Locomotive by Brian Floca

Wow. That’s the first word that comes to mind when I think about Locomotive by Brian Floca. This is a nonfiction picture book that manages to pack an epic story–the building of the transcontinental railroad–into the interesting narrative of a family making their own transcontinental journey on that very railroad. In other words, the information about the railroad is interwoven throughout the family’s journey much as if they have their own personal historical guide they’re sharing with the reader. The story itself is written in a very poetic prose that verges on pure poetry both in sound, rhythm, and format:

Up in the cab–small as a closet, hot as a kitchen–

it smells of smoke, hot metal, and oil.

The fireman keeps the engine fed.

He scoops and lifts and throws the coal,

from the tender to the firebox.

It’s hard work, hot work,

smoke and cinders,

ash and sweat,

hard work, hot work–

but that’s a fireman’s life!

He tends the fire

that boils the water,

that turns the water into steam.

Beautiful typography–stylized capitals, script, boldface–all help communicate this very rich narrative. Floca‘s illustrations, which are rendered in watercolor, ink, acrylic, and gouache, are every bit as much the star of the story as is the text. He uses a variety of perspectives to communicate the immensity, power, and detail of the steam engine itself and what it was like to travel cross country by it. One of my favorite illustrations is a huge, two-page close-up of the train’s wheels on the track, which are accompanied by the very onomatopoetic text that includes the words huffs, hisses, bangs, and clanks in large, colored, boldface typography. The very next two-page spread includes small vignettes: an aerial view of the train; the ticketmaster collecting tickets; our passengers looking out their window; the engineer leaning out of his window with “the wind on his face, the fire by his feet.” If you’re expecting a gorgeous picture book, you won’t be disappointed. However, don’t expect a simple, pre-school story; this book is appropriate for all ages, from school-aged to adult. I read it to my three year old, and while I think he probably missed most of the details (and honestly, so did I–this is no lightweight informational book!), he appreciated the rhythmic text and the beautiful illustrations. From the detailed endpapers (maps, the history of the Transcontinental Railroad, and a beautifully detailed diagram of a steam locomotive) to the author note and lengthy list of sources, this is a not-to-be-missed informational picture book for history lovers and train lovers alike. I won’t be surprised by any accolades this book receives–a Cybil, a Caldecott–whatever. Don’t miss this one. Highly, highly (highly) Recommended. (Atheneum, 2013)

(This review is also posted on my blog, Hope Is the Word.)

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Papa Is a Poet by Natalie S. Bober

Papa Is a Poet: A Story About Robert Frost by Natalie S. Bober is a wonderful picture book biography about one of my favorite of all poets. This one is written from the perspective of Frost’s eldest daughter, Lesley, at age fifteen. Their story opens with the Frosts just off the boat from England after having lived there for a few years. The Frosts return to America and are met with Papa’s success which had been elusive when they left: they disembark from the ship and Mama reads in the newspaper a review of Papa’s book recently published for the first time in America! Papa leaves his family at the train terminal and walks the fifteen blocks to his publisher’s office where he learns that yes, he has finally made an American success of his poetry writing. Lesley reminisces while she and her family wait at the train terminal, recounting their years in New Hampshire before they moved to England. Interspersed with Lesley’s thoughts are excerpts from Frost’s poems, usually in the context of what inspired him to write them. For example, Lesley remembers how Papa would leave Mama at home to rest during her pregnancies, and because he loved her so much, he would apologize for his absence with a bouquet of flowers and a verse:

They are yours, and be the measure

Of their worth for you to treasure,

The measure of the little while

That I’ve been long away.

The word picture that Bober paints through Lesley’s voice is of an extraordinarily loving and warm family, with poetic Papa at its head. Rebecca Gibbons’ ink, colored pencil, and watercolor illustrations are warm and child-like. This picture book biography includes an author’s note in which Bober provides more details about the Frosts (some of which is from her YA biography, A Restless Spirit: The Story of Robert Frost). Also included in the backmatter are quotes, photographs, and best of all, twelve of Frost’s poems. This book wasn’t shortlisted for the Cybils, but I give it a Highly, Highly Recommended. (Henry Holt and Co., 2013)

When I was young, I was so interested in baseball that my family was afraid I’d waste my life and be a pitcher. Later, they were afraid I’d waste my life and be a poet. They were right. –Robert Frost

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Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library by Barb Rosenstock

Alice’s review clued me into how much I’d probably love Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library by Barb Rosenstock, so I hied me to my own library and requested a copy. We’ve had the library copy around the house for over two weeks now (I know because we have a two week loan period at this library and I called to renew it and others when they were only a couple of days overdue **ahem**), and I just last night got around the reading it in its entirety. The thing about our Founding Fathers is that–my goodness!–their lives are good for so much book fodder. I love that this particular book focuses on one aspect of Thomas Jefferson’s life–his passion for reading and books–and makes it interesting and accessible to children. (I know it’s accessible to children because my girls–ages nine and eight–devoured it in the van on the way home from the library or shortly thereafter.) The text of the book is interspersed with facts and quotes from Jefferson’s life (mostly the quotes are attributed to him, but a few are from his grandchildren, a slave, and one of his political opponents). The library alluded to in the title is, of course, the Library of Congress–or is it? Actually, Jefferson built several libraries over his lifetime, so it could be one of several discussed and described in this picture book. John O’Brien’s pen, ink, and watercolor illustrations are whimsical and funny and detailed–the perfect accompaniment to this fascinating story of an overarching theme in Jefferson’s life. (I first fell in love with O’Brien’s illustrations in Ben Franklin: His Wit and Wisdom from A to Z by Alan Schroeder.) The only part of this book that rings sort of hollow to me is that in the short author’s note, there’s a section devoted to “Thomas Jefferson, Slaveholder.” There’s only one mention of slavery in this whole picture book–a quote from an enslaved tinsmith at Monticello–so this part of the author’s note seems extraneous to the topic at hand. All in all, I give this one a big Highly Recommended and I’m moving this one near the top of my elementary/middle grade picture book list for the Armchair Cybils. (Calkins Creek, 2013)

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Louisa May’s Battle by Kathleen Krull

Louisa May’s Battle:  How the Civil War Led to Little Women by Kathleen Krull is a picture book biography that focuses on Louisa May Alcott’s involvement in the Civil War as a nurse and how her experiences there led to the discovery of her voice and style as a writer, which in turn enabled her to write her wildly successful novel, Little Women.  Krull makes liberal use of quotations from Alcott’s Hospital Sketches and an article by Alcott entitled “Recollections of My Childhood” throughout this biography.  Because of the quotes, a sense of Alcott’s lively personality and her voice as a writer shine through.  I learned a lot from reading this picture book, having never read much about Alcott’s life before, and it really made me appreciate how her own experiences influenced her writing.  Additional backmatter in this book includes a page-long essay discussing various women in medicine during the Civil War, many of whom were inspired to get in on the action by Alcott’s Hospital Sketches.   Also included is a lengthy bibliography.  Carlyn Beccia‘s illustrations are luminously portrait-like  and expressive, an excellent companion to this interesting story.  (Side note:  We really enjoyed Beccia’s I Feel Better with a Frog in My Throat last year!)  Highly Recommended.  (Bloomsbury, 2013)