The Secret Subway

Book review by
Darienne Stewart, Common Sense Media
The Secret Subway Book Poster Image
Spectacular strange-but-true tale of first New York subway.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Detailed account of how the first subway in New York City was built. Terrific demonstration of innovative thinking and how promising ideas can become derailed yet still have lasting value. Introduces basic concepts regarding pneumatic tubes, urban planning, and 19th-century political machines. Author's note provides more context, background, and resources. Inside the book jacket, the illustrator shows how he created the three-dimensional artwork.

Positive Messages

Achievements may not be celebrated in their time but can still prove to be historically significant. Everyday things we take for granted today can have fascinating and unexpected histories. Even innovations that don't seem to go anywhere can help lay the path into the future.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Inventor Beach is creative and resourceful. Forced to deal with a corrupt political establishment, he resorts to deception to pursue his plans.

Violence & Scariness

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Secret Subway chronicles New York's first subway, which was built secretly in an attempt to get around the corruption of Tammany Hall -- and forgotten for years until construction of the subway system we know today got started. While the book does a solid job explaining the political challenges in broad brushstrokes, parents may need to explain a little more to this young audience about Boss Tweed and political machines and why the subway's inventor resorted to deception to work on his project. The history is fascinating, and astonishing artwork using clay model figures and meticulously designed scenes brings this curious, well-told story to life.

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What's the story?

As the streets of New York City grew dangerously congested in the 1860s, Alfred Ely Beach thought he'd found a solution: an underground pneumatic tube to whisk people through the city. Getting the OK for such a project would be difficult in the city run by Boss Tweed, however. So Beach officially sought permission to build a small mail tube, but secretly he built a short tunnel and rail car, powered by a fan, to carry passengers. He hoped it would be the basis for a new transit system, but opposition from politicians and business owners killed his dream. His underground station was forgotten for years, until it was unearthed during excavation for the modern-day subway.

Is it any good?

The story of how Alfred Beach tried to build an early subway for New York City is fascinatingly recounted for the picture-book set with vivid, lively language and jaw-dropping artwork. THE SECRET SUBWAY is a quirky bit of history -- how many books aimed at preschoolers talk about Boss Tweed? -- and Shana Corey does an admirable job explaining the obstacles Beach faced in an accessible, engaging way.

The extraordinary artwork by Red Nose Studio (aka Chris Sickels) merits a full pictorial explainer on the inside of the book jacket. Resembling stills from an animated film, they're composed of clay model figures, cardboard collage backgrounds, hand-drawn accents, and meticulously crafted details. The innovative themes may prompt readers to start building their own dioramas.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about big-city politics of the 19th century. Do you think Boss Tweed was a bully?

  • Do you think it was OK for subway inventor Beach to lie about his plans? What if his project had failed or caused a collapse or serious injury?

  • What makes this a good story? Do you like reading about things that happened in the past? What other books about history have you read and liked?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love history

Themes & Topics

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