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Sunday, November 17, 2013

Locomotive, written and illustrated by Brian Floca. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Simon & Schuster, 2013. $19.99 ages 4 and up

"Men came from far away
to build from the East,
to build from the West,
to meet in the middle.

They cleared the rocks
and dug the tunnels.
They raised the hammers
and brought them down -

"Three strokes to the spike,
ten spikes to the rail!"

You cannot possibly walk away from reading this book without having acquired an immeasurable amount of knowledge concerning steam trains, history, and the incomparable work that one creative spirit will produce to bring it all to a rapt and thankful audience.

'SIX STARS' and counting....incredible and absolutely deserving of the accolades. Brian Floca spent years researching his passion for the steam engines that rode the transcontinental railroad once it was completed and fit for travel.  That research, he assures us in his SOURCES list at the back of the book, did not all have to do with bookshelves and the computer screens:

"In Essex, Connecticut, through the Valley Railroad Company, I had the experience of sitting in the engineer's seat and driving a steam locomotive myself. It was only for an hour...

Then a drive along the route of the first transcontinental rail line showed me firsthand the landscape through which that road ran and got me to people and places who helped me learn more about the railroads of the time. (A drive instead of a trip on a train? Lines have changed since the nineteenth century, and it is easier today to follow the 1869 route by road than by rail.)"

He uses free verse to tell his story of a pioneer family who are traveling by rail to California. As we travel with them, we learn about the two rail lines that would be joined with a golden spike at the Promontory Summit in Utah:

"It took two companies to build this new road,
and it takes two companies to run it.
Now you'll change from one to the next.
The Union Pacific has got you this far,
the Central Pacific will finish the job.

It began as a fairly simple describe a steam locomotive, how it worked and how it got from one place to another. In an interview with Julie Danielson ( at Kirkus on September 16, 2013, the author explains that it became so much more than that:

"There was nothing contained about the transcontinental railroad, though. It sprawls. It's history, it's engineering, it's the landscape, it's the West!...
The more I learned about how the machines worked, the more interesting they became to me—in the same way that a puzzle can become more interesting as you begin to solve it. And the more I thought about and read about and then saw the landscape through which the transcontinental line traveled, the more amazed I became. Some of that landscape is beautiful and frightening in its openness, emptiness, grandeur."

His second person voice ensures that the reader is right there with him for every step of this amazing journey:

"In the cars
it's time to sleep -
or at least it's time to try.

In better cars, there are better beds;
porters pull them from the ceilings,
they make them from the seats.

In your car, for a bed
you use your bench.
Get as comfortable as you can."

 It is so informative and inviting to see the sights and hear the sounds while learning just exactly what each member of the train's crew is responsible to do. I was flabbergasted by the amount of information that is included and how truly interested I was in each page. The endpapers add to our accumulating knowledge of locomotives and train travel. The front endpaper maps the railroad line from Omaha to San Francisco, offering a glimpse at the history of the time, and adding a brochure describing the trip west. At the back, a clear explanation of steam power is provided, accompanied by a detailed and captioned illustration of the locomotive and tender. A train schedule and price list adds a finishing touch.

We, as readers, experience all that those early travelers experienced from sitting in the engineer's seat to praying that the rickety looking trestle bridge at Dale Creek will hold until the train clears the far side. The ride is full of wonder and discovery.

Majestic in scope and brilliant in execution, Mr. Floca's watercolor, ink and gouache artwork is a celebration for everyone lucky enough to share this extraordinary book.  YOU NEED TO HAVE YOUR OWN COPY!  

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