“Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses: How James Kelly’s Nose Saved the New York City Subway

SK p3James “Smelly” Kelly used his super-senses and intelligence to make sure that the New York City subway in the 1930s ran safely throughout his lifetime and beyond.

James Kelly smelled EVERYTHING: rats in the shed; circus elephants a mile away; tomorrow’s rain. His sense of smell was EXTRAORDINARY. But what good was a powerful nose? How could his super-sniffer make him special?

In the New York City subway, James found his calling–and earned the nickname SK p14“Smelly” Kelly. Armed with his super-sniffer and the tools he invented, he tracked down leaks from the dangerous to the disgusting, from the comical to the bizarre. Then, he sprang into action to prevent cave-ins and explosions in the tunnels beneath the city. Smelly Kelly not only hunted leaks but also saved lives—and he discovered the truly extraordinary power inside him.

Beth Anderson’s fast-paced text and Jenn Harney’s comical illustrations bring to life this everyday superhero.

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Educator Guide

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Reviews: 

Anderson casts him in a heroic mold, as he had not only a special ability, but the inner motivation to use it in service to public safety: “With such an honor came great responsibility.” (Shades of Spider-Man.) Depicted with a confident smile and a mop of bright orange hair, Kelly shines as he goes after suggestive twists and curls of miasmic yellowish green in the illustrations’ succession of antique-looking street scenes and cross-sectional views of underground pipes and tunnels… Another immigrant gets the job done. ~Kirkus 

In compelling prose, Anderson relays Kelly’s heroic exploits, including locating leak sources, inventing detection implements, and saving a man from beneath a train (“Inches from the underside of the car. Inches from the electrified third rail”). Harney’s digital illustrations evoke stylized pen and ink; coils of pea green bring noxious scents to life. Kelly’s brightly spotlighted escapades—as well as his distinctive red hair, rendered in a vibrant shade—serve as welcome contrast.  ~Publishers Weekly

Anderson’s zesty stick-to-the-facts narration (only a brief passage about Kelly’s childhood is speculative) in this picture book biography will be a winner in class units on community helpers, and Harney’s digital illustrations, in which the ginger-haired, newsboy-capped Kelly glows with good-natured determination in the shadowy blues of the urban underbelly, crackle with energy.  ~BCCB (Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books)

The engaging text features dramatic incidents and rescues… Harney’s cartoon-style artwork is perfect for the narrative because it reinforces the idea that Kelly was a little-known superhero… The author’s note, bibliography, and further ­resources section could inspire readers to conduct more ­research. This would be an excellent book for talking about problem-solving and ­engineering. VERDICT Recommended for elementary collections, particularly those that emphasize makerspaces, problem-solving, or STEAM activities.  ~ SLJ

Anderson’s lively telling of a little-known story (who ever knew there was a heroic leak-smelling detective in the 1930s who saved the city with his nose?) employs strong, active verbs, as any superhero tale does, and is effectively complemented by digital illustrations that bring to life Kelly’s subterranean realm—the blue-black subway, the greenish miasmic smells drifting along, and Smelly Kelly’s red hair, a beacon in the darkness.” —The Horn Book

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Hardcover | $18.99
Boyds Mills & Kane/Calkins Creek, 2020 | 40 Pages | 9 x 11 | 7-10 years| ISBN 9781684373994

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