Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Old Penn Station

I recently found an old email recommending several good picture books from 2007.  While I was familiar with the authors of all three books, I wasn't familiar with the books themselves, so I interlibrary-loaned them.  The one that I loved the most of this set was Old Penn Station by William Low.  Perhaps it struck a chord because of its format - it is definitely a nonfiction picture book.  Nonfiction picture books are more important to me these days because of my current work as a Cybils panelist.  But whatever the reason. I want to share it with you.

Low includes an author's note at the beginning of the book, explaining why he was so interested in Old Penn Station.  He began to create the paintings for this book as part of a thesis project.  Low had always loved New York City and its history, and Old Penn Station is evocative of both of these.

Low takes the history of this station and distills it into sentences that are easily accessible for even kindergarten students.  There are only one or two sentences per page, but they give you the feel of the station as it was built, and, eventually, torn down.  For those of you who may not be familiar with it (like me), the Pennsylvania Railroad Company created the original Penn Station to have a station presence in New York.  It was designed to make a grand statement, and no expense was spared in its creation.  Eventually, however, as commuting changed, people were not using trains and the gorgeous Penn Station was torn down.  It was replaced by the current underground station.

Low used oil paintings to depict the station in all its facets.  One of the things that Low mentions about his own work on his website and in a video located on the website about the making of this book) is his love of light.  He looks for places to include light sources, and in this book the use of light is amazing.  Light and shadows are everywhere - making you realize how truly beautiful the old station was.  The most jaw-dropping picture to me is the title page painting.  Workers pose in front of a stone sculpture at the station, and half the painting (and half the group) is in shadow, the other half bathed in warm light.  It's almost as if a drop cloth is being pulled off a sculpture or painting, exposing it to the light.  It is a magical effect.

One of the themes Low emphasizes in this book is work and the pride workers took in what they had created.  There were many, many people who toiled to create this station.  There were tunnel workers who burrowed under the Hudson River, stone masons who carved sculptures and hundreds of construction workers involved.  Once the station was built, there were still many workers involved in a traveler's experience within Penn Station.  Low highlights these workers as well - the shoeshine man, the porter, the wait staff, the conductors.  The expressions on their faces show their pride, their dedication to their work.  You can see how much they love working in the station.  It is not only a history of the station, but also a history of work as many of these jobs are no longer as prevalent.
Another thing Low does in this book is make the concept of historical preservation understandable for very young readers.  We see many of the stone sculptures that stone masons carved throughout the book.  But Low focuses on one of the stone maidens throughout the destruction of Penn Station.  As the text describes the Pennsylvania Railroad Company's belief that the old Penn Station needed to be torn down in order to modernize it, you see the stone maiden over and over again.  Readers admire her luminosity and grace in the beginning of the book, along with admiration for the hard work of the stone mason.  Then as the stone maiden is hauled away to rest unceremoniously in a dump, readers become aware of the loss and sadness in this process.  You feel palpable sorrow as the maiden is hoisted off the building.  Low talks in his video about his anger at the destruction, but there is also grief in the paintings.  Low goes on to describe the founding of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission and its importance in protecting the rest of the city's historical landmarks.  I think this is a perfect place for teachers to draw connections between New York City and their own towns,  It is so important to preserve history and to make children aware of what history can teach us.

Low includes a bibliography at the end of this history, so teachers can extrapolate more information to use with their students.  Unfortunately, it seems that the majority of these sources are adult books, but there are always ways to use the photos and other primary sources.

This book has come from Low's heart, and it is especially rich for all of his emotion about Penn Station.  I hope you will take time to admire this glorious book and honor this part of New York City's history.

Old Penn Station.  William Low.  Henry Holt & Co., 2007.

borrowed on interlibrary loan

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