acknowledging from the get-go that the 1 and 2 trains both stop at 96th, 72nd, and 42nd Street (we will ignore the peculiar inclusion of a “33” since we can assume artist Sergio Garcia Sánchez meant 34th Street). As it happens, Mr. Sánchez is a resident not of one of the five boroughs but of Spain. You wouldn’t know it. The New York found within these pages feels so real and so contemporary that I have difficulty understanding that I’m not going to run into the man on the street when I leave for work tomorrow morning. Artists could learn a thing or two from his attention to detail. From the color of the painted columns to the diversity of the city streets, this is indeed the New York I know and love.
The design of Lost in NYC is also a delight to the eyes. Good graphic novels for children are rare beasties. Half the time you’re left wondering if the editors or artists ever took the time to look outside the standard panel format. If Mr. Sánchez feels inclined to use panels in this book, you can bet it’s a strategic decision. The very first page is almost entirely open, only settling into panels when the kids are approaching the rigid format of a school setting. As the teacher, Mr. Bartle, begins to introduce subway history, we see the characters on a massive topographic map. It’s a visual approximation of the cut-and-cover technique used to create subways in a city chock full of hardened bedrock. Once the kids go underground the panels shift to full two-page spreads, and lots of individual vertical panels like the cars on a subway train. When called upon to render the city blocks in such a way where you can see the characters all converge on the Empire State Building from different directions, the artist either shrinks the buildings and blows up the characters, or he overlaps a subway map onto a street map and you can see the kids meet up that way. Then there are the perspective shifts. The view up into the Empire State Building, a wall or two cut away so that you can get a visual sense of some of the seventy-three elevators in the building, is dizzying. I can say with certainty that even if a child were incapable of reading English (or Spanish, since this book is being simultaneously translated) they would still be able to be moved and stirred by this story.
He’s also filled the book with inside jokes. I was so pleased that I took time to read the “Behind the Scenes: Sergio and the Cop” section at the back of the book. In it, Sergio describes a time he visited NYC and was photographing all the details at the 96th Street subway stop when a cop started paying a little too much attention to him. As a result, if you look in the book you can find Sergio and the cop on “virtually every spread.” Once you see it, it cannot be unseen. It also creates a kind of touching secondary story as the two go from antagonists to, finally, taking a selfie together.
Accuracy in illustration, even (or should I say especially?) in fictional stories, is imperative. You have to make the reader inhabit the setting presented, and the best way to accomplish this is through rigorous research and skill. Mr. Sánchez has both and by pairing with Nadja Spiegelman he may well earn himself an Honorary New Yorker decree. Though filled to its gills with accurate Manhattan details, you don’t have to live anywhere in the five boroughs to recognize the fear that comes with having to navigate an unfamiliar public transit system. Particularly if you’re just a kid. An adventure tale wrapped around a nonfiction core of subways subways subways. What’s not to love?
On shelves April 14th.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Subway by Christoph Niemann
- Secret Subway: The Fascinating Tale of An Amazing Feat of Engineering by Martin W. Sandler
- A Subway for New York by David L. Weitzman
Professional Reviews: Kirkus
Interview: Comic Book Resources spoke with Nadja Spiegelman and she reveals a lot of behind-the-scenes information about the book.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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