Award-winning children’s book unveils secret world of Prague metro

Photo: Martin Zajíček, Czech Radio

When did the Prague metro start operating? How many people can fit into one train? How fast do the escalators move? And which Metro station is the windiest? Answers to these and many other questions can be found in a children’s book called To je metro, čéče or That’s metro, man, which has won this year’s Most Beautiful Children’s Book award.

Photo: Martin Zajíček,  Czech Radio
Photo: Archive of the Paseka publishing house

For most people living in Prague, who rush through it daily, the metro is nothing but a means of transport, getting them quickly and efficiently from one part of the city to another.

To je metro, čéče, released by the Paseka publishing house at the end of last year, depicts the city’s underground railway system as a fascinating and a slightly mysterious world of its own.

The text, accompanied by charming illustrations, is full of details, yet it is easy to follow and can be enjoyed both by the children and their parents.

The initial idea for the book came from Jakub Sedláček, editor of the Paseka publishing house, who was inspired by similar publications written about subways elsewhere in the world and though the Czech metro would deserve a book of its own.

Milada Rezková,  photo: Tomáš Vodňanský,  Czech Radio

He approached the writer Milada Rezková, known for her children’s comic series Doktor Racek, with the idea. Although she wasn’t much of an expert on the metro, she says she has always appreciated its speed and efficiency.

“From my point of view, Prague metro works really well. I haven’t used it that much, lately, because I live in the city centre and I usually just walk from one place to another.

“But when I need to go somewhere further, I usually use the metro. You don’t have to wait too long, it is never too crowded and there are not that many lines, so you never get lost.”

Milada Rezková admits that she had to do a lot of research before getting started on the book. Her main source of information was the internet, but she also got to see places which are usually closed to the public.

Photo: Archive of the Paseka publishing house

“I actually have friends who work in the metro and they took me there so I could see the background. I even had a ride sitting next to the driver, but that’s a secret.”

The main protagonists of the book are a school-aged boy called Karel Kroupa and his grandfather, Karel Kroupa senior, who has worked in the metro for his whole life. His colleagues call him the Mole and he knows every little detail about the city’s the underground railway.

The book starts at Christmas time, when little Karel writes a letter to Ježíšek, or Baby Jesus, telling him what he would like to find under the tree on Christmas Eve. His greatest wish is to spend one afternoon a week away from school.

Photo: Archive of the Paseka publishing house

So, every Wednesday, his grandfather picks him up at school and takes him on a tour through the metro. At first, little Karel is slightly intimidated, but as he meets his grandfather’s colleagues and starts to discover all the fascinating details of the underground world, Wednesday afternoons become his favourite time of the week.

Milada Rezková explains how she came up with the storyline:

“I had to convey a lot of technical details to the children, so I had to frame them by a story, that would make it fun to read.

“The interaction between younger and older generations has been something I have examined in several of my books. It is a topic that never ceases to fascinate me and I have some kind of urge to write about it.”

Each of the chapters in the book is accompanied by a full-page illustration, but there are also comics, maps, and a number of technical drawings, depicting for example the various types of trains.

Photo: Archive of the Paseka publishing house

The process of creating the illustrations was quite intricate and took several years to complete, explains one of its authors, Jan Šrámek:

“Some of the illustrations are done on computer, using so-called vector graphic. And then there are watercolour paintings done by hand by Veronika Vlková.

“The two pictures are then put together digitally, so it is no longer clear which of them was made by hand. It is all combined in an offset print and the result is a unified visual style.”

Jan Šrámek,  photo: Tomáš Vodňanský,  Czech Radio

Jan Šrámek says that for him as an artist, the Prague metro is visually very inspiring and he compares it to the central nervous system of the city.

“I admire mainly the original design of the Metro stations and the former visual style of the Metro.”

One of the chapters of the book is dedicated to the facings of the Prague Metro stations, made of various building materials. Karel and his grandfather admire the three dimensional coloured tiles made of aluminium, which decorate the stations along the A-line.

Designed by architect and urban planner Jaroslav Otruba, they were inspired by the op-art movement of the 1960s, and today, they are considered a Prague tourist attraction, just like the glass bricks at Karlovo náměstí, created by the famous glass-maker František Vízner.

Photo: Archive of the Paseka publishing house

Jan Šrámek says that he too had to do a lot of research and says that his biggest source of inspiration were websites, created by Prague metro enthusiasts:

“Fortunately, there are many websites dedicated to the metro established by train fans. That’s where I found plenty of facts about the lesser known metro trains. I also got a book from my uncle, who works for the company Metrostav. I discovered a lot of details in this book that couldn’t be found anywhere else.”

The first Prague metro line went into operation in May 1974 and ran from Kačerov to Sokolovská station, today known as Florence. The first underground trains carried passengers between nine stations and consisted of only three carriages.

Photo: Archive of the Paseka publishing house

Since then the system has been expanded to three lines, covering over 65 kilometres. Last year, Prague City Hall took first steps in the construction of a planned D line of the metro. Its first part will connect to C line at Pankrác, and in the future, it might feature driverless trains.

To je metro čéče, the first children’s book dedicated to Prague metro, has been voted this year’s Most Beautiful Book for children, but it is not the only success. The book has also been selected for The Illustrators Exhibition at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, one of the leading fairs for children’s books in the world.

A jury consisting of five international experts picked the illustrations by Jan Šrámek and Veronika Vlková from among more than 2,500 artists from 66 countries around the world.

The story of the book starts where it ended: with another letter to Baby Jesus written by Karel Kroupa junior. This time, his biggest wish is to visit London, together with grandfather, so that they can explore the city’s underground, which is the oldest in the world.