German-born author/illustrator Christoph Niemann moved with his family from New York City to Berlin two years ago, but his two new books both focus on the Big Apple and are both drawn from a blog Neimann produces for the New York Times. Subway (Greenwillow) is a whimsical tour of NYC’s public transit system and I Lego N.Y. (Abrams Image) collects his Lego interpretations of some city icons. Bookshelf spoke with Niemann about the difference between creating content for the blog versus picture books and what it is that he (and his three sons) find so fascinating about the subway system.
Your two new books both celebrate New York City in very visual, and very different, ways. Do you consider yourself an urbanite at heart?
I’m absolutely an urbanite, and even though we moved away, New York has a very big place in our hearts and in mine. I am in New York five or six times a year, so I can’t really leave it.
For the past two years, you’ve been running a visual blog for the New York Times about city life, family life, and other observations. What’s been your experience of having such a high-profile outlet for your artwork?
It’s always absolutely terrifying. In illustration, you always have an excuse in terms of an editor saying, ‘We don’t like it,’ or ‘The deadline is tight.’ This is a job where I don’t have an excuse. Ultimately, it’s an utterly open assignment. That’s great when it works out, but utterly scary to try to come up with a concept. I always try to raise the bar for myself, and try not to repeat myself.
The whole reason I started it is that I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and do something in which half of my attempts will actually end up in failure. The world of editorial is very results-oriented. At the end of the day, you have to have a drawing done. I wanted to do something where I don’t know what the result will be or even if there will be a result.
How do you choose the subject matter and the media you use in your posts—or your books for that matter?
It’s always the concept or the story first. Then I think, How can I tell the story and what supports the story best? What I also often think about is, What would distract from the story? When I came up with the subway blog, and the book as well, I deliberately didn’t want to show faces and details of the subway. There are a lot of books about subways and trains out there, and I like them and my kids like them. But I feel like they focus on the crew, and the sights, and highlights. For me it was the idea of people moving, the predictability of the whole system, how orderly it is with the colors and the numbers. That’s what I love about the subway and what I think my kids love about the subway.
Has the blog had a noticeable impact on your children’s book following?
Oh definitely. That’s the beauty of the online world—everything is so connected. When I see something I like, I start Googling and check out sites of authors or illustrators. What I found interesting from a publishing standpoint is when you write a book, you try to get it out there, try to make people see it, try to generate a wide audience for it. In this case, it was the other way around, in which I was able to throw out an idea, but I had no intention of turning it into a book. I did it because I felt the story was valid and, based on the reactions, I thought, Oh, it’s something people like. I can turn it into the book, and I have my PR already done.
Your first Abstract City post, which was about the New York City subway, debuted in 2008, right around the publication of your previous picture book, The Pet Dragon. Did Greenwillow sign up Subway around then?
When the post went up, we were really excited about the response from the readers. I talked to my editor and we thought it would be great to turn it into a book. It’s subject matter that I just love, and looking at the response from the blog, it was obvious I was not the only one who was into the topic.
But when we looked into it, the blog is the parent looking at the children and being amused and inspired by their obsessions. That doesn’t work for a children’s book, which you want to tell from a child’s perspective. We decided we liked the look, we liked the topic, but unfortunately I had to go back to the drawing board. I wanted to stay in that universe and create a story that [describes] a ride on the subway from the perspective of the kids and what they like.
What was it like to work in verse, as sort of verbal framework?
When I draw, in a way I find restrictions really helpful. It gives you a set of boundaries. You know exactly how far you can go. Within that restriction you can actually have more fun.
I had one or two drafts, but I always felt it was a little arbitrary. There’s something absurd about riding the subway for five hours without a goal. Once I’d started with the G train and F train and how they separate and are happy to see each other again, I needed verse to come across with that absurdity. Otherwise it felt like a cynical, grownup text.
Do you find it at all difficult to tap into details of New York City life now that you and your family live in Berlin?
Not yet. We still have a place [in New York], and when we come back I have my junk mail, I get my paper, my coffee. Of course I don’t know how it’ll be 10 years down the line. [In Berlin] I get up in the morning, I read the Times, I have my subscription to the New Yorker. My work is still 85 percent New York. I get on the phone, I email. When I go [back to New York] I see more of the city. I go to the museums, I see more. Some of the little things you don’t experience, but so far—being there so often, all our friends are still there—I’m still very much in contact with the city.
Your sons’ enthusiasm for public transit is so much a part of both in Subway and the original Abstract City post. Do you share their attitude or is this more about capturing the subway through their eyes?
If I [didn’t] share it, I don’t think I would have made so many trips with them. I’m absolutely from the same genes, as far as that goes. My wife, I wouldn’t say she hates [the subway], but she dislikes it. From the first time coming to New York I was absolutely in love with the subway. I like the subway in Berlin, I like it in Paris, but in New York there’s something special. It’s like the most powerful, biggest, loudest, and meanest of them all.
Do you think that enthusiasm an urban extension of kids’ love of cars, trucks, and other heavy machinery?
I’m sure there’s this idea of something big and moving, but I really found that they love routines, they love systems, where they are able to predict something. I found that when we go in the car, one day we make a right turn, one day we make a left turn, one day we have to park two streets down. But on the subway, R trains always come here, and when we leave Brooklyn, the next stop is always Wall Street. It’s something so big and vibrant, but they can be in charge. When we drive down the L.I.E., they can’t say, We want to change lanes and take the Atlantic Avenue exit. It lets them be in the grownup world and know exactly how it works, to be able to call the shots, to be able to plan trips, which except for walks—which are boring—is not really possible for them.
I think my favorite anecdote from your subway post was about your son Gustov bursting into tears when you had to take the express train instead of the local.
What’s actually amazing is that when I got comments for the blog, I heard from people who said, I was actually in that car [during the tantrum]. I don’t know if there can be such a coincidence, if New York can be such a small place, or if other kids do the same thing.
Is public transportation as much a part of your life in Berlin as it was in New York?
Not quite as much because I can walk and ride my bike to the studio. It’s all very close—school is close, the studio is close. They have wonderful high-speed, long distance trains here, and we do ride the subway and S-bahn. Within a week and a half, the kids knew the whole system.
It’s a loop-around city, and there’s one station with eight different trains that come on the same track. They all look exactly alike except they are numbered differently. Arthur, when he was two and a half, we were in Berlin for the first time for vacation. His godfather said, ‘I’m going to take you for a little loop.’ Arthur would not leave the track until he’d seen all eight trains come in and out of the station. He just needed to go down the list and see that every train is still running.
Are your sons finding aspects of Berlin just as fascinating?
Well, there’s this new dynamic of eight-years-old versus four-years-old, but I find it very comforting that this whole train and subway obsession had not really gone down. I know Arthur had friends in school who shared this obsession but who went on to baseball—but he’s still big-time into the subway thing.
The smallest one, Fritz, when we were in New York, he was barely a year old. I’ve now started taking all three [onto the subway] and he’s definitely of the same material.
Subway by Christoph Niemann. Greenwillow, $16.99 June ISBN 978-0-06-157779-6