Children’s book recalls the events of 9/11 from the perspective of an underground train

  • Leyden children’s book author and illustrator Marie Betts Bartlett “builds” her illustrations using layers of finely cut cardstock. Here, Poppy is discovered by rescue workers. Contributed photo courtesy of Marie Betts Bartlett

  • Children’s book author and illustrator Marie Betts Bartlett works in her home studio in Leyden. For the Recorder/Trish Crapo

For The Recorder
Published: 9/23/2016 10:07:08 AM

Trapped in a tunnel under the World Trade Center after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Poppy waits to be rescued. It’s dark and smoky in the underground station and water begins to rise around her. One morning, Poppy hears, “a gentle, rhythmic slap, slap on the water,” and a flashlight beam shines over her.

Poppy is a PATH (Port Authority Trans Hudson) train car, happy with her purpose of shuttling people back and forth between New Jersey and Manhattan. But as Leyden children’s book author and illustrator Marie Betts Bartlett makes clear in her new book, “Poppy’s Purpose,” unexpected circumstances can dramatically intervene in our lives, causing us to redefine our purpose.

To Bartlett, that message of resiliency, as well as an overriding sense of kindness and caring, is what the book is about. Though the time and setting are clearly grounded in the 9/11 attacks, Bartlett doesn’t want that aspect to be too far forward in this story meant for children ages 4 and up. The storyline doesn’t specifically spell out why “The tall, tall towers tumbled to the ground.” It focuses on the courage and compassion displayed by rescue workers afterwards, and on Poppy’s adjustment to her new role.

Bartlett’s first book, “The Little Yellow Trolley Car,” published in 2011, grew out of her experience volunteering at The Shelburne Falls Trolley Museum, where she served as motorman and conductor of the Shelburne Falls & Colrain Street Railway Car No. 10.

“I would repeat the story of the trolley over and over,” Bartlett said with a smile. “And I really thought that it was a story that kids would like as a picture book.”

Knowing she was going to produce the book herself, and finding the prospect of hiring an illustrator beyond her means, Bartlett set about working with sheets of colored card stock to create cut-paper collages to accompany her story. She’d made birthday cards in this manner previously, she said, but not many.

“I’ve always considered myself to have an artistic perspective,” Bartlett said. “But I was not an artist.”

The increasingly complex illustrations she’s created for “Poppy’s Purpose” has clearly changed that. Bartlett cuts all her shapes with an Exacto knife and then “builds” the illustrations through layering. She then scans them and uses computer software for some finishing touches, such as creating the look of smoke in the underground tunnel, or resizing figures in a scene.

“Poppy’s Purpose” came about after Bartlett visited the Shoreline Trolley Museum in East Haven, Conn. There, she learned of PATH Car No. 745, the lead car of a seven-car train, which left Hoboken at 8:42 a.m. on Sept.11, 2001 and arrived on Track 3 at about 8:52. The car was due to depart again at 9:00 a.m. for the return trip to New Jersey when the towers collapsed.

Bartlett was commissioned by Wayne Sandford of the Shoreline Trolley Museum to create a book about Car No. 745 in time for a 15th memorial service held at the museum this Sept. 11. It took extensive research to nail the story down, as well as to create visually accurate representations of Manhattan and the New Jersey shoreline as they would have been in 2001.

“As a result of 9/11, after the towers came down, a lot of business moved over to Jersey City and Hoboken, so the skyline now is very different that it was 15 years ago,” Bartlett said. Not content to just use any old rectangular shapes to create the idea of a skyline, Bartlett tracked down photos taken from a helicopter in 2000 to use as references.

Similarly, she researched the shopping and parking levels of the World Trade Center, pictured in an unusual, vertical two-page spread. Reaching into one of the manila folders she keeps for each illustration, Bartlett brings out a small trident shape she’s cut from paper, and points to the book to show how these shapes make up a defining structural element around the base of the towers.

She didn’t want to present the full specificity of the 9/11 attacks in her story, Bartlett says, but she wanted the tridents, and other realistic elements, to pay homage to it from within her illustrations. Similarly, when Bartlett uses the word “cooks” in a list of the types of workers that Poppy carries in and out of the city every day, she had a very specific person in mind.

“Back when 9/11 happened, there was an article about a relatively young man who had recently gotten a job as a chef at the top of World Trade Center and he’s the reason I use the word ‘cooks,’” Bartlett says.

“It’s a very quiet reference but I would like the parents of that young man to know that some other person is remembering him, and remembering that he was there, and that it was his dream job.”

Remembering is key to Poppy’s new purpose at the Shoreline Trolley Museum.

Bartlett writes: “She gave people a place to come and remember how courage and kindness are always possible.”

Bartlett will be holding a book signing at Boswell’s Books, 10 Bridge St., Shelburne Falls on Sunday from 2 to 3 p.m.

“Poppy’s Purpose” is available at Boswell’s Books, World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield, Shelburne Falls Trolley Museum, Broadside Books in Northampton, through Amazon or at

Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She is always looking for poets, writers and artists to interview for her columns. She can be reached at:


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