7-Imp’s 7 Kicks #256: Featuring Julia Sarcone-Roach

h1 November 20th, 2011 by jules

From Julia Sarcone-Roach’s Subway Story (Knopf, October 2011)

“They celebrated their sneaky escapes with tea fresh off the radiator and a tin of crunchy crackers found in a trunk. But after Hildy’s seventeenth cracker and Milo’s fortieth cup of tea, everyone began to feel a little sleepy. ‘I think I’m ready for bed,’ Hildy mumbled. And so, very quietly, they tiptoed back downstairs.”
— From Julia Sarcone-Roach’s The Secret Plan (Knopf, 2009)

Back in 2009, I fell for the debut picture book from author/illustrator Julia Sarcone-Roach. It’s called The Secret Plan (Knopf), has warm and inviting acrylic paint and pencil illustrations, and is very funny. (“Genuinely funny” Booklist called it, as well as “inventive” and “charming,” and Kirkus called it “sweet fun.”) My own children fell for it, too, and it became an insta-favorite around our house. It’s the story of an elephant, named Milo, and three cats—Harriet, Hildy, and Henry—who devise a plan to keep bedtime from happening, since bedtime is always disrupting their super special plans to generally wreak havoc and have the most kickin’ of adventures.

I contacted Julia back in ’09 to see if she’d let me show some art from the book or to see if she’d want to stop by 7-Imp, but even though she was interested, life got in the way and it never really panned out. Till now, that is. Julia has a brand-new picture book out, called Subway Story, which I also really like. So, she’s taking this opportunity today to talk a bit about each one. Color me pleased.

Subway Story, just released last month, tells the story of a subway car, named Jessie. “Born” in St. Louis, Missouri, she is a “beautiful, shiny new subway car” and is shipped to New York City to travel all over the bustling town, carrying folks to work and school and to visit friends and family. When the World’s Fair begins, her job involves the transport of visitors to the fairgrounds. This is the 1960s, and over the years she becomes witness to much change in the city — and undergoes many changes herself. Eventually, she becomes too old to hang in there with the “newer, air-conditioned trains,” which take over her route. Abandoned in a yard with other trains, she wonders if anyone will notice she’s gone.

One day workers appear and, thinking she’s going to be fixed, Jessie is alarmed to find she’s being taken apart and is eventually taken by barge to be “plunged into the salty ocean.” After time, sea creatures settle inside her. She is now an artificial reef: “Jessie was once an important part of the city where she lived,” the book closes. “And now a whole city lives inside her.” Julia’s closing Author’s Note explains how Jessie’s story is inspired by a real 1964 World’s Fair New York City subway car, which was eventually “reefed” off the coast of Delaware in 2001. And she further explains the different ways humans have found for reusing older subway cars, artificial reefs being one of them.

My summary sounds lousy, I fear, but this is a tenderly-done book, well-written and lovingly-crafted. I love how the Horn Book reviewer puts it in her review:

Sarcone-Roach displays a discipline not always seen in books about the environment; she allows her theme of reuse and recycling to emerge naturally from a fine story and lets readers draw their own conclusions without adding a heavy-handed one of her own.

The reviewer also notes the book’s structural and artistic similarities to Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House. This is, indeed, a beautiful thing about the book, but I was also moved by this story of great grace in the face of loss (well, it’s actually a kind of death, to be blunt about it). Only an author/illustrator who knows her craft—and knows it well—can make you care so much about a subway car.

Instead of my continued rambling, let’s share the images and sketches Julia sent, as well as her thoughts on each book. I thank her for visiting.

We’ll start with Subway Story:

* * * * * * *

“No matter who or what was on board, Jessie’s favorite part of her route was the curve of the track right before her tunnel ducked under the river. She would then speed up for the curve and then zip down with a SKREET! of sparks shooting off her wheels. And even deep down under the river, Jessie could hear the echoing BAAAOOM of the tugboats far above her. If she passed another train, she’d always give a friendly wink with a twinkle of her headlight.”
(Click to enlarge spread)

“Over the years, Jessie saw the city change, and she had some changes of her own—her parts got fixed when they broke down, and she even got to change colors.”
(Click to enlarge spread)

“But when Jessie got older, a new coat of paint couldn’t hide the cracks in her seats and the scratches and scuffs on her windows and floors. Still, she kept working as best she could, through springs and summers, falls and winters.”
(Click to enlarge spread)

“The cars were loaded onto a barge in the river, and a tugboat pulled the barge out of the city harbor. As the waves got bigger, Jessie felt the breezes whistle through her empty windows. Curious fish peered up at them as the barge moved into the open ocean. ‘Will I ever get to see the city again?’ Jessie nervously thought.”
(Click to enlarge spread)

Julia: Here are some early sketches from my sketchbook . . .

Figuring out how to make a character from a subway car:

(Click to enlarge)

I thought about the subway car’s point of view — how many days probably looked the same and time must pass in a different way:

(Click to enlarge)

(Click to enlarge)

I love saving the tape that hold my paper down to the board. Once the picture is finished, I like to keep these little loose strips of color, frequently peppered with notes and comments. Final painting is one of my favorite parts of the process, and saving the paint tape ends up being a small reward when I finish the picture.

* * * * * * *

And here are some illustrations from The Secret Plan, followed by some thoughts from Julia on the book …

(Click either illustration to see the spread in its entirety)

“And, of course, ‘BEDTIME!’ always ruined EVERYTHING.”
(Click to enlarge)

“Back in his bed, Milo was just beginning to drift off when he heard a tapping sound. Harriet was sending him a secret-code message! She had a sneaky, sleepy plan.
Milo tapped back his answer, and a few minutes later…”
(Julia: “The upside-down cats are inspired by my upside-down bats in the animated short that I made, called
Call of the Wild, back in 2002. I actually went to school for animation, and it was my degree project at RISD. You can see it here.)

Julia: The Extraneous Secrets of The Secret Plan

The book is dedicated to, and inspired by, my younger brother, Michael. We were both enthusiastic explorers as kids, and together had a lot of experience with sneaking around and bedtime-escape attempts. When I was about five and he was two and still trapped in a crib, we devised an escape system. To spring him, I’d pile stuffed animals on the floor beside the crib, and he would climb over and jump down onto them. Then, all that stood between us and handfuls of forbidden chocolate chips were a creaky flight of stairs and a short kitchen cupboard climb.

“‘BEDTIME’ ended the marshmallow roast.
‘BEDTIME’ wrecked the great three-cats-in-a-tree record.
‘BEDTIME!’ had to be stopped!”

We did a lot of exploring in my grandparents’ house, which was a treasure trove of unusual and interesting things. From a laundry chute (secret passageway!) to a basement full of fascinating odds and ends from my mother’s childhood (time travel!), adventure was everywhere. The retro yellow fridge and red stove in the kitchens in The Secret Plan were based on real (and still working) versions from my grandparents’ houses.

As kids, we got to help out with construction around the house. During our construction phase, my mom discovered wonderful, related picture books, including one that became an all-time favorite, called Need a House? Call Ms. Mouse! It was written by George Mendoza and illustrated by Doris Smith and had page after page of amazing cross-sections of homes built for various animals by Henrietta, a mouse architect. The endpapers of The Secret Plan are blueprints of the elephants’ and cats’ house, and the architecture firm is named House by Mouse, which was the original British title of that beloved book.

{More images from the book can be seen here.}

On the page where Milo and the kittens are building a cardboard rocket, my friend Meghan McCarthy’s Astronaut Handbook is open on the floor beside them. (It’s best to know what you’re getting into before you head into outer space.)

I love old movies and end up listening to them while I’m painting. Hildy, a kitten with gumption, is named after the feisty heroine of His Girl Friday.

I worked at a bookstore that held story times, which occasionally required employees to dress in character costumes. Luckily, I was too tall to fit into the costumes. (No one really wants to do the stilted, Frankenstein walk inside a giant, stifling, impossible-to-see-out-of Curious George head, as terrified children flee before you.) But the huge feet fit everyone, and were fun to try to walk around in. (My favorite feet belonged to Maisy.)

Inspired by Milo {who pads quietly up the stairs, using some monster feet from Halloween stored under his bed}, I also made my own monster feet for Halloween, out of a couple of bath mats, an old pair of rain boots, and a whole lot of hot glue. They were a lot of fun to wear, but as tools for sneaking, they were not very successful and startled my cats, who hid under the bed as I clumped past.

“{Here’s} an early sketch, which included an early kitchen misadventure with Milo and the H Kitties — the blender fiasco, cut for many good reasons.”
(Click to enlarge)

“A sketchbook tangent of ideas for the sneaky book Milo pulls from the bookshelf — with the character, Hairy Houndini.”
(Click to enlarge)

“I always like getting to peek into other people’s studios to see works in progress,
so here’s a couple pictures of
The Secret Plan underway.”
(Click to enlarge)

Painting the illustration with the reference to Meghan McCarthy’s book
(Click to enlarge)

“A note I left myself while working too late into the night, after mistakenly beginning a painting without noticing that I was actually out of paper…”

Post-Secret Plan: Subway Story just came out, and I’m currently working on another called The Bear Eats Your Sandwich, involving one bear’s adventure in the big city and a mysterious sandwich disappearance.

* * * * * * *

SUBWAY STORY. © 2011 by Julia Sarcone-Roach. Published by Alfred A. Knopf Books, New York, NY. Images and sketches reproduced by permission of Julia Sarcone-Roach.

THE SECRET PLAN. © 2009 by Julia Sarcone-Roach. Published by Alfred A. Knopf Books, New York, NY. Images and sketches reproduced by permission of Julia Sarcone-Roach.

Note for any new readers: 7-Imp’s 7 Kicks is a weekly meeting ground for taking some time to reflect on Seven(ish) Exceptionally Fabulous, Beautiful, Interesting, Hilarious, or Otherwise Positive Noteworthy Things from the past week, whether book-related or not, that happened to you.

* * * Jules’ Kicks * * *

This post is already long, so I’ll be brief, but . . .

1) I love that it’s long, precisely because it’s full of art from Julia. I really like her books and look forward to what she brings us next. Also, she sent the neatest thing in the mail that made me well up with its all-around specialness.

2) Remember this book? My oldest is making her own version of The Mystic Phyles but with—YOU’LL NEVER GUESS—cats. The Meowstic Phyles. (Thank you, thank you, we’ll be here all week.)

No, really. It’s clever, and she loves mythical creatures, as you can see:

3) If you didn’t see Jimmy Fallon as Jim Morrison singing the theme song from Reading Rainbow, why then, why are you still on this page? Go. Scoot. See here. You don’t even have to come back here. Just be sure you see it. It’s hiLARious. That was the best thing about my Tuesday.

4) The NPR Tiny Desk Concert with Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile And Stuart Duncan. Again, how can I convince talented musicians to come gather around my desk and sing? Ah well. Maybe in another life.

I love how they wrote “don’t try to compartmentalize it” over there. That might best describe my favorite kinds of music.

5) I got a whole heapin’ bunch of new-to-me music from a friend.

6) A lovely compliment from my dear friend. She’s so sincere at all times that you know she means it when she compliments you. She turned a lousy week all around with the nice thing she said.

7) Hot cocoa with cinnamon, vanilla, and Baileys (or Kahlúa will do).

That’s it. How about you all? Anyone around? What are YOUR kicks this week?

22 comments to “7-Imp’s 7 Kicks #256: Featuring Julia Sarcone-Roach”

  1. Wonderful post as always, Jules. I have a soft spot for subways so particularly enjoyed this one. My kicks:

    1. We are hosting a holiday book fair for Ballou High School in DC at Guys Lit Wire through the big shopping weekend – anyone who wants to toss some of their Black Friday $$ in a worthy direction please see our post: http://guyslitwire.blogspot.com/2011/11/we-are-going-back-to-ballou-for-holiday.html

    2. The new Florence & the Machine cd is so good. Love her.

    3. My book is officially out this week (though lots of online folks have already gotten it). The marketing end of things is quite daunting (if it’s not on the shelf at B&N, then you have to wonder how it’s going to sell….) but I’m ever hopeful. I swear. I’m being hopeful right now. Really. 🙂

    4. 2 cool things about my book – 2 scheduled events at 2 indy bookstores. Yea for indy bookstores!

    5. And not literary news but we washed the dogs yesterday (in the garage with a hose from the utility room running warm water) and they feel so wonderful. Soft dogs = wonderful.

    6. Homemade pizza. I could eat it every night. Seriously.

    7. And, um, I got a box of my book in the mail. Twelve of them all looking at me. I very nearly died from the joy of it.


  2. This is truly a wonderful post. This is my Sunday morning breakfast, delicious to the last word. I’ve got to snag a copy of Subway Story pronto. Thanks so much.

  3. Thanks, Jules. We love Julia’s work here in RI.

    Three kicks today:
    1. Library of the Early Mind is now available on digital download and will be available on DVD on Dec. 1:
    2. Poetry Advocates for Children & Young Adults is going strong with 800 members worldwide:
    3. And I wrote a new poem, an ideogram in which each line describes a letter in my first name:

    S — Road that swerves and switchbacks.
    T — Double-bladed pickaxe.
    E — Three-pronged power plug.
    V — Moth-winged flower bug.
    E — Two-car private parking space.
    N — Fog-enveloped fox’s furtive face.

  4. Wow- Julia’s paintings are warm and lovely! I haven’t seen either of these books yet but I’ll keep an eye out for them now.

    Jules, those monster feet are outrageously great!!!

    Congratulations Colleen about your book release! You didn’t put a link to it though…

    And Steven, that is a very inventive poem. I first read it thinking that each line somehow described you- which was a very interesting read! I got it the second time through and loved it.

    I have one fun little kick to share- the return of a mail art project that introduced me to a bunch of new printmakers. 🙂 http://artonthepage.blogspot.com/2011/11/little-print-book-came-back.html

  5. Oh my, I am completely smitten by Milo and the kitties in The Secret Plan. And Julia’s escape story with her 2 year old brother is pretty awesome, as are the monster feet!

    Julia’s note to her self had me cracking up….always nice to see I am not the only person that occaisionally calls themself an idiot. : )

    Jules, the Meowstic Phyles looks incredible, and also like its creator is having a lot of fun with making it. Very cool. And very nice that you got such a lovely compliment – it is amazing how the power of simple kindness can turn a day around.

    Congrats Colleen on the release of your book! That is huge!

    Steven, such a witty poem – love it!

    Jill – thanks for the link, what a great project!

    My kicks this week are a little on the sad but looking on the bright side.

    Ingrid, my baby hippo of an elderly rottweiler rescue had a limp go south very quickly last weekend. This led to x-rays and an osteosarcoma cancer diagnosis, a particularly aggressive and painful bone cancer. It was moving so fast that the best thing we could do was say goodbye. I am so very lucky that my favorite vet came to the house on Monday to help with this, as did one of my dearest friends. I only had Ingrid for 9 months, knew that she was 10 when I took her home, and my intention was always to give her a happy and spoiled old age. She did get that with me, it was just shorter than I would’ve liked. I really hope this doesn’t bum anyone out – the bright side of this is that she was such a happy funny dog that she brightened my days for the past 9 months, and made me smile and laugh at least once a day while she was with me. She was full of love and a total joy. And everyone should have more love and joy in their lives.

    At some point in the future I’ll likely adopt another older dog again, but I have promised Ariel (my 16 year old kitty) no more dogs. She deserves some peace of her own in her old age.

    I am still slowly working on The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland….and am now looking to get the nonfiction book Liespotting by Pamela Meyer after watching a video of her doing a TED talk. (It just looks fascinating.)

    Also, for fans of Marcel the Shell, here is Part Two: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ta9K22D0o5Q

    Have a great week everyone! Hug your pets for me!

  6. Thanks for driving through here, Julia!
    Look at that happy little train car.
    Look at those happy little cats and that happy big elephant.
    I love the fact that Hildy got her name from His Girl Friday! Great picture. Great actors.
    I like the calendar/schedule. It sounds like you and your brother had some wonderful adventures together.
    I was the storyteller for storytime at the bookstore.

    Jules: Three cheers for The Meowstic Philes! How adorable! Thumbs up to her.

    Colleen: Yay for a box filled with a dozen freshly-printed things YOU created! Congrats on the release of your book!

    Steven: Kudos for the ideogram.

    Jill: How pretty.

    Rachel (rm): I’m so sorry for your loss. Thank you for taking Ingrid in and giving her your love and attention. I hope that you and Ariel are doing all right and finding comfort.

    My kicks from the past week:
    1) Performance
    2) Rehearsals
    3) Meshing schedules
    4) Invitations
    5) Conversations
    6) Rumspringa
    7) Justice

    I’m getting ready to go to a movie screening, a premiere party just for cast and crew. I can’t wait to see the final cut! 🙂 I posted about this back in May when we were filming: In this film, I was given the amazing opportunity to name my character, and I named her Natalie Grace after two of my favorite actresses, Natalie Wood and Grace Kelly.

    (Yes, I’ve been following all of the news reports about Natalie this week.)

  7. I’m captivated by both books—and both the writing and illustrations: “tea fresh off the radiator” (just lovely), the blue room with kitty feet on the pillow (ha!) and the subway about to shoot under the river (so evocative.) Well, two new books go on my Christmas List. (Santa are you reading?) The RISD short was intriguing as well. Nice to see your work and learn a bit of your Julia! (Nice monster feet.)

    Jules – I love the Meowstic’s author’s fiece eye contact; clearly passionate about her project. THANK YOU for sharing Fallon/Morrison’s rendition; OMG. (Did Jimmy stuff a wocket in his leather pocket? I digress.) It’s hilarious how perfectly “psychedelic” the children’s book words are. I vote this BEST 7-Imp LINK 2011. : – )

    Colleen – Thanks for guyslit book fair link; I sent Octavia Nothing, Harris Burdick, Steven Jobs and Wintergirls to Librarian Melissa and her Ballou High readers. (I always enjoy scanning librarian wish lists.)
    And hey, YOUR BOOK looks so interesting. Congrats! (Link:)
    My dad was a private pilot and two of by brothers are pilots (one commercial, one freight.) I’ve found their Christmas presents now.

    Steven – Can’t wait for the download. Thanks!

    Jill – Your collection of stamps from ‘round the world is fantastic!

    Rachel – Condolences; what a touching, bittersweet kick.

    LW – Hoping Natalie Grace’s scenes all made the final cut. ; – )

    My kick this week: This stellar blog today! Always fun, but today really jam-packed with great art, writing, stories, kicks, links and information.

    Have a grand week everyone!

  8. Augh! 1st paragraph, last line. Make that: “learn a bit about your story, Julia.”
    (You’d think I’d learn to proofread.)

  9. Thanks for sharing yet more gorgeous art work. I can’t wait to check out Julia’s work.

  10. A late stopping by and I am so glad I love the for the books especially the sketches for the book.
    Jules, Jimmy Fallon as Jim Morrison? HILARIOUS! and surprisingly good, Love the Doors. Thanks.
    Every one had such great kicks.
    Mine include:
    A writing time at the Sellwood Library followed with tea with a friend.
    Seeing Pinkalicious with my 7yo grandgirl.
    Her comment about turning 7, “I’m not any taller than I was at 6.”
    Short but sweet this week. Happy Thanksgiving all.

  11. I wrote an ideogram to this week too:
    J hang onto the rope which swings over the lake
    O the shape of ripples when you drop in
    N the swim slide is lots of fun
    E a kite with streamers flies high above

  12. Colleen, congrats again on the book! And thanks for the link about the book fair.

    Margie, hope you like the book. Thanks for your frequent sunny comments here at 7-Imp.

    Steven, I LOVE THAT POEM. But now I gotta look up what an ideogram is.

    Hi, Jill. I’m sqeeing over those beautiful and adorable wee tiny books.

    Oh Rachel, no no no. You JUST got Ingrid. I’m so sorry. Big hugs to you, and my sincere condolences. And of course you’re not bumming us out by sharing. I’m just sorry to read that. Little Willow’s right to thank you for the love you gave Ingrid, you know. And pet Ariel for us all.

    Little Willow, how was that screening? Sounds big-time fun. And what do you think of the news about Natalie? And what is a rumspringa?

    Denise, aw thanks for liking the post. Yes, that Jimmy Fallon. He’s funny. I’ve been a fan for a long time, too.

    Hi, Stacey!

    Jone, Pinkalicious? Was it a play, or has it been made into a movie and I don’t know it? And I love your ideogram, too. YOU GUYS. You’re all so poetically prolific. … Congrats on your writing time, Jone.

  13. Denise:

    Thanks for the book fair purchases – Melissa & the kids will be thrilled, I’m sure! And thanks so very much for the kind words about my book – they really mean a lot.

  14. I love seeing the illustration process. These look like some great books. I’ll have to keep my eyes open for them. Thanks

  15. Jackie, glad you enjoyed it …

  16. Thank you Jules, Denise and Little Willow for the kind words about Miss Ingrid. I definitely miss her large and happy prescence, but am still so happy I got to enjoy her for the time I did have with her.
    My friend Jeff took a gorgeous photo of her: http://blog.cranialaperture.com/2011/11/2011-day-318-baby-hippo.html

    We fed her several whopper juniors and lots of other goodies her last couple of days – she loved getting all the extra treats!

  17. Oh, Rachel. Ingrid was so beautiful. Just so beautiful.

  18. Pinkalicious the Musical, Jules.

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