by Sam Juliano
Trains have rivaled dinosaurs and bears as a subject of adoration among the youngest children spanning back decades and continuing all the way up to the present day. The Rev. W. Audrey’s beloved Thomas the Tank Engine continues its popularity among the pre-schoolers, while The Little Engine Who Could is a bonafide classic in the choo choo literature. Chris Van Allsburg’s Caldecott Medal winner and holiday masterpiece offers up a train like no other, one shrouded in mystery that scales the outer reaches of the imagination. Donald Crews’ Caldecott honor winning Freight Train remains a popular counting and color identification picture book. More recently Jason Carter Eaton and John Rocco’s How to Train a Train, Elisha Cooper’s Train and Sherri Duskey Rinker and Tom Lichtenheld’s Stream Train, Dream Train have wowed their target audience and book critics. Moreover, in the popular culture trains have served as the setting for some of our popular novels (i.e Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, and films such as Buster Keaton’s The General and more contemporary movies like Runaway Train and The Taking of Pelham 1,2,3. With such a fascination with this unique mode of transportation it is no wonder that baby boomer boys and even some girls considered Lionel trains as the most desirable yuletide gifts.
Renowned author-illustrator Brian Floca turned his own attention to this ever-popular sub-genre with his newest work, Locomotive, a book that became an immediate classic upon release, and one that may finally bring its gifted creator some well-deserved attention from the American Library Association. Floca, who now lives and works in Brooklyn, was born and raised in Temple Texas, and previously illustrated several works for the celebrated Newbery Award winning author, Avi. His ever-increasing catalog of impressive picture books includes one – the space tale Moonshot -that deserved at least a Caldecott honor for often breathtaking and expansive moon vistas, and three others that have delighted younger kids with subjects that are eternally relevant, but rarely done with the artistic prowess and appeal Floca brings to each project. The Racecar Alphabet relates in vivid and propulsive terms the entire experience of driving a race car, reaching the finish line and even sustaining a minor injury en route. On the end papers are numerous different car models for the budding audiophiles in the classroom. Lightship visualizes the sea experience aboard a ship that serves as a beacon, and showcases beautifully vivid illustrations, and Five Trucks is one of the best books of its kind, attracting the ultimate praise from Booklist, which asserted “If picture books about trucks are so easy to do, why do we see so many poor ones and so few as good as this?” I recently checked out Floca’s beautiful illustrations for Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan’s Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring, and marveled at the artists’s diversity. In any event Floca is as much a technical expert at books on transportation as Peter Sis is with history (Starry Messenger, The Wall, Tibet) and David Macaulay is with construction. (Cathedral, Castle, Pyramid) While recognition from the ALA has failed to materialize to this point, Floca has won numerous other citations, including a Robert Siebert Honor and a placement among the best picture books of 2013 (Locomotive) from The New York Times. This writer would find it hard to imagine that Floca will be denied again this year, and expectations are hereby applied that he will come away with at least a Caldecott Honor (he is very much in contention for the gold as well) for this extraordinary book.
In one of the afterwards of this exquisitely crafted book Floca himself acknowledges the long standing appeal of his subject when he asserts: ”One could fill a boxcar–maybe a freight train–with books written about the railroad in America. Among the most useful in the making of this book were Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow: The Epic Story of the Transcontinental Railroads by Dee Brown; Empire Express: Building the First Continental Railroad and The Old Iron Road: An Epic of Rails, Roads and the Urge to Go West by David Haward Bain, and other esteemed volumes by Stephen E. Ambrose and Tomas Clarke. His long essay on the steam locomotive helps to establish his picture book as particularly appealing to older kids, though throughout he straddles a fine line that doesn’t allow the book to be pigeon-holed. The dust jacket cover of the book is one of the best of the year, showing a steam engine flush from the front, at the foreground of a golden dawn, replete with dazzling employment of maroon and brown that makes the panel a real feast for the eyes. When the dust jacket is removed, a stunning mural of buffaloes roaming the plains reminds readers that trains traveled for endless miles over the open country.
The story of Locomotive relates a family’s cross-country journey from a depot in Omaha, Nebraska to the new home that is waiting for them in San Francisco on the just completed transcontinental railroad circa 1869. The main character of the book of course is the train itself, even if two children and their mom supply the human element and the book’s narrative arc. There is a cinematic style to the slightly muted watercolor, ink and gauche illustrations inherent in the idea of accelerating movement, and the mood throughout the book is one of exuberance. This is enhanced by the application of free verse and sound effects alliteration which enables Floca to capture the locomotive engine’s rhythm as it makes a marathon trek across open plains with the author serving as tour guide and resident historian. He presents the men who created and manned the railways- the John Henrys who set the tracks on down to the switchmen, brakemen, firemen, engineers and conductors who made what was once thought of as inconceivable into full realization. Floca never loses his sense of humor: “You can tell that one is new to the job/If he still has all his fingers.” And at one train station stop the mother and one of the boys sit down at a cafe for a choice of buffalo steak, antelope chops or chicken stew. Writes Floca in deadpan: “If the chicken tastes like prairie dog, don’t ask why.”
The train serves as a home for the extended period it takes to travel over so many miles. A single stove for winter trips (situated in a corner) keeps the passengers warm; a boy named Butch walks the aisle peddling magazines, maps, magazines, newspapers (from the previous day) candies, fruits, coffee, tea, sugar, soap, towels and “all the cigars you can smoke.” One must wonder if those indulging in the latter pleasure were segregated from the rest. Ha! The toilet has no plumbing – only a hole in the floor that must be negotiated with a certain balance as the train moves along. The author writes that it was considered rude to relieve yourself when the train was at a stop. But for all the delightful vignettes of life on the train, Locomotive is most exceptional as it chronicles the noises associated with this most charismatic method of transportation. Huff Huff Huff, Chug, chug, chug, Whooo-oooo, Full Steam Ahead,Rickety, rickety, rickety, All aboard! are printed in over sized typography to give the reader the feel and sound of the experience, which serves to atmospherically underline the narrative. There are some extraordinary set pieces like the train crossing the Dale Creek Bridge, the fireman feeding coal into the engine; the over sized two page spread of the wheels starting to move, the train chugging along through the lonely plains; a close-up of the engine roaring through the dark; the train seen through the narrowing hole of a shadowy shed and the locomotive moving through a mountain tunnel. The detail is astounding, and after the first reading of the book comes off as rather intimidating, it gains more and more on re-visitation.
Locomotive at 64 pages is long for a picture book. But in a figurative sense there is reason in chronicling the trip of a lifetime, and in capturing all the impressionistic aspects one would forever remember in such a trip. With the magnificence of Moonshot notwithstanding, Brian Floca has crafted his masterpiece, and there is no reason to believe that American Library Association voters won’t have their eyes wide open when delicately sifting through Locomotive. It moves on all cylinders.
Note: This is the fifth review of a series on picture books seen as ‘Caldecott Medal and Honor’ hopefuls for the January 27th announcements of the prestigious award.
Here is: Brian Floca’s Locomotive site:http://www.brianfloca.com/