Seven and a Half Tons of Steel follows a beam from the World Trade Center after the September 11th attacks. From the rubble of that devastating event, to a foundry where workers melt down the steel and reshape it to become the bow of the USS New York navy ship, and back to New York for the 10th anniversary of the attacks, this moving story shows how hope and strength can emerge out of pain and loss.
For our Sunday Brunch today, we talked with author Janet Nolan and illustrator Thomas Gonzalez to get a little more background on their inspiration and process for creating this meaningful picture book.
Janet, what was your inspiration for this book?
JN: I was driving my car, listening to the radio, when I heard a brief story about the USS New York. I remember sitting in traffic being quietly amazed, surprised to learn steel from the World Trade Center towers had been used in the building of a navy ship. What struck me at the time, and has stayed with me ever since, was the feeling that something positive and powerful had emerged from a tragic event. I knew I’d discovered a story I had to write. And from the beginning, I believed this was a story about transformation and hope.
What was so special about this ship?
JN: The first page of the book reads: “There is a ship, a navy ship. It is called the USS New York. It is big like other navy ships, and it sails like other navy ships, but there is something different, something special about the USS New York.” I believe the USS New York is special, not only because of the seven and a half tons of steel in its bow but also because of the men and women who built and serve on the ship. The ship’s motto is “Strength forged through sacrifice. Never forget.” I believe the USS New York is more than a navy ship. It is a testament to hope, rebuilding, and redemption.
How much research did you do?
JN: I knew almost nothing about forging steel or shipbuilding when I began researching this book. Fortunately, other people did. I conducted phone interviews, read every news article I could get my hands on, watched countless news clips and videos, and was a frequent visitor to the ship’s website. I was touched by the generosity of librarians and retired military who were willing to guide me in the right direction and answer my many questions, big and small.
There are so many events in the life of this one beam. How did you winnow them down to the ones you explore in the book? How did you choose which ones to include and which ones to leave out?
JN: What first drew me to this story was the idea of transformation. How tragedy could be recast as strength and hope. In choosing what to include and what to exclude, I stayed close to the beam and followed it on its transformative journey. The book begins with the events of September 11 and the outpouring of emotion at Ground Zero, but when the beam leaves New York, the story follows the beam.
Thomas, what’s it like to illustrate a book when you haven’t met the author?
TG: I believe I do meet the author through their words, in the words they share.
TG: I responded to the resilience of our country and how we honored those on our soil who desire to live here and stand for our values. I also responded to what it was like the days, hours and minutes before September 11. It’s the reason I did the illustration of the plane frozen against the building. The idea that going about your everyday life is like a mirage of reality.
Did you paint from actual photographs? How did you select the images you wanted to include?
TG: Yes and no. I typically spend a bit of time doing rough sketches based on how the elements flow on a page—shapes or “blobs” of imaginary elements. Then, I start looking at video clips and images and take pictures of skies or other elements as I drive around. It’s like collecting ingredients for each of the spreads and thinking of them as a cake or a dish. But they all relate in the final product.
I also take pictures of people I know and other random shots to stage or help me with the mood of illustrations. Then, when appropriate, I do most of the modeling (shadows, highlights, etc.) out of my head through sketches in black and white to get the feel for light direction in conjunction with the reference. Most references I use do not have the right light source, so I make them work as if they all belonged in the same time and space.
Some of the images were sourced out of government archives that are in public domain to use. I look at those, because you do want to make sure that there are no misrepresentations of facts. I also use them for technical accuracy, especially when it involves something like an actual naval ship, uniforms, and military craft. But I tend to embellish them with a bit of drama that is not in the actual picture.
Thomas, what do you hope readers take away from your art?
TG: I hope they recall or imagine how quickly the reality, the surroundings, of one’s life can change and how events, whether we choose them or they choose us, can alter a future.
Janet, what do you hope readers take away from your book?
JN: If a beam can become a bow, then anything is possible. Anyone and anything can be transformed. Terrible tragedies have occurred and will probably occur again. My hope is that readers of Seven and a Half Tons of Steel will feel a sense of hopefulness. Because without hope, how do we as people and as a nation go forward?