Thursday, September 3, 2015

Lost in NYC: A Subway Adventure

I have a confession to make - I am probably a small town girl at heart.  Or possibly a medium city girl at the most.  This might surprise those of you who know that I lived in San Diego until I was 21.  Or those of you who know me from my time living in Phoenix - both big cities.  I do love the benefits of living in a big city - the shopping (an actual mall!), the arts (very few bands make Helena a tour stop!)!  But I also really appreciate many of the things this small town showcases.  And I'm comfortable here.  When I was in college, I took a train from Virginia to Massachusetts.  I had to switch trains in New York City.  Granted, I never left the actual station, but even that experience intimidated me.  I've never wanted to go back.  So I feel a lot of admiration for books with characters who treat New York City so casually - who have, indeed, conquered it.  It's one of the things I mentioned in my review of Starry Night.  And that confident independence (something I could never imitate) is what strikes me about Lost in NYC: A Subway Adventure.

It begins like any other school day for these tweens.  They emerge from the subway, thinking about the field trip that day.  And then there is Pablo, whose parents are hovering over him, worrying because it is his first day at this school.  He tugs away from them to enter school on his own, saying "Please just go away!"  But in true mom fashion, his mother gets in the last word, announcing loudly and in public that she's packed Pablo's teddy bear into his backpack in case he gets lonely.  I can feel Pablo's cringing embarrassment from all these thousands of miles away.

Pablo is part of the class going on the field trip, and Alicia volunteers to be his partner for the trip.  It starts off poorly, with the other kids teasing them.  Then  the teacher engages the class in a discussion of their favorite subway trains, since they will be traveling on one to the Empire State Building.  When all the other students rattle off their preferred subway lines, Pablo takes a calculated risk and volunteers the X train.  That starts the rest of the class off into giggles again, since everyone else knows there is no X train.  Pablo has attracted the wrong sort of attention.

But their teacher smoothly moves on from Pablo's mistake, giving lots of facts about both the construction of the subway system and the Empire State Building.  As the class makes their way down to the subway platform, Alicia asks Pablo where he's from.  Pablo replies "Nowhere.  My dad has to move a lot for his job."  Alicia asks Pablo "But where is HOME for you?"  He replies angrily "NOWHERE!", and Alicia states the obvious "Then I guess New York is your home now!"  Pablo huffs "Whatever."  You can already see their emotions about the day in this exchange - Pablo is overwhelmed and negative; Alicia upbeat and positive.

As they enter the platform, the teacher is explaining the difference between express and local trains.  The platform fills with commuters - talking, walking, checking their phones.  Alicia takes the opportunity to show Pablo a map, so he can familiarize himself with the subway system.  Just as she drags him over, though, the rest of the class boards a local train (which makes additional stops).  In a moment of panic, Pablo grabs Alicia to rush her to the train.  But they have rushed onto the wrong train.  The teacher gestures wildly at them, hoping that they will get off at the next stop the two trains share.  In the meantime, Pablo and Alicia argue over whose decision got them separated from the rest of the class.

The panicked decision-making from Pablo and Alicia only continues throughout their travels.  They are impulsive and worried, jumping from train to train.  At this point in the story, this mother was worrying about their safety.  But at least Alicia is a city kid, comfortable with the maze of subways.  Pablo has the sheer determination to conquer the new school and the subway.  The thing they need to succeed in reuniting with their class: each other.  Can they work together and maybe even become friends?

As much of the story fascinates me, being as far from my children's life experiences as can be, what amazes me about Lost in NYC are the layered, thoughtful illustrations.  The series that TOON Books began publishing last fall is called TOON Graphics for Visual Readers, and I think Lost in NYC is one of the best examples of this series.  Let's start with the endpapers.

The front set of endpapers shows a cropped section of the NYC Subway map, including parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens.  It has the stops marked in bold black font and the trains in different colors.  The subway lines interweave on the map, showing how commuters get where they need to go.  It's a traditional subway map - one that is most likely available at any stop to stash in your pocket.  It is the same map posted on the wall in the subway station where the class loses Alicia and Pablo.  On the back endpapers, the students' trip is shown.  The scale is off - the children are as big as buildings - but this is purposeful.  You can spot Alicia, Pablo, and their class throughout this map as they travel.  It's whimsical and suits the story perfectly.  Pablo, for instance, enters a subway car at one height, then in the next car, he fills the car completely, looking a little scared and out of his depth.  It also shows Alicia, the class and Pablo all converging on the Empire State Building.  I like this slightly different perspective on the map of their journey - it feels a little more emotional.  It gives readers a unique view of how they all got to their destination.

As we all know, there are millions of people in New York City, Sanchez has the challenge of drawing the crowd of people surrounding Pablo and Alicia throughout the book, but to also keep the readers' attention.  Many people are dressed in muted colors, so that Alicia (dressed in pink and green) and Pablo (in blues) stand out.  But the commuters also have lots of individual details that draw the eye - absorbed in their phones as they wait, shuffling along in single-file lines, listening to headphones, reading - there are lots of terrific details when the reader pores over the illustrations.

One of the other very cool things about this book is the way it incorporates photographs and New York City history into the graphic novel format.  When the teacher begins to give information to the class in preparation for their trip, the class is shown on a map of the subways (again, much like the one in the front of the book).  The teacher explains how the subways were constructed at the turn of the century, which included digging trenches for the trains.  As he describes the construction process, the students perch on the edges of newly dug trenches.  This double-paged spread is also filled with historic photographs of the subways being built - another way for students to visualize what happened then.

Finally, this book does not disappoint in back matter either.  TOON always has great information in its back matter, and Lost in NYC is perfect.  There is a fascinating behind-the-scenes section about Sanchez's trip to New York City and how he found all the details included in the book.  There are also pages on the subway system's history and the subway system today.  Finally, there is a brief history of the Empire State Building and of course, a bibliography. It is especially helpful that the books in the bibliography are provided with age ranges to help guide readers.

As always, these books are quality products, elegantly designed, but with an appeal to children.  Even here in our little town of Helena, Frances and Gloria have read and re-read Lost in NYC.  I hope you will too!

Lost in NYC: A Subway Adventure.  Nadja Spiegelman and Sergio Garcia Sanchez.  TOON Graphics, 2015.

sent by the publisher for review

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