by Sam Juliano
Until Jason Carter Eaton and his Caldecott Honor winning Illustrator John Rocco released their fabulous picture book manual offering up tips to children hankering to find their brand of pet trucks, ownership went no further than Tonka and match box. Mind you this was a rewarding hobby, and some were dedicated and responsible enough to amass collections of over five-hundred and upwards. Eighteen wheelers, transports, lorries, flatbeds, pick-ups, moving vans and even tanker trucks (though after Steven Spielberg’s terrifying Duel released in 1971 the demand for that model plummeted!) took their place on every young boy’s bedroom dresser or abreast of their Lionel table. Keeping them in mint condition was as vital it was for the baseball card collector, though some incorrigible owners couldn’t pass up the opportunity to stage accidents. But Eaton and Rocco have set the record straight with a proposal that should have all truck lovers chomping at the bit, much as train lovers found themselves facing a deal they couldn’t resist in the critically-acclaimed How to Train a Train. In their bold, often daunting investigative study, narrated by an Asian boy who wore out his copies of Donald Crews’s Truck and two old Virginia Lee Burton classics about a steam shovel and a snow plow, the artists were so impressed by this fervent truck aficionado that they decided to let him serve as tour guide for all others who share his unbridled passion. Some of the more practical aims of this all-encompassing guide involve answering some of the more popular questions that confront this most specialized pursuit. Mike told the book’s creators that his love for trucks started when he watched an old French movie classic with his father called The Wages of Fear. Eaton researched it and conveyed the capsule plot to Rocco: when an oil well owned by an American company catches fire, the company hires four European men, down on their luck, to drive two trucks over mountain dirt roads, loaded with nitroglycerin needed to extinguish the flames.
Mike’s at-home set up is elaborate. A sign reads “Mike’s Garage: Helping kids and their pet trucks since forever” (open 24/7, 7 days a week), and his holdings -two dump trucks and a fire engine- put him in poll position among the collectors. The graphite and digital illustrations again show Rocco a master of his craft, and working with the larger trim size brings the robust colors and grand truck designs alive with cinematic movement. Eaton relates that Mike feels that every true adherent should own a truck and he has the best game plan on record. And he helps the youngster to advice would-be buyers that they’d be wasting their time visiting local pet stores, as trucks were that special breed that needed to be discovered in their natural habitats. Eaton as always goes the cheery undercurrent with his customary dash of sly humor when he has Mike state things in direct terms: “You can’t just walk down to your local pet store and say “May I please have a tow truck?” They’d think you were bananas! Trust me; I’ve tried it.” Mike has good news for those who favor moving trucks, asserting that they live in bust neighborhoods. Rocco depicts an especially cratered moon in a night vignette of a giant wheeled monster truck -the kind that assist in crushing cars into boxes, but for those who have a thing for garbage trucks, they are among the most plentiful on the road, nearly as abundant as the milk trucks of the 1960s.
A funny double page depicts a family whose small apartment became engulfed by the gargantuan car transporter in a scene that fondly calls the movie Cars. Rocco’s funny scene of dislocation is one of the book’s most splendid canvases, as the chaotic scene includes a chandelier and lamp biting the dust. Mike warns those kids who are partial to trucks that serve up vanilla cones and chocolate milk shakes that their migratory habits will mean only part-time ownership, for whatever the obvious appeal would bring. Likewise snowplows will head in the opposite direction to areas where the white stuff requites heavy vehicles. The snow vignette affectionately recalls Rocco’s Blizzard from a few years back. After making clear that favoring these otherwise popular vehicles comes with a hitch, Mike then turns his attention to the business of researching the trucks one might want to choose. Truck tracks are first up, and when you follow them to reach the show moving vehicle you should lay down some orange cones, real magnets for trucks accustomed to following rules to avert potential disaster. After the truck is playfully lured the next step is constructive engagement. Mike stands on a pile of dirt and in a voice bubble expresses a wish to have it removed. A mutual honk, set into motion when Mike makes a fist and pulls it down gets vehicular clearance by way of Honk! and all is set to go, what with the truck “leash” properly attached.
After Mike’s scene-specific instructions are forward to prospective owners, names must then be given. Some of those are the fire truck named “Senor Waterloo,” the jeep with the giant wheels, “Mega-Marzipan,” the cement mixer “Quinn” and the ice cream truck “Amelia.” (looks like that owner isn’t fazed by the probability of given it up in the winter). And then in a scene that compellingly recalls Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel a very large hole along a new owner’s home will serve as the “doghouse” for the yellow vehicle. And what better way than to physical escort your trucks to meet others of its kind. (Heck it sure beats those kiddie meetings with those infantile Tonka toys!) My own favorite illustration in the book is the one where they all operate in the in a dirt castle, dream come true for kids who are treated to the most extraordinary example of truck pet chemistry, and a rebuke of the misguided notion that these trucks are guided by their headlights (eyes). As the narrator opines, it’s pure magic! Advice to treat your truck as you would your own pet follows as one boy stand on the wheel of a dump truck while extending his limbs in caressing appreciation. The opposite panel showcases the exhilaration of the same boy riding the back of the vehicle with his arm in celebratory mode. The final spread shows the red fire engine leading a parade of these most unusual pets.
The appeal of How To Track A Truck, which features seven kids of varying ethnicities and the perception that there can’t possibly be anything more fun than tracking and owning trucks is two fold: Eaton’s give and take questioning prose keeps readers wanting to turn the page, but Rocco’s rich and ebullient illustrations will invariably give pause. Frankly they’ve left Tonka in the dust and the Caldecott committee is urged to scrutinize another yeoman presentation by past Caldecott Honor winner Rocco.
Note: This is the fifty-ninth entry in the ongoing 2016 Caldecott Medal Contender series. The series does not purport to predict what the committee will choose, rather it attempts to gauge what the writer feels should be in the running. In most instances the books that are featured in the series have been touted as contenders in various online round-ups, but for the ones that are not, the inclusions are a humble plea to the committee for consideration. It is anticipated the series will include in the neighborhood of around 60 titles; the order which they are being presented in is arbitrary, as every book in this series is a contender. Some of my top favorites of the lot will be done near the end. The awards will be announced on January 23rd, hence the reviews will continue till two from the days before that date.