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Book review: 'Locomotive' captures rail-life adventure

By Sarah Sullivan

"Locomotive." By Brian Floca. Richard Jackson/Atheneum. 64 pages. $17.99. Ages 4 to 10.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Rare is the nonfiction picture book that manages to captivate its readers while simultaneously informing them.

Brian Floca accomplishes this and more in his latest work, "Locomotive," a book about all aspects of early rail travel in America, from the history of the transcontinental railroad to a depiction of an actual journey aboard the Iron Horse to an explanation of how a steam engine works.

Using the story of a family selling everything and moving to the West Coast as a narrative frame, Floca describes the experience in rhythmic stanzas accentuated by onomatopoetic sounds printed in varying type font sizes and styles. "The engine HUFFS and HISSES, the engine BANGS and CLANKS."

Floca captures the music of the rails. He explains the vocabulary of the rail yard, introducing words like "hogger" and "Johnson bar" and "throttle lever" and offering pictorial depictions to expand understanding.

The illustrations are detailed watercolor, ink, acrylic and gouache paintings infused with varying shades of blue, brown and ochre. Floca is a master at creating drama and communicating tone with varying perspectives. Night scenes offer a pale wash of stars in an inky sky communicating a sense of loneliness and adventure, which early travelers on the transcontinental railroad no doubt experienced as they made the journey across unsettled territory.

A lengthy author's note at the end, coupled with an extensive list of sources, provides additional information on the steam locomotive and its place in history and folklore. This information-packed book, with its target audience of ages 4 to 10, deserves a spot in every school library. Readers will pore over the endpapers, which contain a pictorial history of the transcontinental railroad at the front and an explanation of how a steam engine operates at the back.

Particularly delightful is the contrast between the book jacket with its illustrations of the steam locomotive and the actual board covers that show bison grazing on the Great Plains, offering nary a hint of the change about to come with the arrival of the marvelous machine that will link the East and West coasts and change life in America profoundly and permanently.

Sarah Sullivan, of Charleston, is the author "Passing the Music Down" and "All That's Missing." She holds an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College and can be reached through her website at www.sarahsullvanbooks.com.


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