This book has racked up many awards for this author, who is also the illustrator, including the 2014 Caldecott medal, “given to the artist who had created the most distinguished picture book of the year.”
The story takes us on an imaginary train journey as it would have transpired for travelers from Omaha, Nebraska to Sacramento, California in the summer of 1869, shortly after the completion of the first transcontinental railroad line. The train has to stop every 150 or 200 miles to get a new locomotive and crew, and the passengers must change trains once, at the junction between the Union Pacific line and the Central Pacific line.
We experience the sounds and sights of the journey, and learn about how the passengers passed the time, ate, kept warm, and even how they went to the bathroom! [Quick answer: not much differently than they still do in much of Europe, but that’s another story….]
We learn how the train operates, and how the rail paths were chosen. We get a sense of the exciting traversal of the high, rickety bridge or through a dark mountain tunnel. Finally the train arrives safely, where a welcoming family is waiting at the end of the line.
The double-page action-filled spreads are rendered in ink, watercolor and gouache paintings that provide glimpses of all aspects of the story, including the spectacular topography of the still largely unsettled West. (Gouache paint is similar to watercolor but modified to make it opaque.)
Discussion: The author did a large amount of research for this book, the sources for which are delineated in an Afterword. I think I learned more than I ever have from a children’s picture book! The endpapers show a diagram explaining how steam power works, and a map and timeline. (I used the map to help me google some of the landscape wonders passed by the travelers that Floca depicts, for example, the Devil’s Slide rock formation in Utah and Castle Rock by the Green River in Wyoming.)
Evaluation: This very impressive book will please both younger and older readers, albeit no doubt in different ways. Youngsters will appreciate the onomatopoetic descriptors that appear in larger font alongside the pictures, and older kids (and adults) will love the explanations in smaller text that provides details of “The iron horse, the great machine!” operated in earlier times.
Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, 2013