Saturday, February 15, 2014

379 (2014 #7). Locomotive

by Brian Floca

If you have a train lover in your family - adult or child - this is the book for you.

Locomotive, written and illustrated by Temple, Texas native Brian Floca, uses an imaginary train trip by a family in 1869 as the framework for an homage to steam engines and the Transcontinental Railroad.

This book won the 2014 Randolph Caldecott Medal, which "honors the illustrator of the year's most distinguished American picture book for children." The 53-page narrative is set in a very readable Scotch Roman typeface, and Floca used watercolor, ink, acrylic, and gouache in his illustrations. He uses different typefaces for the onomatopoeia and other emphasized works sprinkled throughout the book.  I learned a lot about trains from this book!

The front endpapers lay the groundwork for the story, giving the historical background to the Transcontinental Railroad and a map of its route.  It's clear even from this brief introduction how significant this railroad was to travel in the United States.

The second-person narrative and the perspective of many of the illustrations pull you into the story and make you feel as if you are there.  It starts with a little human piece of the railroad's history and then moves right into the cross-country trip.  The sounds the steam engine makes are very realistic (based on my limited experience riding the Durango & Silverton Railroad).

Floca lets the reader experience the train ride from the point of view of both passengers and crew.  As passengers, you see what it was like to eat (at stops) and sleep (in a berth if you were rich enough) and even use the toilet on the train!  I also got a feel for what life must have been like for my great-grandfather as a fireman on the railroad... well as learning about the roles of the engineer, brakemen, and switchmen.  Floca also shows you the scenery both crew and visitors see, with lovely drawings of various landmarks along the way.

There's a detailed note at the end of the book about locomotives, as well as a list of all the author's sources.  The endpapers at the back of the book feature a detailed diagram of the steam locomotive and an explanation of how the engine works - that I (not at all mechanically-minded) could actually understand.

Because of its length and all the detail in this book, I think it is most appropriate for about fourth grade and up.  Younger children would enjoy the free-verse-style narrative being read aloud to them.  Links to various educational resources are available on Floca's website.

Besides the Caldecott, the American Library Association (ALA) also awards the Robert L. Sibert Informational Book Medal each year to "to the author(s) and illustrator(s) of the most distinguished informational book published in English during the preceding year....Information books are defined as those written and illustrated to present, organize, and interpret documentable, factual material for children. There are no limitations as to the character of the book, although poetry and traditional literature are not eligible. Honor books may be named; they shall be books that are truly distinguished."  Locomotive is a 2014 Honor book, as was Floca's Moonshot in 2010 and Lightship in 2007.

Locomotive is also an Orbis Pictus Honor Book for 2014.  The Orbis Pictus Award was established in 1989 by the National Council of Teachers of English for promoting and recognizing excellence in the writing of nonfiction for children.  Floca also illustrated Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, which in 2011 won the Orbis Pictus and was a Sibert Honor book.

Floca spent about four years working on this book, and it shows.  In an interview with Publisher's Weekly just after winning the Caldecott, he said about this book that "his goals were twofold. 'Those engines themselves are such fascinating pieces of machinery. They’re really complicated on one level, but they’re also very understandable machines. I was hoping the book would visually convey how they work so that readers could go through the book and piece it together.' Second, he also aimed to provide a 'sense of moving through a landscape and the landscape changing.'”  I think he achieved both goals.

It was disappointing to find a number of one-star reviews for this book on  They were all from people who read this as an e-book.  I'm of the opinion that most picture books (especially ones like this one that have many double-page spreads and lots of details) should not even be offered in the e-book format by the publishers.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[This book was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.  I have also ordered it for my university library's collection.]

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