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Sunday, October 2, 2011

On The Blue Comet, written by Rosemary Wells and illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. Candlewick, Random House. 2010. $20.00 ages 8 and up

"Waiting in the cold afternoon for the night watchman, I turned to the right to one of the display windows. Suddenly spotlights flared on. All that was in the Christmas display window came to life. There was a layout of twenty different trains on a Christmas landscape. The Blue Comet whizzed by. It was my Blue Comet."

Oscar and his dad are keen on trains. In fact, they have quite a collection. Their train layout in the basement fills many happy hours. Oscar loves all the tiny details that their model railway boasts...and longs to be aboard one of his trains. His father promises that they will take a train...someday.

It is late in the 1920s and life is good, until the crash. His father, always a successful John Deere salesman, has no customers. There is no money. There are no jobs. Oscar's father must make the heartbreaking decision to sell everything, leave Oscar with his grumpy Aunt Carmen and move west in search of a job that will support the two of them. Selling everything includes letting go of their beloved trains.

Life with Aunt Carmen and her daughter is no picnic for Oscar. Often alone, and lonely for his father, Oscar has the great good luck to meet an out-of-work teacher who is passing through town. Mr. Applegate is a godsend to the young boy, who is missing male companionship, hating life with his aunt, and looking to find a way to get to California to be with his dad. Mr.Applegate is also a math whiz who believes in time travel, and who shares Oscar's love of trains. When his dear friend gets a night watchman's job in a bank that has a wondrous model train display in their holiday window, Oscar is invited to visit. It is his bad luck to be there when an armed robbery takes place. His friend is shot, the money is stolen and Oscar must make a hasty decision.

He jumps straight into the train layout and is off on a time travel adventure that will take him to his father and then, ten years into the future.  Now, there is a war going on and the military is looking for recruits. Oscar is just the right age! Luckily, a new friend from his rail journey has found fame and fortune in California and he is willing to help Oscar. When he is in danger of being nabbed by army recruiters, a train layout saves him once more. This time he meets a girl, and travels back to 1925. Oscar's knowledge of the past, and the future, give him insights which others appreciate and get him out a few tight spots. What a ride!

There is much to enjoy in this, hope, adventure, family and even some historical figures. It's a great book and would make a wonderful readaloud adventure in an intermediate classroom. It might encourage interest in certain historical events. It explores the idea of time travel which children find fascinating. Oscar's voice is authentic, and makes the appeal immediate and full of suspense. Those interested in trains would have a special connection to this well-told tale.

Bagram Ibatoulline's illustrations are placed strategically throughout the text offering glimpses of Oscar's world...his family, his friend Mr. Applegate and his adventures aboard the trains. They are a wondrous addition to the text. Although Oscar's life takes many eventful turns, these illustrations embody the warmth, love and hope that carry him forward through life.

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