Like many kids who grow up in the city, my toddler son, Augie, is simply obsessed with the subway (and anything vehicle-related). He loves nothing more than swiping the MetroCard, going through the turnstiles, and riding the train for as long as possible. Covid makes it tricky to constantly ride the rails, so when he can’t do that, he’s content calling out train stations on walks and drives, playing with his subway toy cars, and reading books about the subway. We only own three Metro-themed books, but they are some of his favorites to read at night before bed, and I am always on the lookout for more volumes to add to his library. Below, the three books in our bedtime rotation plus a few more I have saved in my shopping cart, all of which are sure to delight the young subway-obsessive in your life. Oh, and for a non-book recommendation, Sarah Meyer, the MTA’s chief customer officer and a mom of two, suggests picking up “an actual NYC subway map,” which, as she notes, is free. “I have spent countless hours with my oldest, tracing routes, showing her where people live, where we have been, and where she wants to go,” Meyer says.
Subway books I own
This was Augie’s first book about the subway, and it’s the perfect introduction to the subterranean system. With vibrant illustrations and a diverse cast of characters in equally snazzy outfits, it follows a mother and a young daughter on a rollicking train ride uptown, complete with a transfer. Yellow cabs, food carts, the iconic red subway lamps and green station markers, and, of course, the trains, all of which imply we’re in New York City without explicitly stating so, but there’s plenty that will be familiar to your little city-slicker. The language is simple, rhythmic, and repetitive, making it a book that you’ll return to often. There’s even a tiny dog in a tiny purse that’s fun to track through the story.
Here’s a clever little book whose illustrations are a little more abstract but whose content is clearly about the MTA (and a little more advanced than the one above). Written and illustrated by award-winning author Christoph Niemann, it tells the story of two boys and their father as they spend a rainy day traveling underground along as many subway lines as possible. They ride the A and lay out all the stations, “from Harlem to Brooklyn and Jamaica Bay, then out to the beach at Far Rockaway,” then eventually find themselves at 42nd Street, where the 7 comes to meet all “his friends.” Augie adores pointing out all the different trains and saying, “I’ve been on the Q train! I’ve been on the F train!” He loves the “critters,” a.k.a. rats, that make an appearance, especially the one that has found a felled MetroCard in the tracks. Alas, the trip must come to an end, and the two kids have to be dragged back up to street level — an experience Augie can fully relate to.
Augie picked this out at the bookstore, because he can spot any vehicle-related anything from a mile away. It’s definitely on the too-old-for-him side (it’s historical and text-heavy), but the illustrations are gorgeous and graphic and adults learn a lot, too. Published in conjunction with the MoMA and the New York Transit Museum, it introduces us to famed Italian designer Massimo Vignelli and traces how he came to design the modern MTA subway map. (It also touches on his many other iconic designs, including logos for American Airlines, Bloomingdales, and Knoll, which keeps adult readers interested.) Augie loves the pictures most of all, and is endlessly chuffed by the “subway spaghetti” that ultimately gives the designer an “a-ha” moment. Targeted for ages 8 through 12, the book will (I hope) be one that Augie returns to when he’s older.
Subway books I want
This wordless picture book lets your child’s imagination take over as they follow the journey of a little girl taking a train ride to new landscapes. While it’s not necessarily New York City–specific, there are still a few markers that will be familiar to your tot. I love the simple but graphic imagery and the fact that its author worked for the NYC Transit Authority “making books about using the subways to get to school,” according to the jacket copy.
Take a multicultural, multi-borough trek through the city — from Yankee Stadium to Coney Island — following the jazzy rhythms of the text and the mesmerizing artwork, which is surreal enough to keep readers on their toes. This one feels closest to the spirit of NYC, and the opening line should give you an idea of what to expect: “The city is the body, / the subway is the blood, / running through / tunnel veins.”
This one’s definitely for when Augie can read on his own, but I love the idea of a “lost in the subway” adventure for kids — especially as a graphic novel. Pablo is the new kid in school who unfortunately gets separated from his classmates on his first field trip in the city. But with the help of a friend — and NYC itself — he eventually finds his way back. The book features actual MTA maps, archival photos, and facts, so it’s just as much of a learning experience for your reader as it is for our intrepid protagonist.
While a book about the infrastructure of a city may sound a bit dull, it’s the technical stuff like roads, tunnels, construction sites, and straight-up engineering feats that gets my toddler in a tizzy. This classic book by David Macaulay is all about the underground network of a city, including subways, yes, but also sewers, electrical lines, building foundations, and water pipes, shown and explained by intricate line drawings of exposed cutaway sections of a made-up site between two intersections. Geared toward older readers, it’s definitely more textbook than storybook, but it’s one that fascinates both children and adults alike.
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