Many childhood obsessions come down to sheer scale. Whether it’s dinosaurs or trucks (the modern, smog belching dinosaur equivalent) or even princesses (adults are large, no matter how you approach them), size matters. But the kids who loves trains hold a special place in every children’s librarian’s heart. Train lovers are the nerds of the toddler world. They revel in complexity. And as with all obsessions, some kids grow out of them and some become even more enthralled. What sets Brian Floca’s Locomotive apart from the pack is the simple fact that not only does his book speak to these older children who never quite let go of their love of the choo-choo, but there is enough unique text in this book to rope in readers both young and old who’ve never given two thoughts to the train phenomenon. Couching his unique work of history in a you-are-there framework, Floca gives context to a slice of American history too often glossed over. The results, quite frankly, surpass any nonfiction work for children that has ever dared to try and bring to life the power and grandeur of the railroad system.
“Here is a road made for crossing the country, a new road of rails made for people to ride.” As we read these words we are standing in the center of some railroad tracks staring on a beautiful sunny day at the horizon where they disappear. A couple pages cover the creation of those tracks that were part of the transcontinental railway system, and then we meet our average family. In Omaha, Nebraska, 1869, a family waits for their train. When at last it arrives they board, bound for San Francisco. From here, Floca takes you through every step of this trip. He introduces people like the brakemen or the conductor. He discusses what makes the train run and the places you pass along the way. Everything from toilets and food to sleeping arrangements and rickety bridges are discussed. By the end the family arrives in one piece in San Francisco, grateful to the train but relieved to be off it once more. Backmatter includes an extensive “Note on the Locomotive” as well as a useful listing of various sources.
I suspect that on a first glance Locomotive appears to be intimidating. Not just in terms of the scope of the outing but also the fact that when you first lift the cover you are presented with two packed pages of information (and those are just the endpapers!). Before your beamish eyes is a map of where the Pacific Railroad ran in 1869, some post-Civil War context, and background on the golden spike. Lift the bookflap and you’ll discover an ad for the railroad (Floca is always very careful to completely cover this area of the book, just in case libraries glue that flap down. You would be forgiven for thinking that the back endpapers of the book would be a replicate of the front endpapers . . . and you would be wholly and entirely wrong. At the end you’ll find an in-depth explanation of what it is that makes the steam train go. Written sections and diagrams galore. If there is a downside to all this it would have to be the fact that for the skittish, these endpapers seem to make the book seem too old for them. One hopes that they’ll flip another page or two and see that, in fact, Floca has taken pains to write in a simple style that can be appreciated by young and old alike. Maybe the title page with its family photograph and telegram from a father urging his family to come west will properly set the stage for the story to come.
I stare at one picture in this book in particular. It’s not the most awe-inspiring shot you’ll find in Locomotive. Most people will probably pass it by without a second thought, but I can’t stop looking at it. It’s an image over the shoulder of either the fireman or the engineer past the engine, down the tracks. You’re behind the man and you can see the soft fold of his ear and the tiny hairs all along his jaw line, throat and cheek. It’s remarkably intimate, but just one of countless beautiful images spotted throughout the book. Floca has always played with his watercolors, inks, acrylics, and gouache like a master, and what he has done here is not all that different from what he did in his previous book Moonshot. In that title, Floca was going for awe. Indeed, he is probably one of the very few nonfiction artists I know of that even dares to attempt to inspire awe in his readership. For Moonshot the feeling came from witnessing not just the moon and the earth from space, but the accomplishments of the people who sent the first humans there. In Locomotive, Floca replicates both the wonder felt at seeing the trains in all their glory, as well as the awe deserved of those men who built it in the first place.
Recently I heard someone comment that though Brian Floca is appreciated as a master of the watercolor form, he has never been fully appreciated as a writer. That’s the long and the short of it all right. From the start of this book Floca has the wherewithal to put his tale in true context. The first people you see in the book are the Chinese workers who helped build the tracks from the East. On the opposite page the Irish and African-Americans who built it from the west (and you’re a better man than I if you can keep yourself from thinking about scenes from Blazing Saddles at this time). He takes care to note the different ethnicities that were responsible for the transcontinental railroad’s creation (as well as the people it displaced along the way). As you read you can’t help but taste some of his words across your tongue. He didn’t have to fill his book with delicious turns of phrase. The fact that he did is part of what sets this book above its kin. For example, “Hear the clear, hard call of her bell: CLANG-CLANG! CLANG-CLANG! CLANG-CLANG! Hear the HISSSSSSSSS and the SPIT of the steam! Hear the engine breathe like a beast: HUFF HUFF HUFF!” As odd as it sounds, Floca has created an older nonfiction readaloud picture book for large groups or one-on-one reads. Note too how for all its length, Floca has synthesized the experience of the ride of this train down to its most essential parts.
It’s not a new phenomenon by any stretch of the imagination, but I am rather interested in a narrative nonfiction technique that Floca uses here that has really taken off lately. Thanks to the rise of the Core Curriculum there’s this increase of interest in creating interesting nonfiction. One surefire way of getting the job done? Pull the old You Are There trick. This allows the author the freedom of fiction writing within the confines of pure unadulterated fact. Recent examples include Ick Yuck Eew Our Gross American History and You Are the First Kid On Mars (to name but a few). Floca did something similar when he wrote Moonshot a couple years ago, but Locomotive takes the format to a whole new level. We are with the kids every step of the journey, but since the children themselves aren’t real doesn’t that make the book fiction? Not a jot. Because the kiddos are average travelers and because they haven’t names or identities, they’re representative of the whole. Even better, the book doesn’t say what “they” do or “they” see but rather directs its instructions and information at “you” the reader. They are you, you are them, and that makes the whole journey a lot more interesting than it would if you were simply thrown a series of dull, dry facts.
There is only one objection that can seriously be lobbed at Locomotive at this time. I am referring, of course, to its size. We live in an era where there is an understood and prescribed number of pages for every book we read. Picture books, whether they be fiction or nonfiction, are expected to be 32 pages, 48 at the most. Locomotive clocks in instead at a whopping 64 in total. Could it have been reduced and cut? Certainly. A buzz saw could have cut through the descriptions and facts. It’s just that the feel of truly riding on this train and experiencing not just the smells, sights, and sleepless nights of the journey, but also the sheer amount of time it truly used to take the trek across a couple states, would have been gone. There is a method to Floca’s madness. He’s not being loquacious out of sheer indulgence. He’s cultivating a reading experience above and beyond anything else out there. So the second person narrative works in tandem with the number of pages, with the final result that if nothing else a kid is going to look up from this book at the end and understand, maybe for the first time, that just because we can run a girdle around the globe now, time was that a man, woman, or child couldn’t just jet set across large swaths of land without ending up a different person on the other side.
I don’t particularly care for trains. Don’t think about them much either. In the 21st century a person could be forgiven for going years without the wisp of a thought of a train ever entering their consciousness. But even as a train-neutral adult I cannot help but find myself caught up in Floca’s enthusiasm when I read this book. The transcontinental express changed everything for America, and yet, until now, it has never been properly lauded in a book for children large and small. Locomotive fulfills that need, and then goes above and beyond the call of duty to give its readers the thrill of being there themselves. Would that all works recounting history could be imbued with Floca’s wit and sense and scale. It’s a big, long, dense book and frankly after reading it you won’t have it any other way. Ride the rails.
On shelves September 3rd.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.