In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Guest Blogger: Train books

Dear Aunt Debbie,

As you bite your nails over the Newberys, I'm plugging away at reading and commenting on huge amounts of fiction by my high school writers, some of whom, I swear, are good enough to wind up on your lists someday....

Here's our next guest blogger, my friend and colleague Mark, father of twin 3-year-old boys:

One odd thing about having children is that I find myself looking for echoes of my own personality and taste in my kids. When I was a kid, I read all the time. So I watch to see how much my kids like reading (or being read to – Sam and Ezra are three years old). Recently, I’ve noticed that my boys approach subject in the same way that I did when I first started reading – that is to say, obsessively.

I loved books about war, particularly World War Two. The first book I remember buying at one of those school-based book fairs was about the Battle of Midway. By the time I was eight years old, I’d read every vaguely age-appropriate book on World War Two that I could find, and moved on to some very age-inappropriate ones. Historical fiction about the Battle of the Bulge? Yes, please! Super-dry tomes devoted to cataloguing every single kind of airplane that flew in the war? Sounds great!

I’m sure my parents were a bit put off by my reading obsession with war. They probably looked on their budding Rambo with horror.

I’ve been thinking about this recently because of Sam and Ezra’s obsession with trains and train books. Somehow, they’ve become those boys. The ones with every single wooden replica New York City subway train. The ones who know the names of every Thomas train (most especially the ones they don’t have). And we’ve read all of the books about trains available in the borough of Queens.

Because of this, I feel well-positioned to write about a couple of train books we like, as well as making some general comments on the overall state of children’s books about trains. 

I’ve noticed a few different genres of picture books about trains. One follows the standards of most kids’ picture books: whimsical illustrations, a cute storyline, maybe a lightweight moral at the end. Think The Little Engine That Could, or The Little Red Caboose, a Golden Book with intensely overpacked illustrations by Tibor Gergely (there is basically no blank space on any page) [the Gergely version seems to be out of print -- here's the version sold now]. A somewhat more modern example of this is The Polar Express, in which a boy travels on a mysterious train to the North Pole to meet Santa Claus. The moral: just keep believing, kids!

There are whimsical storybooks without the tacked-on didactic morals, of course. One I like because it manages to hit most of the sweet spots of three-year-old boy reading habits is Time Train by Paul Fleischman and Claire Ewart. In this book, a group of kids on school field trip somehow find themselves on a train that takes them back in time to frolic with dinosaurs. Trains and dinosaurs both! Who could ask for more?

My boys love their train storybooks, but the ones that they come back to over and over are much more literal. Sam and Ezra prefer books that are more concrete, factual, and in some ways, odd. Let me tell you about two.

The first is Subway by Christoph Niemann. The book is based on this wonderful piece Niemann did for the Times a few years ago in which he takes his boys on “endless subway joy rides…” to satisfy their love of trains. Subway is great both because it is about loving the subway system obsessively – the kids end up crying as they’re dragged off the train after an entire day of riding back and forth – and because it is a mostly accurate guide to the subway system. It looks like a typical storybook, but it is really a hard-core introduction to every subway line in the city. In fact, I think that Sam and Ezra’s favorite page is one on which the F and G trains separate at Bergen street in Brooklyn, only to reunite at Roosevelt Avenue in Queens. My boys love this page because they get to fact-check it. The G no longer runs to Roosevelt Avenue, and they know it, and they love to show off their knowledge by telling the book that it is wrong.

Subway is an easy book to love. It looks great and it tells a story that feels completely familiar to train-obsessed kids. Not all factual train picture books are quite so easy to love. I have a long-suffering affection for a book called All Aboard ABC by Doug Magee and Robert Newman. This book was published in 1990, and it is the kind of weird book that makes me wonder how it actually came to be. Who decided to make this book? Who decided to print it? What were they thinking?

All Aboard ABC uses photographs of trains (many of them Amtrak) and parts of trains to teach the letters of the alphabet. For instance, “H” is accompanied by a picture of a train’s horn and the caption “The engineer sounds the horn as the train nears a grade crossing.” What’s a grade crossing? Well, that’s what’s weird about this book – it is oddly specific. “G” is for “grade crossing,” which appears to be the technical term for “where railroad tracks cross a road.” “Q” might be for quiet, but “R” is for roadbed. “B” isn’t just for bridge, but for “trestle bridge.”

The photography of the book is pretty entertaining, too, in that I often find myself wondering about the circumstances of the photography. Many of the pictures seem to be taken in the same place on the same day (if I had to guess, I’d say that place was Bakersfield, California and that the day was an overcast one). “J” is for “junction,” but it might as well also be for all of the “junk” that weirdly appears in the background of the picture. My favorite photographic detail: there’s a red rental car that in many of the shots, giving the impression that the photographer has rented the car (in, say, Bakersfield), driven around looking for trains to photograph, and jumped out whenever something looked vaguely train-ish. At least, that’s the impression I get when I see that red Corolla, driverless, parked at G’s grade crossing.

The book is ridiculous, but my boys love it. They don’t look at it and see a rush job, in the way I do. They look at it and see a trove of interesting, detailed, never-before-imagined information that they love. Where I think they want a story, they really want to know the difference between a hopper car and a boxcar. In a way, I think the book respects them enough to give them the details, to tell them things that most of us would think are too complicated for children, and Sam and Ezra respond to that. Maybe that’s what I was responding to in all of those books about World War Two: they were about real, concrete things, unlike most books that were available to me. 

Thank you, Mark!

Love, Annie


  1. My son was also a train lover; I filled a printer box with train books when we moved to pass along to a younger friend and still kept ten or so favorites. I enjoyed Diane Siebert's Train Song as well as the original Thomas the Tank Engine. His room still features the Tate Gallery by Tube map of the London Underground. ( Great memories!

  2. Aah. This makes me want to go and look for gorgeously illustrated books with my favourite train poem - The Night Mail - here's a little snippet being read aloud The rhythm completely hypnotised me as a child.