Do you remember The Little Engine that Could? That phrase "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can..." has certainly been imprinted on my brain and I have even sometimes said it aloud to encourage myself to get on with a task, especially one that seems too difficult. The author of these words, Watty Piper, and the illustrator of the newly issued version of the book, Loren Long (www.lorenlong.com), will keep the story alive for future generations. Our reviewer raved about the new version and it has already garnered a couple of starred reviews.
Another very famous train engine is Thomas the Tank Engine who has been around for sixty years and has spawned lots of stories and is known in more than 100 countries. For more information about the world of Thomas and his engine friends visit www.thomasandfriends.com. Perhaps one of the most famous trains is The Polar Express. Chris Van Allsburg's book has been a perennial best seller and is now a major movie. While it is a story that has special appeal at Christmas time, kids seem to enjoy this story at any time. For an interesting look at the movie version which had significant input from the author visit polarexpressmovie.warnerbros.com and for our most recent interview with the author visit http://www.childrenslit.com/childrenslit/mai_vanallsburg_chris.html.
In addition to these imaginary stories about trains, the real story of the invention of train engines and the growth of train travel is fascinating. An excellent history can be found at http://inventors.about.com/library/inventors/blrailroad.htm where the following was excerpted from an article by Mary Bellis.
"Roads of rails called Wagonways were being used in Germany as early as 1550. These primitive railed roads consisted of wooden rails over which horse-drawn wagons or carts moved with greater ease than over dirt roads. Wagonways were the beginnings of modern railroads."
By 1776, iron had replaced the wood in the rails and wheels on the carts. Wagonways evolved into Tramways and spread though out Europe. Horses still provided all the pulling power. In 1789, Englishman, William Jessup designed the first wagons with flanged wheels. The flange was a groove that allowed the wheels to better grip the rail, this was an important design that carried over to later locomotives.
Colonel John Stevens is considered to be the father of American railroads. In 1826 Stevens demonstrated the feasibility of steam locomotion on a circular experimental track constructed on his estate in Hoboken, New Jersey, three years before George Stephenson perfected a practical steam locomotive in England. The first railroad charter in North America was granted to John Stevens in 1815. Grants to others followed, and work soon began on the first operational railroads.
"In the 1960s and early 1970s, considerable interest developed in the possibility of building tracked passenger vehicles that could travel much faster than conventional trains. From the 1970s, interest in an alternative high-speed technology centered on magnetic levitation, or maglev. This vehicle rides on an air cushion created by electromagnetic reaction between an on-board device and another embedded in its guideway."
For more about the history of trains and those involved enjoy the selection of books noted below and those from previous years.
Contributor: Marilyn Courtot & Emily Griffin
All Aboard! Elijah McCoy's Steam Engine
Illustrated by Bill Slavin
In 1860 Elijah McCoy, son of slaves, goes to Scotland to study how to design and build engines. But back in the United States the only job he can find on a train is shoveling coal. The lively text of this second volume in the “Great Idea Series” clearly depicts the excitement of the time over the steam engine along with Elijah's work. While on the train, he notes the difficulty of constantly stopping to oil the engine from underneath the train. He finally designs and patents an oil cup to do the job automatically. During his lifetime McCoy filed 57 patents; he was “an inventing marvel.” Slavin's pen and ink and watercolor double-page naturalistic scenes tell the visual story while providing information about railroad travel at the time. Occasionally some animals appear as observers, adding to the light-hearted narrative. A note reports the origin of the expression: “The Real McCoy.” 2010, Tundra Books, Ages 5 to 8, $17.95. Reviewers: Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz (Children's Literature).
The Bedtime Train
Illustrated by Jamison Odone
Sometimes, when sleep just won’t come, it is time to call the bedtime train. And “Chugga-chugga, toot-toot…” into your room it rumbles, with an engineer named Brad who looks like your dad. In rhyming couplets, the narrative takes you off on an extraordinary adventure. Through the forest you avoid a wolf and a bear with the aid of a handy gum machine. Encounters past Alligator Lake are followed by a tunnel to an icy place, where the penguins who have accompanied you are delighted to be home. When Brad fears you are lost, the gum machine comes to the rescue to get you safely back. The adventure in the text pales beside the richness of the visuals across the double pages. The book cover is plain cloth, the black of night perhaps, while on the paper jacket Odone provides a sample of the dreamy complexity, flock of scarf-wearing penguins accompanying a toy-like engine through clouds studded with stars. Odone’s characters suggest the influence of Sendak as they participate in this dreamy fantasy. Mixed media produce a world of tints with heavy lines defining characters and a multitude of things to examine in the illustrations. They seem to gather as the bed is back in its place and the train chugs away from this intriguing dream toward the rooster crow at sunrise. 2008, Front Street/Boyds Mills Press, $16.95. Ages 4 to 8. Reviewers: Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz (Children's Literature).
The Berenstain Bears: All Aboard!
Jan Berenstain and Mike Berenstain
Woo-hoo, all aboard! Join the Berenstain Bears as they take a train trip to visit Aunt Tillie. Grizzly Jones is the engineer driving the train and Mr. Mack is the conductor. Along the way from Grizzlyville to Beartown, the Berenstain Bears see many sights like their home, the town, and the mountain wildlife as the train moves along the tracks. Sister and Brother get to visit the engine as Grizzly Jones drives the train. There are color pictures that illustrate the story and support the text. The book is part of the “I Can Read!” series. Although this book is marked as “Beginning Reading,” some young readers may need support with the multiple lines of text, varied sentence structures, and vocabulary. Those children who are fans of the Berenstain Bear stories may enjoy hearing this adventure read aloud. At the front of the book, there is a note at for parents (and caregivers) with some general guidance when supporting young readers. There is a website listed as a source for a few activities. 2010, Harper/HarperCollins Publishers, Ages 4 to 7, $16.99. Reviewer: Carrie Hane Hung (Children's Literature).
The Caboose Who Got Loose
Katy Caboose spends all her time trailing behind the rest of the train cars, chugging through the countryside, always looking behind her. Katy is sad to always be moving and only stopping in crowded rail yards. She wishes she could trade places with a little cabin in the woods. One night Katy talks to a switchman’s shack perched high on a pole. The shack envies Katy’s many travels along the railroad tracks, and finally Katy begins to appreciate her role as a caboose. Then a coupling breaks and Katy gets loose. She finally gets to spend time off the rails in nature and is finally happy. Katy’s story unfolds in rhyming text with varied vocabulary and complex sentence structures. Katy, the cabin, and the shack are personified through subtle but effective eyes in their windows. The bright illustrations are cheery and simple. Young readers can follow along with the story by reading the book as they listen to the CD with and without page-turn signals. Music and sound effects add to the energy of the recording. A bonus third track includes a reading of the story Whingdingdilly by Bill Peet. 2008, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $9.95. Ages 3 to 8. Reviewer: Kristina Cassidy (Children's Literature).
Just a few words on each of eight double-page spreads describe a trip to the beach by train. A distinctive sound introduces the action on each spread. For example, “Choo, choo, off we go.” “Puff, puff, through the woods,” and “Clack, clack, over the bridge.” Through a tunnel, into the sunshine, and finally the train arrives with a “Hooray!” The pages have the added attraction of cutout shapes along the top; there is even a cutout tunnel. The illustrations of acrylic collage provide naturalistic color and crude textures for the green trees, gray mountains, black tunnel, and other story elements. The decorative two-car train is black and gray with jaunty red wheels on the engine. The minimal story provides ample opportunity for young readers to add personal details as they “read” the visual tale. 2008, Candlewick Press, $5.99. Ages 2 to 5. Reviewers: Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz (Children's Literature).
Claude Monet: The Painter Who Stopped The Trains
P. I. Maltbie
Illustrations by Jos. A. Smith
From his home in Argenteuil, Monet watched trains puffing by and traveled on them to Paris. What could be a more exciting metaphor for a modern city in the 1870s than steaming locomotives? For today’s young art-lovers, Maltbie has dramatized Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s famous story of how Monet’s paintings at Paris’s Gare Saint-Lazare came to be. She includes Monet’s young son Jean as part of the inspiration, given a boost by a visit from friends Renoir and Gustave Caillebotte, who are planning an exhibition in the spring. Imagining a smoke- and steam-filled station as a “dream world,” Monet decides to paint at the busy Gare Saint-Lazare with its overhead glass panels; his flattery of the station’s director gains permission to use a platform and gives author and artist an opportunity for comedy in the person of a grossly fat and obsequious official. Despite complaints from irate passengers, Monet paints furiously as the director holds up trains for him. The result is Monet’s seven paintings of steam billowing through the Gare, reflecting light under different conditions—exhibited in 1877, the series was a major success. Maltbie concludes with Monet, Renoir, and Caillebotte glowing with pride as they visit the exhibit; the happy Monet family returns to Argenteuil, seen off by the bowing director. Maltbie provides further information in an endnote, as does artist Smith, whose engaging watercolors bring the characters to vivid life (Monet’s hair and beard are still a bright brown) as well as the bustling city, the costumes, and the trains. A list of museums holding paintings by Monet offers the possibility of field trips for those living nearby. Young artists might also enjoy seeing images of two paintings by Monet’s friend Caillebotte of the striking Pont de l’Europe located near the Gare Saint-Lazare. 2010, Abrams, Ages 6 to 10, $18.95. Reviewer: Barbara L. Talcroft (Children’s Literature).
The Curious Garden
Despite living in a dreary city with no gardens or trees, young Liam loves to walk outside, even in the rain. One morning he climbs up to explore the tracks of an unused railway. There he discovers to his surprise some plants and wildflowers. They seem to be dying, so Liam begins to tend them. Slowly the plants start to spread along the tracks. When winter snow cuts him off from the garden area, Liam lays his plans for the spring. Soon the garden begins to spread all over town. And everywhere other gardeners take up the call, until “the entire city had blossomed” years later. Acrylic and gouache scenes sometimes fill double pages while sometimes recording plant growth in vignettes. The geometric shapes of Liam’s town make fine contrasts to the emerging organic growth. The gardens gradually turn the grim dullness of the story’s initial image, with smoke stacks emitting clouds of black smoke, to the clear view of greenery and windmills. The end pages offer a similar contrast. Brown adds a note about the inspiration for this encouraging view of a possible greener future. 2009, Little Brown and Company, $16.99. Ages 4 to 8. Reviewers: Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz (Children's Literature).
Awards, Honors, Prizes:
Children's Choice Book Awards, 2010 Winner Illustrator of the Year United States
E.B. White Read Aloud Award, 2010 Winner Picture Book United States
NAIBA Book of the Year Award, 2009 Winner Picture Book United States
Hey Mr. Choo-Choo, Where Are You Going?
Illustrated by Yumi Heo
Trains appeal to many small children, so another worthwhile story about them is always welcome. The use of language in this book is wonderful as the regular rhyming beat is one that listeners will quickly pick up and happily follow. As the tale begins, the coach car seats are being occupied quickly by boys and girls who are happy to be going on a train ride. The train also consists of tank cars full of milk, flat cars loaded with logs and hopper cars carrying toys. Without slowing down, the journey takes them through cities and towns. It travels over all sorts of terrain, from crossing a lake to climbing a steep hill to passing through a long, dark tunnel. Finally, the destination is in sight, and all aboard are delighted to see the beach and ocean waves. The double-page illustrations cleverly combine collage and oil paint to create and enhance both the action and mood of the story. This is a trip youngsters will want to be part of again and again. Put this marvelous book on the must purchase list and use it frequently for storytime. 2008, G. P. Putnam’s Sons/Penguin, $16.99. Ages 4 to 6. Reviewer: Sylvia Firth (Children's Literature).
The Last Train
Paintings by Wendell Minor
The text of The Last Train, in rhymed couplets, is based on a song by the author. In it a young boy, contemplating the old, boarded-up train station, looks back to the days when the "big iron horses" still rolled into town. His grandfather drove the trains; his dad sold the tickets. The rails are rust thirty years since the last train. The boy recalls the famous trains of long ago, whistling through the night. What's left are the souvenirs: posters, the ticket punch, a union card, his grandfather's watch reward for his 20 years of service. The boy remembers those who worked on board: brakeman, porter, and fireman shoveling coal. As jets fly overhead, only the echo of the whistle remains. Accompanying the text here is an album of historical scenes associated with the years of railroads, almost photographic illustrations of the trains and the men who made them go. Minor's paintings are realistic images that stir emotions as they generate the years when trains gave us romantic dreams of travel as they dominated the landscapes. These images may be able to turn even jet-age youngsters from the electronic screens to reflect on these days of long ago. There are additional notes and web sites included. 2010, A Neal Porter Book/Roaring Brook Press, Ages 4 to 8, $16.99. Reviewers: Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz (Children’s Literature).
Let’s Look at Trains
“Let’s Go” is the title of this series, and this board book is chock full of information. The drawings are almost like photographs. Each spread features a type of train with callouts to identify the major train parts. There is also a question posed on certain spreads which often require some counting and observational skills. In the first picture of an early steam engine, the question posed is “How many wheels does this train have?” Since the set of wheels on the other track is not clearly shown, kids need to be smart enough to know that when they see one set there is actually another set on the other track. The answers, by the way, are not provided so caregivers will need to sharpen their own skills. The wild west train with its cow catcher is followed by the fastest steam train and then a description of the largest steam locomotive. In this scene kids are asked to find the train’s bell. From steam to electric trains, the text then moves to subway trains and finally monorails. I guess, I would have expected maglev trains to appear rather than subway trains, but that is a minor quibble. The publishers have created a series that looks at a variety of vehicles—boats, planes, tractors and trains. 2010, Windmill Books, Ages 4 to 7, $12.75. Reviewer: Marilyn Courtot (Children’s Literature).
The Little Engine That Could
Illustrated by Loren Long
Who would have thought that a classic children’s story could possibly be refreshed with new art and be better than the original? The Little Engine That Could is more than a book: it is part of our culture. Piper’s original art is intricately connected with the story itself. What an incredible risk it was for the illustrator to take on this project. It took a superb artist like Loren Long to refresh this timeless classic with new artwork that brings the book alive on a whole new level. The art employs design and color and a whimsical use of space to make the book completely new. I never would have thought it could be done but, to my mind, it has and it is awfully good. 2005, Philomel, $17.99. Ages 2 to 5. Reviewer: Joan Kindig, Ph.D. (Children's Literature).
On the Blue Comet
Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline
Anyone who has browsed in the children’s section of a library or bookstore is familiar with award-winning author Wells, who has written or illustrated more than sixty books with unforgettable characters (Max, Ruby, and Morris with his disappearing bag are among readers’ favorites). Wells turns her considerable talent to this young adult novel set in the 1920s through 1940s and another unforgettable character, eleven-year-old Oscar Ogilvie Junior. He lives with his widowed father, Oscar Senior in Cairo, Illinois, where Oscar Senior works for John Deere. Their passion and bond is trains—Lionel trains—and their basement is full of trains with elaborate homemade layouts. Oscar’s favorite is the Blue Comet, “the queen of all trains,” his dad’s birthday gift. Their idyllic life ends abruptly with the stock market crash of 1929. The bank takes their house, and the beloved trains must be sold so Oscar’s dad can buy a ticket to California to look for work. Oscar must live with his unaffectionate and frugal Aunt Carmen. He meets Mr. Applegate, an out-of-work teacher, who helps him memorize Kipling’s poem, “If,” and in his job as night watchman at the bank, invites Oscar to visit his old trains, which are being used as part of a Christmas display. But this world crashes, also, when two bank robbers try to kill them. Mr. Applegate screams, “jump,” and Oscar finds himself riding the train to California as well as entering a time pocket to 1941. This riveting read with Ibatoulline’s remarkable illustrations provides as many twists and turns as a train track. What happens when Oscar travels through time to New York? Along the way he meets some amazing characters: Claire, her rich father, a famous Hollywood director, Mr. H., and even Joe Kennedy Senior, who scoffs at Oscar’s future “predictions.” The result is an extraordinary page-turner for young readers. 2010, Candlewick Press, Ages 8 to Adult, $16.99. Reviewer: Judy Crowder (Children's Literature).
On the Rails
While the automobile seems to have replaced trains as the primary form of transportation in the United States, trains are still widely used in this country. In many cities, light rails provide transportation within city limits, thus cutting down on the number of cars on the road. Underground rails are also popular in cities, as they economize on space in crowded urban areas. Very large amounts of cargo can be transported by train as well. While the first trains were powered by steam, nowadays most are powered by either fuel or electricity. Trains can have very elaborate designs that can allow them to tilt at high speeds, to run on just one rail rather than two, or even to float above the track using magnetism. Then, of course, there are the roller coasters! This very informative book is packed with fun facts and photographs. Part of the “Machines at Work” series. 2008, QEB Publishing, $27.10. Ages 7 to 10. Reviewer: Amie Rose Rotruck (Children's Literature).
The award-winning author and illustrator of The Brooklyn Bridge has produced a book for young readers that will appeal to those of all ages. The graphic illustrations, done in acrylic on canvas, are magnificent, and a two-page spread diagrams the working of a steam locomotive. The author personalizes the subject by explaining how his hometown was developed because the North Carolina Railroad arrived in 1855 and how, years later, he would stay at his grandparent’s home and listen to the sounds of the train speeding down the tracks. The history of the development of the steam engine and the changes it wrought in the country as well as the subsequent improvements may be surprising to some young readers who may not realize how dramatically our society was changed by these innovations. The text explores the problems inherent in building a transcontinental railroad and the age of elegant rail travel shows how desirable that mode of transportation was in a time when highway travel was difficult and air travel was often not possible. Students will learn important facts about the history of the country as they read this history of the railroads. 2009, Atheneum/Simon & Schuster, $19.99. Ages all. Reviewer: Carolyn Mott Ford (Children's Literature).
Trains, Cranes & Troublesome Trucks
Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends James and Gordon still pull rail cars and make deliveries. Today, however, Troublesome Trucks are interfering with the train’s jobs. The Troublesome Trucks just want to have fun but in their haste they push the other trains off their tracks. Fortunately, friends such as Cranky help Thomas and the others to complete their job. In the end, everyone learns an important lesson about work and play and the value of friendship. Children have loved Thomas and his friends for ages and with this book a new generation of children can grow up with the trustworthy tank engine and his companions. The illustrations are clear and colorful and the story is told entirely in rhyme. Easy vocabulary and large print make this book great for beginner readers. This book is part of the “I Can Read It All By Myself Beginner Books” series. 2008, Random House Children’s Books, $8.99. Ages 4 to 8. Reviewer: Denise Daley (Children's Literature).
This is a fun wordless book about being helpful when you least expect it. What begins as an ordinary train ride for one young lady (maybe 10 years old) turns into a rare encounter that will be remembered for a very long time. In the midst of a clearing, the train suddenly stops and the doors open. Our young lady notices small people in distress who are urging her to help them. Having nothing to lose--since the train is not going anywhere for a while--she leaps off to follow the cluster of small people who have gathered to secure her assistance. What she finds is one young lad dangling by his shirttail on a branch, seeming to have been ejected from his airplane. The Lilliputian-like villagers cannot reach that high, but it is a small stretch on tiptoe for the girl. Sadly, she is just a few inches too short to rescue the pilot. If only she were taller--but wait! Someone has an idea. Together, the two of them are heroes. The train is now ready to depart, and the girl must leave her new friends. Back to the city she rides, but on her way home she is greeted by the one she rescued and presented with a small token of gratitude: a green plant. Lehman’s illustrations are vibrant and uncluttered, making the story that much easier to “tell.” The final page leads one to believe that her new small friends may have shown themselves to others in her neighborhood--check out the few familiar trees shown on other rooftops. The book easily lends itself to interpretation on many levels, from the girl’s reason for being on the train to the activities of the small people to everyone’s feelings, and even to speculation about her conversations with her parents! This is one train stop you will not want to miss. 2008, Houghton Mifflin, $16.00. Ages 4 to 8. Reviewer: Elizabeth Young (Children's Literature).
A locomotive with a big engine and a long line of railroad cars make up a train. Trains have wheels that fit over the long steel rails that make up railroad tracks. There are commuter trains, subway trains, passenger trains, and freight trains. Commuter trains transport people on short trips, like subway trains, but subways run underground. Passenger trains also transport people but for long trips, they have dining cars for eating and cabins for sleeping. Freight trains carry cargo over long distances. Photos true to form and as brilliant as all the others in the “Mighty Machines” series are sure to delight any train aficionado or convert a child whose only prior experience with trains has been waiting for them to pass. Perfectly translated into Spanish so the bilingual child may perfect his skill or the monolingual child may use this book to learn words in another language. 2009, Capstone Press, $21.27. Ages 4 to 9. Reviewer: Mandy Cruz (Children's Literature).
Illustrated by Andy Mora
Beginning with the wheel and moving rapidly forward to the development of trains shows readers how much has been accomplished in a fairly short time--especially the last century. Steam powered trains which provided rapid transport across broad expanses soon were replaced by those powered by diesel engines. Today there are experimental trains that doe not use fuel at all, but magnetism to levitate and help the train move along at great speed. Readers will learn that there are actually three was to levitate an object and the author explains each and discusses the speeds and drawbacks of the various approaches. Trains today are more fuel efficient than planes or cars, and in Europe and the Far East there are trains that achieve high speeds to whisk passengers from city to city or country to country. (Having just returned from Europe where I did travel by train, I can attest to the ease and efficiency of train travel.) New technology and plans for underwater trains (riding through underwater tunnels) and trains that would launch spacecraft are some of the really futuristic ideas. Within the book, the author offers five well designed and described experiments. The usual cautions about adult supervision and assistance are given, but for the most part kids who enjoy these types of hands on activities could easily carry out the experiments. Each starts with a list of supplies, step-by-step instructions, diagrams and a picture or description of the final outcome. McMahon has provided a great blend of history, science and hands on activities in a very attractive book. 2010, Kids Can Press, Ages 9 up, $16.95. Reviewer: Marilyn Courtot (Children’s Literature).
When the Whistle Blows
Fran Cannon Slayton
Halloween pranks that misfire, secret societies to honor the dead, rousing small-town football, dangerous railroad work, communities banding together--it is all here in Slayton’s debut novel. This combination historical/coming-of-age tale is told in seven chapters, each beginning on All Hallow’s Eve and advancing the story one year from 1943 through 1949. Coincidentally, Halloween is Jimmy’s father’s birthday. Their family has worked the railroad for generations, and Jimmy wants nothing more than to join his brothers on the rails when he is old enough. However, his father, the foreman, is adamant that Jimmy’s wish will not happen; he sees that the steam engine is a dying relic. His pessimism causes tension between father and son, as do his strict, rule-following ways and his tendency to hold Jimmy at a slight distance. While the individual chapters wryly tell Jimmy’s exploits, his father’s constant presence in the background ultimately makes this a tender tale. Jimmy is too young to recognize his father’s deteriorating health, and it is not until after his father’s death that he is able to recognize the man’s wisdom. Slayton captures both Mr. Cannon’s concern about the impact of technology and Jimmy’s gradual maturation. Each chapter is a short story in itself; together they make a beautifully-written book that will appeal to boy and girl readers. 2009, Philomel Books/Penguin, $16.99. Ages 10 to 14. Reviewer: Peg Glisson (Children's Literature).
The Whistle on the Train
This large 11-by-8 u-inch pop-up book has a two-inch yellow back strip, making it easy to find on a shelf. There are eight double page spreads, all involving trains. It opens at a railroad station and closes with the moon coming up in the background as a train comes down a mountain into the foreground. In between there is a scene inside a coach car, then there is a train going through a tunnel, one going under a bridge, another going over a bridge, one with passengers getting off the train, and the train arriving at a small RR station along the way. The pictures are bright, cheerful and busy. The book is reminiscent of “The Wheels on the Bus,” with the opening words, “The whistle on the train goes whoo, whoo, whoo” followed by “The wheels on the train go clackety-clack all over town.” The pop-ups are large and jolly. 2008, Hyperion/Disney Group, $18.99. Ages 4 to 8. Reviewer: Eleanor Heldrich (Children's Literature).
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