Monday, April 7, 2014

Locomotive by Brian Floca

Locomotive by Brian Floca

Rating: 4 stars

I checked this book out easily before it won the Caldecott; after the gold seal shone brightly on its cover, there was a long waiting list both at the library and at the bookstore.  Here's a tiny secret: When I first checked out Locomotive, I didn't read it.  I don't know if any of my kids did.  So we returned it without having read it.  It happens…what can I say?

But then the Caldecott team deemed it worthy of a win, and it became wildly wanted.  We were number 60 on the waiting list!

Finally, it's our turn with the library's copy of the book and we all understand easily why it is Caldecott-worthy.  The book is a huge lap size picture book, with illustrations that resemble a wide screen TV.  Somehow, Brian Floca created a hundred masterpieces in this big, long book--masterpieces of illustration, not just beautiful pictures, but pictures that tell a story of a long-ago way of life.

Slowly, slowly the engineer drives--
the train is so heavy,
the bridge is so narrow,
and rickety rickety rickety!
After a brief show of how the rails were built, we see the iron horse chug up to the station.  In familiar prose, where Floca writes directly to you ("She pulls her tender and train behind her, she rules up close, to where you wait, all heat and smoke and noise.")  That noise of the train jumps out from the page at you with larger and fancier font than the rest of the words.  We, the readers, follow along as one family (a mother and two children) travels from east to west; we also observe and learn all the different people required to run the train smoothly.  Because, of course, it takes a team.

There's a whole lot that works in this book for me and my trio: The illustrations are spell-binding.  Floca's research shines through on every page: from the close-up details of the gaskets or that coal car to the historical map of the United States that shows the path of the train.  (I am curious how many pictures he took of real-life trains to take back to his studio with him.  Surely thousands…)  The family we see travel on the train are excited throughout; we experience what they experience, including going to the bathroom, (which was definitely a highlight for Ben in the book) but not when the train stops!  For there is "no plumbing here, there is only a hole in the floor."

The facts taught in the book easily earn my approval: and not just the team members' roles and responsibilities…  That's important, but so are the little, anecdotal things: For example, the switchman's job is dangerous; the train cars lurch and slam up against each other quickly.  They say "You can tell he's new to the job if he still has all his fingers." Or the mighty Sierra Nevada that "rise like a wall on the edge of a basin" requires an extra engine to pull the train up and over them.

Through the night the engine runs.
Those up late hear her whistle,
her wild and lonesome cry.
The ending works for me, too.  I love it: the mother and two children arrive to their father, who came out west before them.  There's nothing like a homecoming to warm your heart at the end of a story!

What doesn't work for me are all the words.  Oh my gosh even I am thrown off by all the dozens of words on each page.  Lorelei sat and read the book quietly in one sitting but Ben couldn't sit through the whole thing, despite his normally curious mind and the gorgeous pictures that go along with it.  Even I found myself skimming it.  My eyes were more interested in the illustrations than the words.  Because of the number of words, this book is better for an older age group--first grade or older.  It would be great to read right after finishing a chapter book from the same time period, such as Little House on the Prairie or Sarah, Plain and Tall.

Still, it is a masterpiece despite my silly gripes.  If there's a locomotive enthusiast in your family--of any age, your son or your mother or your grandfather!--this is a book for him.  Or her!

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