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.)